The Skin of the Burqa: Recent Life Narratives from Afghanistan

January 29, 2007 § 1 Comment

Biography | Biographical Scholarship | 2005
By Gillian Whitlock*
Author, Womens Studies

In Transit

What does one do but recoil at the sight of the burqa on the cover of Latifa’s life narrative My Forbidden Face? In November 2003 in the Newslink bookstore at Melbourne airport I was taken aback by a massed presentation of autobiographies—called a “block display” in the book trade—which pushes books of a kind before the customer. In fact there were only three different books on display: Latifa’s My Forbidden Face, Jean Sasson’s Mayada: Daughter of Iraq, and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. These were arranged en masse, which drew into sharp relief the icon which presents these as books “of a kind,” and which elicits that conditioned response to the veil. Stretched across the back wall of the bookstore were multiple images of veiled women—the totally effaced woman in the burqa on the purple cover of My Forbidden Face, the more erotic sexualized gaze over the chador on the glossy black cover of Mayada: Daughter of Iraq, and the dark monotone of the young veiled women in chador on the sepia cover of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Dozens of copies of these books were presented together, and all had been published in the preceding year. These images are haunting. How can one resist interpellation as a liberal Western consumer who desires nothing more than to liberate and humanize “Latifa” by lifting the burqa and bringing her alongside us, barefaced in the West? How does one begin to learn a more nuanced language which makes the veil a vehicle for a reflective and ethical practice of cross-cultural engagement? These are questions that are immediately raised by the production and carefully targeted marketing of these life narratives in the West, and they raise intractable problems about the practice of communicative ethics between women. To reach across cultures in sight of the veil requires what Iris Marion Young calls a spirit of “asymmetrical reciprocity,” a strategy which recognizes and attends to difference, and which resists the ethnocentrism that is so powerfully and strategically evoked by the mass marketing of these images of absolute difference in these times of Islamic and Christian fundamentalisms (41).

Through “Latifa,” the pseudonymous autobiographical narrator of My Forbidden Face, the reader can vicariously assume the burqa:

I look at this garment, its woven cloth flowing all the way down to the ground from a loosely fitting bonnet which completely covers the head. . . . But what really frightens me is the little bit of embroidered latticework around the eyes and the nose. . . .

I can feel the rustle of my own breath inside the garment. I’m hot. My feet get tangled up in the material. I’ll never be able to wear this. I now understand the stiff robot-like walk of the ‘bottle women’, their unflinching look directly in front of them. . . . These phantoms that now roam the streets of Kabul have a terrible time avoiding bicycles, buses and carts. It’s even worse trying to run away from the Taliban. This is not a garment. It’s a moving prison. (40–41)

Afghan women’s life narratives rarely offer this kind of subjective and emotional response, and for this reason My Forbidden Face is one the most popular of a series of Afghan life narratives which have been published in the recent past.1 To pull Western eyes under the burqa in this way is a powerful rhetorical strategy; it elicits both sympathy and advocacy that can be put to quite different political and strategic uses.

Recently there has been a surge of life writing about women under the repressive fundamentalist regimes in Afghanistan, and these texts work to pull Western readers into this dark and confined space of the burqa, to share this discipline of views vicariously at least. From these recesses of the burqa we can attend to experiences of loss, grief, and dispossession that until the very recent past were unheard and unseen in the West. The veil or the hijab (of which the burqa is an extreme form) is an icon that covers this life writing at every turn, a trope which shapes its metaphorical repertoire and which it in turn embraces—sometimes unexpectedly. How can feminists in the West understand the veil, catch its meanings, and use it to fabricate more subtle and perceptive cross-cultural communication? No one can read the veil from a neutral, disinterested space (Young 80), so how then can we read the stories of these women who speak through the burqa? Equally important, can the burqa be used to look back at “the West,” to grasp its implications in the dynamics of Western ethnocentrism here and now?

er history of the veil (a term she objects to because of its associations with “Orientalist” imagery), Fadwa El Guindi describes veiling as a rich and nuanced phenomenon, a language that communicates social and cultural messages in Christian and Moslem traditions, for men and for women (xii). However, given that the veil is frequently adopted in the West as the sign of Islamic women’s oppression and subordination, this more nuanced language resists translation into cross-cultural dialogues. Can the circulation of these veiled autoethnographies from Afghanistan in particular initiate a process of transculturation? Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson take up MaryLouise Pratt’s work on transculturation to emphasize that in auto-ethnography colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer’s own terms; indigenous or oppressed subjects may both collaborate with and appropriate a dominant culture’s discursive models (185). Recent postcolonial work in particular stresses the intersubjectivity generated by the production and reception of autoethnography (Pratt 7). This suggests that, despite radically uneven power relations, life narratives might provoke some more critical thinking about interactions between very differently located subjects and subjectivities.

What are we being asked to “buy into” through Afghan life narratives in these times? Why is the burqa in particular such a haunting sight? The already deeply embedded interpretive frameworks of Orientalism, exoticism, and neo-primitivism through which the East is stereotypically and variously produced for Western consumption have hardened in ideological support of the war on terror: these autoethnographies are marketed in association with campaigns to “liberate” Afghanistan from the Taliban. There can be no mistake: these autoethnographies are deployed as propaganda to represent and justify a military intervention in the name of (among other things) the liberation of women oppressed by Islamic fundamentalism. But this is not the sum total of what these narratives do in their circulation as lucrative commodities. Tracking the various politics of performance and representation that occur in and through testimony, autoethnography and memoir have never been more important than now. When we enter bookstores and find life narratives cloaked in the burqa arranged for our consumption, we need to pay sharp attention to how these are produced, promoted, and marketed; to the interpellation of specific readers and consumers; and to their appeal to benevolent citizens of modern “first” worlds.

