Last week, my colleague Carrie wrote about Hissa Hillal’s powerful political poetry and her success on Million’s Poet. In the days since, more stories on the poet have appeared in the Western media, and I’ve noticed a very problematic pattern. Here are a few example headlines:
- Burkha wearing housewife poised to win Middle East ‘Pop Idol’ (Telegraph)
- Arab Idol: Veiled Woman Rises In TV Poetry Contest (NPR)
- Beneath the Black Niqab Is Outspoken Saudi Poet (ABC)
When I read about writers, what I want to know is what makes their styles unique; if they perform their works, their stage presence or voice might become more significant than their writing style. In these more recent stories about Hissa Hilal, however, the framing suggests that what is important is not so much how she does what she does (notice how the Telegraph story leaves poetry out of the headline entirely) but what she wears. Of course, not every story about her is written this way, but far too many of them are.But why should what she wears be considered that important? There is nothing out of the ordinary about a woman from Saudi Arabia dressing the way she does. A woman so dressed is only unusual from a Western perspective, and a woman who dresses that way while speaking powerful poems and thus acting outside stereotypes of submissive veiled women is particularly unusual. What this means is that headlines which frame the story of Hissa Hilal in terms of what she wears are based on the assumption that the Western context is more important than the actual one in which she lives and performs. The context behind the Western gaze (a gaze, for once, available to certain women) is not only dominant but default.
Moreover, by making her clothing the primary focus and by ignoring the actual context in which she lives, these expressions of the Western gaze objectify Hissa Hilal and women like her. The Western obsession with the veil enacts precisely that oppression of women which in some nations becomes the justification for attempts to ban such dress. Right now, Belgium is close to becoming the first country to actually do so. Yet even in the absence of such clothing the women who are othered now would merely be othered through some other symbol.
Women cannot be liberated through limits on how they dress, nor through depictions of them that deprioritise or ignore the contexts in which they live. It is especially disturbing when stories about a woman who speaks powerfully on her own behalf manage to forget the latter.