Muslim’s big bra photo spurs oversized outrage

Some people in B.C. have their panties in a twist

I would guess that the vast majority of Canadian Muslims, thoughtful, tolerant, law-abiding citizens, must really hate it when their fellow Muslims go crazy over the barest of perceived slights.

If my guess is right, there must be a lot of sighing going after news broke yesterday that a brou-ha-ha had erupted at Thompson Rivers University over a photo of a woman wearing a niqab and abaya (garments sometimes worn by some Muslim women that cover almost the entire body) while looking at a bra.

Click here to see the original photo.

Had the response been limited to a little head shaking or a few emails of complaint, one might not have noticed. But then Trad Bahabri, the President of Saudi Education Centre in Kamloops, made a public statement criticizing artist Sooraya Graham, and calling for her to “clarify the idea behind the picture.” Because if there’s one thing artists love, it’s stating that their work has one and only one valid interpretation.

But things really got out of hand, when a TRU staff member, encouraged by some TRU students according to one report,  ”removed” the picture without permission, and would not return it until the author promised not to rehang it.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and the TRU administration stood behind the student, and the photo, and made sure it was returned to the exhibit from whence it had come. No word on what punishment, if any, will go the staff member, but surely a stern “knock it off” is in order at the very least.

Of course, photographs dealing with religious themes always have the possibility of stirring up powerful feelings. But this photo? A woman with a bra? It’s not nearly so shocking as Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or even as disrespectful as the cheeky Federici Ice Cream ad featuring a pregnant nun.

Indeed, Graham, herself a Muslim, says the aim was to show all women, including those wearing certain kinds of clothing, are fundamentally the same. We shouldn’t, she says, let stereotypes about women who dress a certain way make us forget about the person under the garments. Good on you, Ms Graham.

The trouble is that there are always multiple ways to read works of art. And while Bahabri says he is concerned that the photo was not approached “in a very professional way,” its’ hard to see how professionalism has anything to do with it. Why would professionalism be relevant to an amateur art show? Besides, I’ve seen plenty of professional photographs and this one looks pretty well-lit and well-composed to me.

So professionalism in this case sounds like a euphemism for “not doing anything that might possibly offend me or people who think like I do.” Those who are upset by the photo are interpreting it differently than the artist says she intended, which, of course, is fair enough in itself. They read the woman in the photo as looking at the bra wistfully, wishing she could wear sexy Western clothing but feeling forced to wear what her religion has set out for her. Frankly, that’s how I would interpret it, especially since the woman in the photo is holding the bra up to her body, as though almost trying it on but not sure if she should.

That’s the interpretation that bothers those opposed to the photo, and that’s why there”s a push for an explanation: to try to take the more controversial interpretation off the table, to establish that only the innocuous interpretation is genuine, and to make it clear that any interpretation hinting of a critique of Muslims must be a misunderstanding.

But even if we read the picture as critical, that is no reason to condemn it or the artist. To say that some Muslim women may wear certain things because they feel forced to may be unpleasant for some to hear, and it may spur disagreement, but it should not be outside the realm of civil discourse. Especially in a university art class where we ought to be training people to push the boundaries. A vibrant society simply cannot give in to everyone who thinks I’m bothered by this” is the same as “this is wrong and must be stopped.”

Certainly no one should deliberately encourage hatred towards another group, but criticism, even harsh criticism, is not hatred, and being offended is not the same as being assaulted. We should welcome and celebrate diversity and we should have a reasonable amount of respect for the traditions and feelings of others. But to try to control a work of art—whether by physically taking it or by stealing the viewer’s right to interpret it on her own—if not violence, is still an act of extremism and contrary to the basic values of a free society.

So knock it off.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.

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Muslim’s big bra photo spurs oversized outrage

  1. I’ve never worn a niqab, but I’m guessing you might still wear a bra underneath. For support. Before reading this article, I interpreted the photo as a woman bra-shopping. Not wistfully, pragmatically. And I would interpret the fuss as being something like, “OMG they’re reminding us that there’s boobs under that niqab! How filthy.” Just a general fear of female sexuality.