Those very occasions of estrangement or recognition when one recognizes the interpellation of “Western eyes” in consumer culture can be critically productive, both personally and professionally. They raise ethical issues that require complex and imaginative resolutions. In her classic essay “Under Western Eyes,” first published in 1984 (in response to a different historical juncture: the presidency of Ronald Reagan), Chandra Talpade Mohanty talks about the ongoing production of the monolithic, singular subject of the “Third World woman” in (Western) feminist thought.2 Outside history and unchanging, she remains a passive and powerless subject, unable to represent herself. The image of the veiled woman in particular is a powerful trope which both invokes this passive Third World subject, and enables and sustains the discursive self-presentation of Western women as secular, liberated, individual agents. There is nothing natural or inevitable about the appearance of these Afghan life narratives en masse, and it alerts us to the marketplace and its terms and conditions. “The mere proliferation of Third World women’s texts, in the West at least, owes as much to the relations of the marketplace as to the conviction to ‘testify’ or ‘bear witness,'” Mohanty notes: “the existence of Third World women’s narratives in itself is not evidence of decentering hegemonic histories and subjectivities. It is the way in which they are read, understood, located institutionally that is of paramount importance” (77). Can we read these narratives to understand the burqa otherwise, attending not only to the various cultural meanings the burqa carries for the women who wear it, but also to the “very idioms of agency that are relevant for such women” (Butler 47)?

Afghan feminist activists do use the burqa strategically. Quite literally so —messages, weapons, and banned publications were transported beneath its folds during the Taliban regime. Feminist activists in Afghanistan were quick to adopt the burqa as a shroud of anonymity and disguise. For these reasons, the burqa is a complex symbol. It is a reminder of an oppressive regime, but it is also an icon of brave and successful resistance. Many Afghan women will choose to sustain the burqa as a powerful symbol of nationalist and feminist resistance, and many feminist activists will question the uses to which the figure of the burqa-clad woman is put in the West. Images of Afghanistan during the Taliban years are rare, and almost all of them—including the film footage of the shooting of Zarmeena in the Kabul soccer stadium in 1999, which has been shown many times in the West since September 11 in particular—were filmed with cameras hidden beneath burqas. These images were smuggled out of the country that way too.

Copyrights on most of the images of Taliban atrocities belong to the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women (RAWA), a feminist collective. They market some of these images to international media organizations. RAWA also markets mugs and mouse mats, posters and calendars from the website they established in 1997, The power of RAWA to participate in the exchange of images of Afghan women in their interests is an important issue. This is not just an example of textual resistance to politically incorrect images of women. It is about the production and circulation of alternative images as commodities, which then fund local strategies of feminist resistance to Islamic fundamentalism, such as literacy programs and RAWA schools and hospitals in Afghanistan, and the refugee communities in Pakistan.

Leila Ahmed suggests we might usefully think in terms of a discourse of the veil to capture its radically different significations in place and time such as these simultaneous and yet contradictory representations of the burqa. The veil is never just an item of clothing; it is, in Ahmed’s phrase, a signifier “pregnant with meaning” (Women 166). Debates about the veil are integral to negotiations about sexual, political, economic, and cultural boundaries in Islamic societies. Struggles about the veil involve challenges to thresholds of authority within and between Islamic communities (Mernissi, Beyond xvii), and in the larger global confrontations between Islamic and non-Islamic cultures and societies. The veil, then, is a shifting signifier, open to various and strategic uses, and frequently invoked as an intractable symbol of cultural difference. It is no surprise that the “war on terror” is associated with both renewed polemic about veiling and the oppression of women by Islam, and a revival of the veil as a symbol of resistance. Daphne Grace points out that since 9/11 the veil has taken on hitherto undreamed of political and religious significance as a corroboration of the righteousness of the Western alliance campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq (19). In 2003, then, the appearance of the burqa on the covers of a series of Afghan life narratives is part of a campaign of soft sell, which condenses and simplifies a conflict of extraordinary complexity into a single whole cloth.3

The Electronic Marketplace confirms that there has been a rush of Afghan life narratives onto the market since 2002. Amazon’s browser is helpful, threading together a series of texts with consummate soft sell:

“Better Together is My Forbidden Face and Price of Honour: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World, Buy Both Now”

“Customers who bought titles by Sunita Mehta also bought titles by Sulima and Hala, Anne E. Brodsky and John Follain”

“If you liked My Forbidden Face you will want to own Voices Behind the Veil

and with the precision of technology-driven and mindless cataloguing

“Customers interested in Women for Afghan Women may also be interested in Perfect Senior Fitness.

