The Photos Used in Foreign Policy’s ‘Sex Issue’ May Be a Test Case for Cultural Insensitivity
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The "Sex Issue" recently published by Foreign Policy magazine has received a fair amount of publicity this past week. And, from the responses I’ve read, it’s Mona Eltahawy’s article "Why Do They Hate Us? The War on Women in the Middle East" that’s been greeted with fanfare by some Western media outlets, as in this response by Newsweek:
"Some powerful photo illustrations come with Foreign Policy’s stunning cover feature on the real war unfolding on women in the middle east, written by the awesome and oh-so-brave Egyptian revolutionary Mona Eltahawy. Read it.”
I’m unsure of why Newsweek refers to these images as “photo illustrations” but I think they miss out on the complexities of the issues at hand when they frame it in this way. To be sure, I can understand why many people like these photos. They are stunning images; the article’s title is gripping. But, most of us in the U.S. lack an understanding of the history and the cultural context of using such provocative imagery. For many Arab and Muslim women, these images are offensive. The pictures represent a problem that dates back centuries: the hypersexualization of the veil and the women who wear them. Perhaps we should tread more lightly upon this sensitive ground.
For Samia Errazzouki, these are images of “a nude woman covered in a black body-painted niqab.” In her Al-Monitor rebuttal, ”Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent Us,” she writes:
"All of the women close to me who wear the niqab do so for different reasons. One friend only wears the niqab when she attends protests because she feels comfortable in it. Another friend has chosen to wear the niqab, against the will of her family since she was 14. The representation of the niqab as splattered body paint on a naked woman degrades the decision of women who wear the niqab as a choice. …
The monolithic representation of women in the region, illustrated by an over-sexualized image of splattered black paint over a nude body, however, does nothing to rectify the position of women in any society.”
Leila Ahmed, a revered and oft-cited scholar of women and gender issues in Islam and the Arab world, takes issue not so much with the choice of photos used but with Ms. Eltahawy’s “sweepingly dismissive views of prayer and religion” finding “almost every paragraph of Eltahawy’s essay similarly troubling as, again and again, broad brushstrokes and sweeping generalizations erased subtle nuances and garbled and swept aside important differences.”
If you’re interested in reading more responses, I recommend Muslimah Media Watch’s excellent survey of other female voices appearing in various posts and articles. The opinions vary widely. And, I’d definitely read their round-table discussion with five women who reflect on the larger issue at and and the Foreign Policy issue itself. You’ll gain a better sense of the range of opinions on the issue and the really smart women who wrestle with these issues every day.