  2. I never even considered that this photo could be construed as a critique against Muslims – other than the fact that I INTENSELY OBJECT and DISLIKE Muslim women having their faces covered. No one can tell me this is not a form of oppression. Those women are so oppressed, they don’t even recognize it! Nothing wrong with the artist’s work and is that staff member nuts for removing the piece of art? and shame on Trad Bahabri of the Saudi Education Centre for condoning the censorship and oppression IN CANADA. (not that my PM is much different!)

  3. Sooraya Graham is asked to “clarify the idea behind the picture” by the President of Saudi Education Centre. We should be taking this opportunity to ask the far more important question of what is being taught at that centre. I went to their website, which is all in English and sounds reasonable enough, but then when one tries to learn about what specifically is on the agenda one is informed that “this page is only supported in Arabic language”: http://www.saudikamloopsschool.com/recent-classes.html

    Why is the rest of the site even in English, then? What are the recent classes about? Misogynistic “cultural” traditions? Holocaust denial? Jihad against our own society? These are not insensitive racist questions. Well enough has come to general attention about the fundamentalist ideals governing Saudi Arabia since Saudis flew planes into the WTC and Pentagon for us to have legitimate concerns about this.

  4. Create a controversial work of art, and controversy will occur. People will get mad. People getting mad is a valid reaction, as is people getting inspired.

    No one needs to “knock it off.”

    If it can be accepted that “there are always multiple ways to read works of art,” then let there be multiple ways of reading works of art, especially, methinks if these ways of reading art are based in our personal beliefs.

    So I’m an open guy right, and don’t have nearly as big a commitment to faith as most muslims do, so I am thrilled to see/listen/read works of art which focus around mutilation, torture, etc. But I’m also your typical romantic and loves me my Michael Buble and RomComs.

    The fact that I have so little beliefs to which I am bound means that I can appreciate most any work of art as “cool, good work, really neat idea, etc.” If it can be accepted that all Art was once inseparable from Religion, it can be agreed that once they divided, art simply became its own religion. I.e. people undergo the ritual of attending a concert as opposed to attending a church or a mosque.

    However, fundamentally, as a person still interested in making art whenever and wherever (I feel) art must be made, my root is in the emotions. Anger is on the same continuum as fear, love, hope, hate, etc. The interesting thing with society and emotions is that they think emotions are always subjective.

    This is a case in which they are not.

    You see, the anger that people feel about this photograph is based off of a subjective interpretation of a work of art. Art demands audience, and audience implies subjectivity. While there is one objective art object (the photograph, or a film, or a painting, or a set of sounds, etc.), there is never one objective interpretation, because I do not believe that most artists have the power to be so hegemonic.

    However, objectively, people got angry. This can be measured, noted, and analyzed. People also may have been “moved,” which believe it or not, based on personal testimony, can be measured, noted and analyzed.

    To suppress the anger of these Muslims, or reject it, is to go against the nature of the photograph. “Training people to push the boundaries” as the editor of this article presents as the main purpose of a university art class, is, to its core, a call for artists to be people who wake society up, stir the pot, etc. Well if you stir the pot and it splashes back at you, but the soup is still great, would you be more mad at the little splash? Art should never, to me, have the aim of making people simply accept things that they are uncomfortable with.

    Of course, I’ve gone around in a circle kind of. I’m preaching that we should be able to coldly and academically appreciate the fact that people got angry. But to me this makes more sense than wanting everyone to coldly and academically accept art.

    So the writer in this article, though I criticize him here, is no worse or better than the people who went to remove the painting.

    One final point: I believe art should always be a safe place to scream*. Creating this photograph is certainly screaming. When we start saying things like “wasn’t handled professionally,” we take away the ability to scream. While I don’t necessarily agree with the idea of a separate art world where professionals exist, society tends to. But if this is the case, they must realize that professionalism in the arts is different than professionalism in business or law. The artist is in the business of screaming. Let him scream, and let people be hurt by the scream, and let people scream back and lets be FULLY ALIVE FOR ONE FUCKING second. (!)

    *The full definition of scream (which allows for Bach and Michaelangelo to be screamers as much as Schoenberg and Edvard Munch) in this context is beyond the scope of this already lengthy comment, but will be gladly elaborated if so requested, on a personal basis with an e-mail sent peter_shaw46@hotmail.com

  5. The things people get worked up over…

  6. Apparently muslim men wear bras too!

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