This is a market place after all; you stumble across the unexpected—although sometimes these rogue traces prove to be useful. As you mouse around the site, over a dozen titles cohere: some autobiography, some biography, and hybrid versions of both. Sometimes you mouse over an edge into another domain—or do you? For example, there are links from Zoya’s Story to (a photo gallery to meet Muslim singles) and (a site where investigators will help you locate a US military pal). More startling is a link to Alev Croutier’s Harem: The World Behind the Veil. A naked woman is on the cover, and the foreground is all creamy flesh and bare buttocks. This is Ingres’s painting “La Grande Odalisque” (1814), a classic of Orientalist art, which shows a concubine in a Turkish sultan’s harem amid silk sheets and peacock feathers. Reclining on oriental tapestries, the concubine looks over her shoulder into the eyes of the viewer. The pelvis in the foreground is unnaturally elongated, which accentuates her role as a sex object for the sultan’s pleasure, and the viewer is positioned as his surrogate. This is an edge, and an image, which confirms the paradigm: the promise that the veil can be pierced to reveal the compliant sexualized woman who is waiting, desiring, needing to be unveiled and taken. This is the classic colonial fantasy of the veiled female body becoming available to our gaze. The Orientalist iconography of the harem confirms the promise that shadows every cover where we see a veiled woman, and are promised a lifting of the veil.4

Another fantasy of unveiling coexists with this erotic fantasy of the harem in the West, but its exoticism takes another form. In Zoya’s Story, Zoya describes her trip to New York as a representative of RAWA, and her appearance at a meeting in Madison Square Garden in February 2001. Here is a mirror image of the description of veiling in My Forbidden Face:

When the time came for me to go on stage, after Oprah Winfrey had read [Eve Ensler’s poem] “Under the Burqa,” all the lights went off save for one that was aimed directly at me. I had been asked to wear my burqa, and the light streamed in through the mesh in front of my face and brought tears to my eyes. A group of singers was singing an American chant, a melody full of grief, and I was to walk as slowly as possible. . . . I had to climb some steps, but because of the burqa and the tears in my eyes, which wet the fabric and made it cling to my skin, I had to be helped up the stairs.

Slowly, very slowly, Oprah lifted the burqa off me and let it fall to the stage. (211)

Audiences who attend these functions in the West sometimes set much store by this symbolic unveiling of Muslim women, in this context understood as an act of liberation and benevolence. These performances associate the burqa with the fundamentalism of the Taliban, and the containment of Afghan women. When Allied troops entered Kabul in 2001, metropolitan journalists gathered with the specific intent of broadcasting images of women abandoning their burqas. Like men shaving off their beards, for the international media these were apocalyptic symbols of the turn from archaic fundamentalism to modernity, and a mark of liberation. But Afghanis were reluctant to make a spectacle of themselves in this way. When Zoya is asked to wear the burqa in this carefully staged event in New York, she then becomes part of the spectacle of a public unveiling. The resonances of this are troubling, for this almost inevitably affirms the presentation before Western eyes of the passive Third World woman, awaiting liberation, rather than an active agent in history.

Furthermore, it is almost impossible to separate this spectacle from other violent episodes of stripping. During the Gulf War, for example, there were a series of racist incidents in Australia where Muslim women had their veils torn off. Ghassan Hage argues that even those who sought to make reparation for these acts of violence demonstrate that tolerance is the prerogative of the dominant, and it is expressed towards something or someone perceived as a passive object.5 More famously, the forced and public stripping of Algerian women to the accompaniment of the Marseillaise in 1958 established veiling as a symbol of nationalism and resistance to French colonialism in Algeria. Recently both Angela McRobbie and Judith Butler have been compelled to write by the sight of the “girl in the blue burkha,” expressing their disquiet and ambivalence as Afghani girls remove their veils for the Western media, a sight that captures the impossibility and urgency of imagining styles of cross-cultural engagement otherwise. Is Zoya the “girl in the blue burkha” that haunts McRobbie and Butler? Is this unveiling, with its intricate implications of Ensler, Winfrey, and Zoya, the spectacle which has initiated their recent discussions on the subject of the burqa? In Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, the unveiling of Afghan women as spectacle compels Butler to turn to Levinas to imagine a feminist politics that can address such intractable difference with a sense of openness, a turning to the face of the other with the intent of recognizing its humanity. Like Gayatri Spivak, Butler confronts the inadequacies of benevolence and human rights discourse as appropriate for a feminist politics of ethical engagement with Afghan women.

Massed displays of veiled women are a powerful and canny exercise of book marketing in times when there is a desire and urgency in the West to understand more about the Muslim world, and it brings into view a distinctive shift in publishing life narratives since 2001. Narratives from Afghanistan circulate in these times of the “war on terror” as commodities that become part of a debate about the politics of intervention and resistance in the Muslim world. What does the flood of life narratives make available to the metropolitan West in these times: spaces for dialogue and exchange, or a re-emergence of the stereotypical and mythic East? Graham Huggan’s discussion of exoticism is useful here, for he stresses that objects, places, and people are not inherently “exotic” and “strange,” but rather exoticism is a particular way of “manufacturing otherness.” In this process objects are taken as both strange and familiar at one and the same time. A process of domestication occurs, which renders the object recognizable and familiar, and yet the aura of mystery is also sustained: “exoticism is a kind of semiotic circuit that oscillates between the opposite poles of strangeness and familiarity” (13). Huggan turns to exoticism to interpret how contemporary postcolonial texts in particular circulate as exotic objects that become desired commodities in the West because they offer imagined access to the cultural other through processes of consumption.

