The Burqa Experiment: An exercise in privilege

English: Two Muslim women in colourful s (the ...

English: Two Muslim women in colourful headscarfs  . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Burqa Experiment: Introduction.

The outline of the project linked above is simple: yet another white, non-Muslim woman, thinks she can understand the experiences of Muslim women (including Muslim women of colour) by donning what she terms a Burqua.  She claims to have done six months of research consulting with Muslim women before deciding on the methodology for this project which basically entails veiling herself and blogging about it.  There are number of issues I have with this.

Firstly, a basic googling would have revealed to her the many blogs written by Muslimahs where they speak of their experiences as veiled women in the west.  Although this was probably not her intention Suzanne’s project further marginalises Muslim women.  She places her superficial experience, putting on a veil for the sake of this project, over their lived experience. She places her voice as more important than their voices.  Marginalised voices are routinely hidden, silenced and erased and Suzanne is participating in this process.

Secondly, the fact that Suzanne uses the term burqua is highly indicative of the fact she has not actually consulted with many (or any) Muslim women.  The types of veils and forms of dress that Muslim women use have varied names, but the term burqua is not one that is commonly used.  The term burqua is routinely incorrectly applied to what Muslim by the western world for its own purposes.  Think of the discourse about women in burquas that presaged the invasion of Afghanistan or the ‘burqua ban’ in France.

Often such projects are tied to the myth of the ‘objective outsider,’ which implies that marginalised people cannot be trusted to speak authoritatively about their experiences because they are insufficiently objective. Instead a person who does not routinely experience marginalisation must don ‘marginalised drag’ in order to provide an ‘objective’ analysis from an ‘unemotional’ point of view.  While I do not think that this was Suzanne’s intent when she created this project, she cannot escape the uncomfortable context in which such projects are situated.   If she is intending to be an ally to Muslim women then she has totally forgotten or ignored the first rule of being an ally: shut up and listen.

This project is symptomatic of the mentality that privileges white voices telling the stories of what they think marginalised groups go through rather than centering the voices of marginalised peoples themselves. I feel that if Suzanne was really interested in exploring the experiences of Muslim women and shedding light on their issues to her readers than she would work at providing a space for them in her space where they can speak for themselves.  There is value in amplifying the experiences of marginalised people but there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to go about it.  Let Muslim women speak for themselves and tell their own stories as that would be respecting their agency.  It seems like Suzanne is far more interested in hits to her website than she is in really coming to grips with the issues at play and understanding the experiences of Muslim women in North America.

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