The West and the Rest

I am intrigued by the attention burqas and niqabs have amassed in the western culture. France actually banned Muslim women from wearing burqas  and niqabs in public in April 2011. The French government feels that the ban will facilitate cultural integration. For some Muslim’s it is symbol of patriarchy, misogyny, sexism; a pre-Islamic cultural practice that has no place in the Quran. A pre-Islamic practice in which Aristocratic men forced the concealment of women. They regarded the women as personal property. When a young British woman was asked by a BBC correspondent covering the ban of the burqas and niqabs why she chose to cover up, she said that she did not really know why, then said that they were meant to cover up so that they do not appear to aspire toward Western standards. Burqas and niqabs, therefore, for some, serve as an opposition to westernized ways of displaying the feminine body.

What are you laughing at? Bill Maher holds an annual Burqa beauty contest on his show. He is a comedian so, of course, during the fashion show he is expected to tell jokes and poke fun at the women who wear burqas and the institution that forces them to wear them. During one of the fashion shows he says the burqa is “guaranteed to get your man so hot he’ll want to strike you with a stick”.  He also names fake designers such as Muslim Dior ( he was Christian Dior before he converted, so goes the joke) and Donna Quran to further marginalize the subjects of his jokes. It is the mix of barbaric metonyms and western names that signify civility, all that is not savage; standing in opposition to the other that should make them funny. Then we have the girls in Sex and the City 2 making comments based on western ideologies about the burqas and niqabs in the movie all for the sake of comedy.


This is an image of the execution of burqa clad woman by a Taliban official conducted inside a football stadium holding many spectators. It is not clear to me why she was executed. This stark contrast to Maher’s jokes, however, was needed.

George Bush used the “veil” (translate to women’s rights) as a reason to to war. All of these instances speak to western entitlement and insensitivity in my opinion in regards to the other. Moreover, Maher’s jokes are tragic in any instance, especially within the context of this text. When those types of jokes are articulated and laughed at, what is really being said?  It may be argued that all is fair game in comedy and the French government has a right to make decisions to enforce cultural harmony but to what degree? How much of one’s identity should be sacrificed, if at all, in an effort to conform to normative western standards? I know these topics can be debated on for an extensive period of time, but this brings me to Kabul Beauty School.

Bill Maher Fifth Annual Fundamentalist Fashion Show

Sex and The City 2 clip

You must take a look at this clip below before the discussion of the beauty school of Kabul begins in this text. This clip from Saira Shah’s Beneath the Veil-Women in Islam reveals some of the abhorrent conditions that women struggle against. Women resort to begging in order to survive as they are not allowed to work. One woman is seen feeding her seven children scraps of molded bread. There is also the lack of medical care. The gynecological hospitals are horrifying derelict spaces, that appear to be more of a place for leaving someone to die than a place for healthcare. It is important to juxtapose these matters to the makeover discourse to facilitate the thought process on whether or not makeovers ( ascribing to/learning Western beauty practices) are the answers to the sociopolitical dilemmas. Consider Bill Maher’s distasteful jokes and this quote, from The Biopower of Beauty, while watching “A commitment to beauty, through which she inhabits normative prescriptions for gender and sexuality as the realization of her human wholeness, becomes the guarantee of her dignity and substance of her claims to rights” (Nguyen, 276).

Watch from 6:24 mark.

So normative beauty practices guarantee the women internal and external beauty that put her dignity and her ability to grasp a hold of her human rights into place. She will be free and capable of living a better life. Beauty, then, is the answer to the problems highlighted in the above video. It is the absurd imperial western humanitarian answer to the lack of education, medical care, human rights, and poverty. Empowering the women economically via entrepreneurial endeavors in beauty is plausible but the idea that beauty is a core factor in success is abhorrent. Not only is it this ideology abhorrent, so is the west saving the rest discourse couched in the beauty rescuers’ goals. There are issues of mass poverty, violence, and other socio-political injustices that will not even begin to be solved by initiatives such as this one.


2 thoughts on “The West and the Rest

  1. I think your title for this post was really fitting for the subject matter. I remember on one of the first days of class Prof. Lee said that during this during the semester we were going to be looking at the beauty practices of other countries, and that we had to think about them critically without laughing at the differences between their beauty work and ours. It can be tempting to look at other countries and their beauty practices and think about them as the “other” while we are the norm. So when I saw your reference to Bill Maher, I thought this really epitomized the way the US sees the cultural practices of other countries. The US exceptionalist attitude that we see constantly, is really shown in the way that our beauty practices are normal, and others are a joke to be laughed at. The laughter I would argue is a projection of US fears that maybe all along another country had it right, and we don’t have as much power as we thought. This view on the world also produces a white savoir narrative that we see in Jessica Simpson’s TV show (wanting to save children from their mother’s beauty practices), and in the movie we watched in class where Afghani women are taught about US beauty work.


  2. The most problematic part of the Kabul Beauty School documentary I had, was the American ignorance surrounding the inequality and injustice women face in Kabul. The film clearly portrayed the American women’s struggles trying to be direct, professional, and take control over their male employees during the construction period- but highlighted it in a very narrow way. That is, the film only highlighted the issues outsiders face, not even attempting to tackle the deeply engrained cultural aspects that keep local women behind in their own communities. I hoped that the short segments dedicated to each of the women in the Kabul Beauty School program would highlight some of these issues, but instead the filmmakers decided to skim over it, perhaps noting that the problems were too complex to resolve with the short amount of time they appropriated. Complexity is exactly where these issues lie. Burqas and niqabs are not the source or the solution to women’s equality; they are merely a minute piece of a much larger problem. I believe that banning women from wearing the burqa is equally harmful as forcing women to wear it; both decisions absolve the woman’s power of choice. I think it is easy as an American to see a woman of a different culture completely covered in fabric as a clear assault against freedom and her equality, not realizing that many of our own beauty practices, although inherently different, are still restricting. By implementing Western beauty practices in replace of Islamic beauty practices, we dismantle nothing, we merely transfer a different method of institutionalized inequality.


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