Since 2001, the expanded market for representations of a monolithic, threatening, and spreading Islam shapes the terms and conditions which have brought almost a dozen life writings about Afghanistan onto bookshelves in the West. The speed of this is extraordinary. Although we are accustomed to thinking of digital technologies and mass media in terms of speed and mobility, we are less familiar with the fact that the global publishing industry can produce and market hard-copy memoirs for popular consumption so fast, and as dictated by current affairs and popular taste. This tells us something about life narrative in its popular forms. It is porous, it is open to fashion, and it maneuvers in networks of power in complex ways.

This is particularly true of autoethnography in times when “exotic” cultures are fashionable. These narratives circulate in networks vulnerable to “soft power,” the carefully coordinated management of information across a variety of contemporary media. This is propaganda in the form of the regulation and control of channels of communication and information in democratic societies. This control takes the forms of the dissemination of certain categories of information, and produces the engineering of consent through the gentle persuasion of public opinion management (Robins and Webster 107). “Soft power,” for example, allows an Afghan feminist activist access to an audience of thousands at Madison Square Garden, where she speaks directly and powerfully about women’s experiences, and draws attention to the fact that the Taliban was nurtured and armed by the United States and allied governments in the very recent past. But prior to this speech, there is the extraordinary spectacle of the Afghan woman being assisted to the stage to be liberated from the burqa, released into eloquence with the benediction of American celebrity Oprah Winfrey, to the tune of “American chants.” This ceremony becomes a synecdoche for the liberation of Afghanistan itself, and it explains why at the site there are links from Afghan women’s life narratives to This is surely what Inderpal Grewal means when she points out that feminist liberatory narratives of movement from victimage to freedom are not necessarily anti-imperialist.

Life narrative is of course one of the most seductive forms for the projection and naturalization of the exotic, and autoethnography in particular can be read as an offering of authentic others. Those of us who read, teach, and perhaps write in autobiographical forms in the recent past need to be canny about the uses to which it has been put. Life writing has played a major role in the global commodification of cultural difference that has been a boom industry in the recent past. How are life narratives by unauthorized subjects circulated and used in the metropolitan centers of the West? My recoil at the block display of life narratives at Melbourne Newslink was produced by a sharp sense of being interpellated as a consumer confronted by culturally othered goods—life narratives as commodities in this industry. Alterity has been fashionable for some time in Western commodity culture. If we are what we consume, buying life narratives from so-called Third World and other marginal cultures has been a way of indicating cosmopolitan tastes, openness, sympathy, political commitment, and benevolent interest in cultural difference. The notion of “soft weapons” captures the double-edged nature of these forms of life narrative. They can be harnessed by forces of commercialization and consumerism in terms of the exotic appeal of cultural difference. They can also be used to buttress aggressive Western intervention in so-called primitive or dysfunctional national communities. And yet they can also be used to describe experiences of unbearable oppression and violence across a cultural divide. In the Foreword to Brodsky’s With All Our Strength, for example, RAWA takes the opportunity to say this collaboratively:

There was a time that no pen moved to write a poem or article that reflected the realities of Afghanistan. No filmmaker made a film that showed the true oppression of our people. No country’s or government’s conscience was awakened enough to do anything to change the situation in Afghanistan. After too many years of knowing about our tragedy, only September 11 forced some governments and institutions to take action, claiming at this late date that they did so because they cared about Afghanistan and the liberation of Afghan women. . . . The tragedy of our country has been reduced to the image of the Taliban and the burqa and a narrow 5 year-period of our history. . . . And the image of the Afghan women, silent under their burqa, does not tell the truth of our lives nor our resistance. (ix)

These texts are valuable to different interests and concerns, and they both empower the dispossessed and consume them yet again in terms of familiar stereotypes. They also open spaces for disempowered people to contest these representations. The exchange between metropolitan and marginal cultures is always uneven, and as Graham Huggan points out, the West consumes exotic products in an economic climate in which colonialisms of the past are perhaps less significant than imperialisms of the present (16). This is precisely the point that the Afghan women make when given the space of Brodsky’s Foreword. However, if we understand processes of the production and reception of autobiographical discourses as intersubjective, as Smith and Watson suggest, then we can entertain the idea that subjects can lure readers into different engagements across cultures. Subaltern subjects, who claim and exercise autobiographical agency in unexpected ways, can draw on this power.

Shelf Life: Peritexts

These memoirs are powerful and contradictory things then. We know this without taking them off the shelf. In his study of paratexts, Gerard Genette talks about the work that books do on the shelf, and he makes a useful distinction between the public and the reader as different addressees. The public is not the totality or the sum of readers. Sitting in Borders or Dillons with a skinny latte, watching a powerpoint display of covers at a conference, or even just walking in the airport bookstore, you absorb these texts, and you participate in their dissemination and “reception.” You are then an addressee, even though you may not become a reader. By focusing on texts as product, Genette draws attention to a series of features which become particularly important when we are looking at autoethnography: the cover, the title and subtitle, pseudonyms, the name and status of the author, forewords, dedications, epigraphs, prefaces, maps, endorsements, blurbs, and notes. These are peritexts, and they are consumed in the most casual acquaintance with the book—the glance, the flick through. Genette pauses on the threshold to absorb consciously all the liminal devices that mediate the relations between text and reader. This raises questions about when, how, and why a text has emerged, its mode of existence, the situation of its communication: its sender and addressee, and the functions it aims to fulfill.

