Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

My burka is not an exotic costume

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Dear Lady Gaga,

Last fall, the media was abuzz with stories about your 25-pound weight gain. You didn't hide any of that extra lard and you proudly posed for pictures in your underwear. That was your way of telling the world you didn't care what the gossip columns said about your body. As a hijab-wearing woman, I would never consider showing my body in public. But, I still praised you for your courage and snark. You and I have completely opposite cultural and social values, but in some ways I think we're alike. Hijab, for me, is a way of rejecting the culture that wants to characterize me by the angles and curves of my body.

However, your demo track Burqa, which was leaked recently, was a huge disappointment to me because I found your appropriation of my hijab crude and discourteous, to say the least. How could a woman who passionately empowered young girls to love their bodies tell them to sexualize those same bodies and the clothes that cover them?

We live in a culture in which some men rape women and then claim the victim led them to believe she wanted to have sex. I don't need to explain to you how awful the situation is because you told the story of a date rape in Monster, and I have always applauded you for speaking out against such a horrible crime.

Contrary to the portrayal in Burqa, I, like most other Muslim women, cover myself because I am not interested in flirtation. I do not want to be sexually solicited. However, "Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?" implies no really means yes. It adds to the perception that if a woman shows signs of refusal, she is just being titillating and playing hard to get; she secretly wants to be pursued and seduced. This perpetuates violence against women and contradicts the message in Monster, in which you condemned the "wolf in disguise." In Burqa, you seem to suggest that by tearing off your clothes he is fulfilling your fantasy. It is a dangerous message that does not just affect Muslim women but all women. No woman wants to be tormented with unneeded attention, to be stalked and to be told she was asking for it.

Let me be clear about why I was insulted as a Muslim. I am not against a non-Muslim woman wearing the hijab or sharing her opinion about it. The song actually started out well, and some of your lyrics echoed my feelings: "I'm not a wandering slave, I'm a woman of choice." But then you lost me when you proceeded to turn such a sacred symbol of my religion into an exotic costume. It is not something you can wear to your Halloween party.

And this not the first time you've eroticized the burka. When you appeared on a fashion show catwalk last fall, draped in translucent, flimsy neon-pink fabric, your body and glittery undergarments tantalizing the onlookers, you did me damage. Covering my body is not my fetish or a fashion statement. It does not turn me on, nor do I want anyone else to be turned on by it. I don't want people to think of that image and turn me into an object of sexual gratification when they see me covered.

This is not to say that Muslim women are asexual. Rather, sexuality is something innate so I don't need to make a show of it through my apparel.

You see, the whole point of a burka is to de-sexualize the way people think of me. I do it to defy the male gaze and force people to see me for my intellect and my abilities. But when you hypersexualize me, like you did in Burqa, you dehumanize me by implying covering myself makes me useless except as a sex toy.

In reality, my hijab liberates me because I don't have to conform to society's standards of beauty, allowing me to create my own body revolution, like the movement you started earlier this year. My hijab never stopped me from travelling across the world, or participating in long hiking trips or being a professional at work. My mother covers her entire body, except her hands and feet, but that did not hinder her from becoming a philanthropist and a shrewd businesswoman.

I understand that in making Burqa, you were exercising your right to free speech. But you're a pop culture icon and you influence the way millions of people think. Your leaked demo resulted in a flood of tweets by your Little Monsters, wrapping themselves in whatever they could get their hands on -- towels, scarves, bed sheets -- and posting their pictures with the hashtag #burqaswag. To them, it was one big joke, but to me, it was one big insult. The repetition of the phrase "behind the aura" in the demo, coupled with your fans' offensive game of dress-up in their makeshift burkas, evokes the worst stereotypes about the "exotic" Muslim woman who is submissive and sexually repressed.

So go ahead and release your song if you like, but just know that with a song as insensitive and oversimplified as Burqa, you might manage to get a couple million hits, but it will hold no place in the serious, more sophisticated cultural discourse you have been trying so hard to influence.

Aimen is a student at Mount Holyoke College

in South Hadley, Mass.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2013 A14

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