How (Not) to Write About Gender and Foreign Affairs: More On Foreign Policy’s “Sex Issue” and Its Cover

Charli Carpenter in Duck of Minerva:

Let's start with the DON'TS, shall we? 1) Don't Use Women's Naked Bodies To Sell Articles About How Godawful It Is To Use Women's Naked Bodies. Seriously, guys? No wonder tweets reacting to the issue included the following:

To be fair, there was lots of praise for the issue as well, and to their credit, FP responded to the outrage by posting a round-table 24 hours later as a forum for critique, featuring female Muslim voices from around the world. I am with those who thought the article was important yet the picture was a mistake, among them Naheed Mustafa:

“The image works against [Mona Eltawahy's] essay. It belies the nuance and breadth of the writing by reducing a subject to one easily consumable image… an image that doesn't even speak to the kind of women Eltahawy is writing about. If anything, the imagine does exactly what Eltahawy accuses Islamists of doing: reducing women to one-dimesnional caricatures with little or no autonomy… and it's not just about Muslim women. The illustration is insulting to women in general. It takes the profoudn probelm of gender-based violence and reduces it to sexual imagery: 'Hey, we might be talking about the endemic hatred of one gender for another, but here's a naked painted lady to keep you company!'”

Yep, that about says it.

2) Don't Pit Women Against One Other. I don't know what Mona El-Tahawny originally titled her piece, but the subtitle Foreign Policy's editors chose (“the real war on women is in the Middle East“) was a needless slap in the face to women fighting in the US for pay equity, reproductive health and to safety in our homes, streets and workplaces. The “real” war on women – and other gender minorities – is everywhere. It just takes different forms. What is a constant in world affairs is the use of finger-pointing about “other cultures' women” to create a sense of our own cultural superiority.


Also Sherene Seikaly and Maya Mikdashi in Jadaliyya:

[T]there is the visual. A naked and beautiful woman’s flawless body unfolds a niqab of black paint. She stares at us afraid and alluring. We are invited to sexualize and rescue her at once. The images reproduce what Gayatri Spivak critiqued as the masculine and imperial urge to save sexualized (and racialized) others. The photo spread is reminiscent of Theo van Gogh's film Submission, based on Ayyan Hirsli Ali’s writings, in which a woman with verses of the Quran painted on her naked body and wearing a transparent chador writhes around a dimly lit room. Foreign Policy’s “Sex Issue” montage is inspired by the same logic that fuels Submission: we selectively highlight the plight of women in Islam using the naked female body as currency. The female body is to be consumed, not covered!

For those of us now long familiar with the depictions of the Arab/Muslim woman as repressed but uncontrollable sex object, these images only reify the fascination with the hidden underside of that liberated, secularized self.