The frontiers between the text and the reader of these life narratives from Afghanistan indicate complex mediations between the autobiographical subject, the publisher, the public, and the reader. As Philippe Lejeune suggests, the fringe of the printed text controls its reception: it is a strategic attempt to produce a legitimate reading (qtd. in Genette 2). Autoethnography is a particularly valuable commodity in the market economy, and its circulation in the public domain is always carefully managed. From this we can understand why these autoethnographic life narratives from Afghanistan are encrusted with peritext. Many feature maps, which establish with broadbrush strokes the political geography of the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, with a special emphasis on their location in relation to the USA. One cannot speak of “authors” of these ethnographies, for they are stories told to and shepherded by advocates: journalists and freelance writers in the case of Zoya’s Story, Mayada, Behind the Burqa, and the biography of Meena. Some of the life narratives are threaded together with institutional and organizational histories of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan—Brodsky and Benard, for example. My Forbidden Face has a particularly complex passage into the American market, as it has a prehistory as a magazine story, and is told through a collaborator and then translated from the French by the well-known Canadian feminist writer Lisa Appignanesi. The covers of these narratives often feature endorsements by writers and celebrities, including Alice Walker, Dan Rather, Katha Pollitt, and Arundhati Roy. Again, these are names that have authority in the United States, a primary market. Like Winfrey’s place in the Madison Square Garden event, the quoting of Walker and Roy indicates the particular role of women of color in legitimating these subaltern narratives in North America.

Characteristically the titles draw upon the burqa metonymically: Veiled Courage (Benard), Unveiled (Logan), Veiled Threat (Armstrong), Behind the Burqa (Swift Yasgur), Voices Behind the Veil (Caner). This indicates how powerfully and variously the veil functions in this market. Subtitles follow to anchor the title to the image on the cover: Voices of Women in Afghanistan, The Hidden Power of the Women of Afghanistan, Inside the Afghan Women’s Resistance, Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World. These texts are carefully positioned to project the gender apartheid imposed by Islamic fundamentalism towards a receptive market. The veil facilitates the trope of truth and authenticity revealed in life narratives such as these, tapping into a fantasy of the illicit penetration of a hidden and gendered space. The veil sharply defines the boundaries of public and private, for in fact it secludes the woman within an individualized gendered space in public. These peritexts promise a rupture of this boundary.

Cover images repeatedly draw on saturated color—indigo and cobalt—to emphasize the burqa as an icon. Ironically, there is some historical verisimilitude here. Book covers are public spaces, and Taliban orthodoxy imposed a gender apartheid which required women to wear the burqa in public. On these covers, the veiled women become ethnicized subjects. We have no idea who is the figure on the cover; there is no pact which ensures that Latifa is behind that veil, or Zoya, although these are not their birth names in the first place. Afghan feminist activists are almost always disguised, one way or another. Even when the burqa-clad figure is individualized, there is no guarantee of authenticity to the individual subject and to a proper name, and this is strategically important. A number of the covers demonstrate how the veil imposes uniformity to Western perspectives; the covers of the Armstrong, Goodwin, and Benard books, for example, feature clusters of veiled women, and suggest that when the photographer aims his camera at a veiled woman, the visual field necessarily incorporates repetitions of the figure.

For this reason the isolation and enlargement of detail comes into play on a number of these book jackets. The camera often seeks the eye in close-up, a glimpse of the individual body part that draws the dehumanizing effect of the garment into sharp relief. In this there is the promise of distinguishing one veiled woman from another, and the suggestion that the women in the burqa can look back at the spectator, mute but eloquent, is a humanizing strategy. All of these covers draw on the genre of documentary photography, which frequently presents the powerless—the subject of the image—to the powerful—the consumer (Rose 16). Although some have argued that the burqa discourages scopic desire—the voyeurism of the photographer—these covers question that. One cover in particular presents visual images that satisfy this desire. The front cover of Harriet Logan’s Unveiled shows a monotone image of a woman’s eye through the grill of the burqa, the foreground bringing into sharp relief the burqa as a primitive thing, with its hand-stitched grill and its rough texture. Prior to the Taliban, this garb was associated with poor rural women. Through this mask, the glimmer of an eye and a small expanse of skin: the visual sign of a living body that will speak in this text. The burqa obliterates the expressive body. On the back cover, the title and the color are reversed. The color of the burqa is now the background, and in the foreground is the living body of a young girl holding a doll. We see a face and an expression, a figure familiar to the Western eye and without ethnicized markers of difference. She is just like us. Whether or not she is the figure on the front of the book is unimportant, for it is the domestication of the image that is the objective.

These images, the titles, and subtitles are designed to grab the Western eye with a glimpse of absolute difference, of the exotic. This is a way of positioning them for metropolitan markets. But, as John Berger suggests, we never look at just one thing, we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves (qtd. in Rose 12). The covers of these autoethnographies play on similarity and difference, with the burqa securely placed as a metonymic sign of the absolute other, obscuring the promise of a familiar woman’s body beneath. These signs work to secure a reading.

