Is Gaga’s recent choice to wear various “Islamic” items of clothing, a shameless exploitation of orientalist fetishes to promote herself as a pseudo-edgy ‘artiste’? Indeed it is. And yet, I find myself strangely satisfied at the uproar caused by her neon pink burqa, because it challenges the discursive monopoly on the meaning of Muslim women’s clothing. Muslim women’s clothing, apparently, can be oppressive or it can be nothing at all.
In 2009, Lady Gaga held a press conference to which she turned up wearing a bizarre full face covering. Unfazed by her typically outrageous fashion choices, the journalists proceeded to quiz her on her music, none storming out in protest that it was “impossible to read her facial features” or concerned about the “true identity” of who sat before them – no, not one even complained that it was “hampering communication”. Why? Because she’s Lady Gaga and not a Muslim woman.
Because so much of the public narrative - from justifications for war to bans on Muslim women’s attire, depends on the perception of veils as inherently misogynistic, any suggestion they could be empowering is met not merely with consternation, but faux indignation at the poor brown women presumably insulted by this. Of course, Gaga chooses to wear a ‘burqa’ (is a transparent burqa still a burqa?) when women in Afghanistan and elsewhere don’t always have the luxury of choice – but they also don’t have the luxury of themselves defining the significance ascribed to articles of Muslim dress.
The accusations of white privilege levelled at Gaga do hold some sway – after all, it is absolutely and unequivocally because she is white/wealthy/famous that she goes unchallenged in her choice to cover her head, hair or body. But the inherent double standard in the treatment of white/powerful women who cover their faces versus the treatment of poor/disenfranchised/ brown women who do, is far more interesting to me than the problematic regurgitation of orientalist clichés which frankly, I’m virtually inured to.
Now I could be wrong here, but I don’t recall a huge debate about whether her choice to wear a meat dress to the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards was her take on a post-modern critique of the meat industry – perhaps I just happened to miss that, but it is telling that it’s Muslim women’s clothing (I use “Muslim” in the broadest sense) which seems, yet again, to be causing such a stir. And that’s because the discourse on Muslim women’s clothing, and its invariably oppressive significance, is so narrowly policed, so rigidly defined, that any deviation from that script inevitably leads to accusations of sympathising with misogynistic loons who employ some of the items in question as part of their anti-women arsenal.
Now it’s unfortunate for Muslim women who choose to wear some sort of veil that there are sadly a number of oppressive countries who like to dictate to women what they consider to be Islamic clothing and that the easy assumption often follows that wearing one implies support/sympathy/approbation of the latter. It does not.
The contention levelled at Gaga on this occasion is that by wearing an overtly glamorous face veil, or a neon pink transparent burka or using lyrics which appear to ‘glamorise’ (God forbid!) aspects of some Muslim women’s clothing, she is unwittingly supporting the patriarchy and insulting those women who are forced to wear the garb in question.
I'm not only not offended by her choice, I'm also somewhat perturbed by the criticism she’s received over it – no one has a monopoly on the significance of symbols. There is no a priori meaning hidden behind the face veil – even different Muslim cultures offer different views and meanings to it. To some women, it is the pinnacle of piety, to others, a modern accretion, for others still, a neo-feminist choice. So if Lady Gaga wants to don a face veil and, in so doing, add yet another, American pop culture layer of significance to it, I say bring it!
I relish the fact her act subverts the monopoly on meaning typically associated with the face veil as the evil imposition of male domination. Perhaps now there’ll be a little more room for different Muslim women to contribute their understanding of these symbols and in so doing, move from object, to subject in that discussion.
In the Atlantic, Allie Jones argues that Gaga donning the burqa represents a "sexualisation of Muslim women”, fetishizing “the women of another culture in order to sell records”. In her latest tune 'Burqa' she raps “Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?” Although this clearly does play into orientalist depictions, it has one significant difference and that’s the idea of active, versus the typically passive sexuality associated with Muslim women. It's also true that Lady Gaga sexualises everything - even lobsters. So Muslim women can at least rest easy that we are not the sole targets of her sexualising crusade.
Gaga is appropriating Islamic symbols and in so doing, associating her confident sexual identity and power with women typically assumed to be passive and voiceless victims. Partly, this is why people are so shocked. How dare a burqa-clad woman also be a confident sexual being? How outrageous that the niqab be linked to one of the biggest American cultural icons of the 21st century.
Let’s be honest – Gaga isn’t changing the game for Muslim women – she’s far more concerned with selling records than with taking a political stance – but rather than be offended by her latest outlandishness I find myself smiling at the thought of her being stopped by French officials while shopping in Galeries Lafayette or harangued at JFK airport as she returns to the US. Of course she probably won’t be. But the exceptionalism she’s afforded reveals a double standard far more concerning than the absurdity of a transparent burka.