Epitext: The Eye Opener

But how are these life narratives being consumed? Another dimension which Genette establishes in his discussion of paratextuality is useful at this point: “epitext.” These are the messages located outside of the book which nevertheless signal its presence: media interviews, reviews, articles, readings, and private communications such as letters and diaries. We can return to the site for a particularly useful set of epitexts: the reviews posted by customers. This is of course to privilege a particular national and metropolitan and technologically literate readership. Life narratives from Afghanistan are explicitly directed to US citizens, often women in particular, as the addressees. Peritexts such as maps reinforce this presentation. So too do reminders that Jordan is about the size of South Carolina (Goodwin 250), or comparisons between shopping in the Emirates and Rodeo Drive. At the site the inclusion of publisher’s blurbs, and reviews by editors and readers, gives some idea of how these texts are being marketed and consumed in the United States and elsewhere. Those who choose to submit their responses to the site characteristically stress two things: first, their need for knowledge about Islam, the desire to reach beyond stereotypes by gaining access to the Other, and to be able to think critically through independent reading; and second, the tendency of life narrative to produce a humanist and ethical response which stresses shared humanity over and above differences of culture and religion.6

Huggan’s remarks on how the exotic is processed are useful here. It isn’t unusual for American readers to remark on similarity—between American and Afghan urban life as they perceive it in My Forbidden Face—and difference—such as the absence of interiority, which is the mark of the romantic individual subject they desire as readers of life narrative. Readers observe that, in their terms, they really don’t get to know much about the self here. This is true, and it is a point that allows us to begin to understand how Afghan women use the opportunities to speak on their own terms, which is to say how they negotiate with and against Western expectations of unveiling. Autoethnography is a mode of life narrative that historically situates the subject in a social environment, which incorporates the lives and actions of others, and which is inclined to represent an “I” or subjectivity which is externalized and dialogical (Smith and Watson 198). This is the kind of subjectivity that leaves readers wanting more—”more” meaning personal details and desires, a more complex sense of interiority and personal revelation, and a continuous and multidimensional life narrative. The promise of hearing voices behind the veil, of piercing the burqa, can be deceptive, in the way commercial branding generally is.

We can turn to another epitext at this point. In a recent New York Review of Books, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz surveys what he describes as an avalanche of books about Islam by historians, journalists, students of comparative religion, sociologists and anthropologists, and inspired amateurs. Interestingly there is no life narrative in Geertz’s overview, and perhaps it follows there is no discussion of gender issues either. However, what Geertz has to say about this emerging literature is useful for understanding the particular place of life narrative in this context. He identifies four main approaches, or fields of argument and interpretation, in this coverage of Islam:

the civilization approach, which opposes “the West” as a whole to “Islam” as a whole, and compares their fates; attempts to place Muslim thought in terms of a culturally familiar grid: bad/real/authentic/tolerant/terrorist varieties of Islam are distinguished; conciliatory efforts to place Islam in relation to other major religious traditions in ways that minimize its difference and suggest convergences; and place or people or nation focused studies that conceive of Islam less as a cohesive entity persisting through time than as a collection of particular, disparate traditions coming into more and more immediate and difficult contact with one another and with the non-Muslim world as the vast and entangling forces of globalization and modernity advance.

If we consider these approaches, it is evident that life narrative occupies a particular space. The notion of Islam as a civilization—imagined as autonomous, continuous, and unchangeable—is not engendered in life narrative, which takes us into the swirl of particular and conflicted incidents, places, traditions, neighborhoods, organizations, lives, and relationships—in fact exactly where Geertz argues we might best find a surer path to understanding Islam: “that resonant name of so many things at once” (30). Life narrative can offer access to that class of younger, semi-secularized, and cosmopolitan Muslim intellectuals—teachers, professionals, journalists, students, academics, activists—who may use life narrative to explore and create new forms of Islamic identity, and to argue for social justice and more democratic forms of social organization than are offered by their ruling elites. This thinking dismantles a historical macro-entity erected in opposition to Christianity, the West, and modernity and puts in its place a “disorderly field of entangled differences” which are at once various and volatile.

To return to peritexts: several covers deliberately present images of Afghan women as volatile subjects, rejecting the established iconography of nationality and the burqa. Suggesting a different set of conventions and an alternative use of the veil as an icon, these covers, images, and narratives emerge from RAWA, the collective which has played such a vital role in the circulation of images of Taliban atrocities. Chavis’s biography Meena, an important book for RAWA and the first biography of its founder, presents a photo portrait of a face; the veil accentuates her beauty and expressiveness, and signals her faith. This cover draws on a different palette: no cobalt burqa, no accentuated tones for dramatic effect. Similarly, the cover of Brodsky’s With All Our Strength and Sunita Mehta’s edition of feminist essays Women for Afghan Women use documentary photographs that show groups of women, veiled and unveiled together. The subtitles and cover-text of Mehta’s book anchor the preferred reading of this image: “Throw away clichéd ideas of Afghan women as passive, silent victims cowering under their burqas.” The blurb, like the Foreword alluded to earlier, protests the “stereotype of helpless women, forced by the Taliban into silence and submission.” The spatial organization of these covers uses a different aesthetic: there are groups of women, but they are differentiated, active, and resistant. These are expressive, ethnicized bodies, and veiling is part of this self-representation.

These images emerge from an organizational framework that strategically manages the commodification of images of Afghan women: RAWA. The organization also participates actively in the circulation of Afghan life narratives in the West. RAWA benefits financially from the marketing of images of Afghan women—very directly through its website. But it engages in cultural politics to contest the consumption of these images as exotic or primitive. In fact, it quite deliberately tries to draw these Western habits of thought into question, in numerous ways. One example of this resistance is the exchange Zoya makes at Madison Square Garden. She attends as a representative of RAWA, invited by Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. It is Ensler who has written a poem titled “Under the Burqa,” and it is she who asks Zoya to bring hers to New York “because she wanted to use it for my speech” (211). Zoya remarks that, remembering how she feels wearing a burqa in Kabul, she wonders how anyone can find poetry in it: “a woman in a burqa is more like a live body locked in a coffin” (209). But she accepts the exchange, accommodating Ensler’s fantasy of what it is like to wear a burqa, and Winfrey’s role as liberator. In return, Zoya is able to speak to 18,000 women to gather donations, and to inspire them to help RAWA.

Similarly, RAWA posts at its website and in its brochures poems from women in North Carolina or Montana fantasizing, like Ensler, about how it feels to wear the burqa. The organization accepts and uses these imaginative appropriations of the veil as part of what Cheryl Benard calls its “postmodern sense” of the effectiveness of emotion as an affective conduit for political communication (220). Benard’s interpretation of RAWA as a postmodern political movement seems a jarring act of imaginative appropriation. After all, features such as the strong collective ethos of RAWA, the promotion of a charismatic leader, the recruitment of members through schools and charitable services, the international network of supporters, and the ability to maneuver skillfully in asymmetric conflict might equally well be related to modernity—the strategies of socialist collectives in the USSR, for instance. Mohanty argues that the autobiographical subject of Anglo-American feminism is not reproduced in these kinds of testimonial narrative, which privilege the collective and set out to document and record a history of popular struggle and resistance:

testimonials do not focus on the unfolding of a singular woman’s consciousness (in the hegemonic tradition of European modernist autobiography); rather their strategy is to speak from within a collective, as participants in revolutionary struggles, and to speak with the express purpose of bringing about social and political change. (81)

RAWA’s resistance to the cult of the individual adopts techniques contrary to liberal humanist notions of individual agency in representations of the self: the idealization of the role of the martyr for the cause—effected through Chavis’ biography Meena, for example; and the self-representation of women as activists in the community, as warriors rather than wives and mothers. It is a logic of agency that is anchored in specific struggles, in the small day-to-day struggles and practices of women, and it works through a logic of opposition (Mohanty 82). Life narratives of RAWA women have been taken up in American academic discourses variously. For Benard, an “expert in project design” (1), they are case studies of postmodern resistance. Alternatively, in With All Our Strength, Anne E. Brodsky uses community psychology to frame these life narratives as examples of resilience, helping the West to design effective interventions “from the outside” (7). Either way, RAWA takes every opportunity to use, reflect upon, and deflect metropolitan demands for authentic life story. This is one model of communicative ethics at work, as Afghan feminist activists maneuver to pursue their needs and interests, and to accommodate and respect what can be dramatically different investments of benevolent feminist activists in the West.


The burqa is a boundary where cross-cultural translation is always fraught with difficulty. The spectacle of Oprah liberating Zoya into speech by stripping the burqa away is a haunting one—no doubt because it resonates personally, a reminder of my own recoil and consternation at the sight of the cover of Latifa. As something of a recent culture industry, life narratives by Afghan women have been taken up variously. Many of them, as we have seen, seek to use the spectacle of the passive captured Afghan woman, and play upon that fantasy of unveiling for Western metropolitan readers and spectators. On the other hand, life narratives have given the Afghan feminist resistance a powerful entry into the West, which they are able to use to promote their campaign for a secular and democratic Afghanistan. They do not hesitate to put to other uses fantasies of wearing the burqa by Western women, and that equally ethnocentric moment of recoil from the burqa is also useful to their cause. The cross-cultural translation of selves here is a complex one.

Twenty years ago Chandra Mohanty observed that the burqa marked the limits and limitations of feminist thinking about agency and cultural difference. It still does. Now, in a very different context, the figure of the woman in the burqa returns to haunt feminism with seemingly intractable cultural difference. Given the rhetorical uses of the “girl in the blue burkha” in the “war on terror,” there is now renewed urgency in approaching her other-wise. Iris Marion Young argues that in situations such as this, where perspectives and experiences are shaped by privilege and oppression in intractable cultural difference, there can be no simple reciprocity. So, for example, for all the good-hearted intentions of Ensler and Winfrey, empathic identification with Afghan women can lead to serious misrepresentation, or the repetition of damaging stereotypes and ideologies: “when people obey the injunction to put themselves in the position of others, they too often put themselves, with their own particular experiences and privileges, in the positions they see others . . . the assumptions derived from their privilege often allow them unknowingly to misrepresent the other’s situation” (48). When members of privileged groups imaginatively represent to themselves the perspective of the oppressed, their representations can often carry projections and fantasies through which their own complementary image of themselves is enhanced and reinforced. The desire to strip Afghan women of their burqa is a spectacle which works in precisely this way. Two things are happening here. First, we fail to recognize (to return to Butler) “the very idioms of agency that are relevant” for Afghan women. Second, we avoid “the sometimes arduous and painful process in which they confront you with your prejudices, fantasies, and misunderstandings about them” (49). Young suggests that in moral humility one starts with the assumption that one cannot see things from the other person’s perspective. She suggests that ethical relations need to be mediated differently, in conditions that recognize both a profound desire to communicate and reach understanding, and the irreversibility of perspective, experience, and idiom.

With these cautions in mind, we might do more than recoil from the sight of the burqa, or fantasize that we can inhabit this space empathically. And so you enter the bookstore and regard that mass display of veiled women. You wonder what extraordinary change of currents brought these lives into your habitat, which hitherto has paid so little regard to Afghanistan. You feel the unease produced by the crocheted face plate of the burqa, and you feel the pull, the inexorable logic, of placing this as alien and other. You look at it, barefaced, and wish it stripped bare too.

How can you move forward from this other-wise, and disrupt a conditioned response? Perhaps you take a detour, and begin to translate the veil differently in order to move across cultures. Perhaps you choose to think through the skin, also a boundary-object, a site of exposure or connectedness where borders between bodies are unstable, crossed by differences that refuse to be contained on the inside or outside of bodies (Ahmed and Stacey 2). Perhaps from here you can begin to translate the veil differently, to understand it as part of embodiment, and an expression of boundaries of the body, the self, and belief understood differently from what you know. Perhaps by rethinking inside and outside in this way you might no longer fantasize that the veil must be pierced for you to communicate across this boundary of cultural difference. You begin to translate the veil more transparently, as a fluid and ambivalent garment, an interface of skin, flesh, and cloth which is a lived embodiment for Afghan women.

*Gillian Whitlock is Professor in English, Media Studies, and Art History at the University of Queensland. She is currently working on a book about life narrative since the “war on terror,” Soft Weapons: Transits of Autobiography, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press in 2006.


AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am grateful to Martin Duwell, Margaret Maynard, Robert Dixon, and Leili Golafshani for their assistance with this paper, and to David Parker for the invitation to offer a keynote address which began this research.

1. The book was read aloud in its entirety on the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s prime-time “Life Matters” program in 2003. A powerful and compelling first-person narrative, it was read by a young Afghan immigrant, and in this way it entered hotly contested domestic debates about the incarceration of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia.

2. It is important to note that Mohanty has no intention of constructing a monolithic, singular “Western feminism”: “Rather, I am attempting to draw attention to the similar effects of various textual strategies . . . that codify Others as non-Western and hence themselves as specifically Western” (18).

3. One way of locating articles on the veil is to enter the term “overdetermined signifier” in an internet search engine. The complex and contradictory associations of the veil as a vehicle for critiques of the situation of women in Islam were tragically apparent following the murder of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in Holland in 2004. Van Gogh’s film presents Quranic script superimposed on the body of a naked woman, visible through a diaphanous veil. These metaphorical images outraged not only Muslim communities, who labeled the images as blasphemous, recalling debates over Rushdie’s references to the Quran in Satanic Verses, but also feminist activists who found this representation of the female body both undignified and prurient. Useful recent discussions of representations of the veil which examine its diverse and conflicting associations include Grace, El Guindi, Shirazi, and Alvi, Hoodfar, and McDonough.

4. Daphne Grace points out that Croutier’s account of life in a Turkish harem is based on her own family history, and draws a more complex and diverse picture than the Orientalist paintings which are reproduced in the book (42). Childhood memoirs by Leila Ahmed (A Border Passage) and Fatima Mernissi (Dreams of Trespass) offer alternative ways of representing the harem which engage with some of these stereotypes. See too Reina Lewis’s Gendering Orientalism and Rethinking Orientalism.

5. In the wake of the press coverage given to the incidents of tearing Muslim women’s scarves, a film studies colleague and a group of his students produced a video with anti-racist intent. The video featured a Muslim girl in an Australian school being harassed by a group of boys who eventually pull down her scarf. The girl passively retreats until a White girl comes forward, picks up her scarf, gives it back to her while putting her arm around her (rap music in the background). “I could not help focusing on the movement of the White girl’s arm,” Hage remarks: “Protective though it was, it kept reminding me of the very movement of the hand that it was negating—the hand that pulled down the scarf. Like it, it was a hand that had a sense of its spatial power and, also like it, it has moved onto something/someone perceived as a passive object” (qtd. in Gunew 98).

6. For example, consider the following “Spotlight Reviews of My Forbidden Face“:

Latifa’s book is more than just a catalog of Taliban atrocities. For me, three things made her book especially interesting. First Latifa is a devout, modern Muslim. Throughout the book she presents her thesis that the version of Islam espoused by the Taliban had little to do with real religion. The Taliban dictatorship was essentially about men wanting to control and humiliate women. Her reflections about being religious and living in the modern world will interest readers of all faiths who are thinking about these issues. The second feature of her book that I found intersting [sic] was how strongly her father supported her and her sisters in wanting to become education [sic] and have careers. Also of interest was her account of how the French fashion magazine Elle first broke the story. The popular press takes a lot of criticism for being shallow and sensational. Elle deserves a lot of credit for taking the leadership in focusing world attention on what was happening to the women of Afghanistan. Paul A. Spengler from Buffalo, New York. (25 Feb. 2004. <;.)

. . . I read this memoir as an individual project for a Philosophy course. By the end of the book I was absolutely stunned how much I did not know about Islam, Afghanistan and the Taliban. I came to realize through Latifa’s explanations and recounts [sic] how absolutely ignorant I was. I assumed that women in Afghanistan had been treated unfairly for centuries, and had no idea how similar life was to American life for most women and men. By the end of the book, I felt utterly guilty for thinking the way I did about Latifa’s culture. I am so glad that I read this book, as it was a wonderful eye-opener. I recommend it to all American women so they can understand how precious our freedoms and liberties are. . . . My only complaint is that her recount [sic] is somewhat impersonal. Her memoir is more factual, when I felt she could have put a lot more of her own feelings and emotion into the book. Ams from Massachusetts, USA. 25 Feb. 2004. (<’/0786869011/ref=pd_qpt_gw_4/104-1346805-1618303&gt;.)

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