• Supermodel Gigi Hadid pictured in a jewelled veil on the cover of the inaugural Vogue Arabia. (www.geo.tv)Source: www.geo.tv
The cover of the first edition of Vogue Arabia features supermodel Gigi Hadid in a bejewelled veil but, says Amal Awad, the move is continuing the long-held obsession with the exotic Arab woman.
Amal Awad

7 Mar 2017 - 1:56 PM  UPDATED 11 Apr 2017 - 9:53 AM

That familiar come-hither stare, coquettish and sexy, behind a veil of sequins. It’s supermodel Gigi Hadid, Vogue Arabia’s first cover girl and she’s anything but the meek veiled tragic woman who graces so many book covers.

In fact, at first blush, this cover – slightly different in the English and Arabic versions but stylistically the same – perhaps represents to some the expression of modern female empowerment, proof of choice. A veil is exotic, not an emblem of faith nor a symbol of oppression.

Hadid, who openly and proudly proclaims her mixed heritage – she’s half-Palestinian – has suggested that doing this cover is honouring her roots, declaring on her Instagram:

It’s commendable that Hadid wishes to celebrate her heritage and promote diversity in the fashion industry, but is sexyfying the veil the way to do it?

In the same week Emma Watson partially bared her breasts, Hadid covered her face. Feminists decry page-three nudity but celebrate empowered choice. In a similar way, we’re meant to celebrate Hadid’s exotic look, a stylised, palatable version of Muslim modesty, though not completely given she is still showing skin. 

Both illustrate the hypocrisy at play when talking about women and choice in how they dress. In the same way feminists decry female nudity unless it’s a sexy celebrity in the photo – choice being the key point – there is something disturbing about appropriating niqab to normalise another culture.

In the magazine, Hadid is also photographed swathed in hijab. While this has drawn criticism for its easy appropriation – she is a supermodel who has strutted the Victoria’s Secret runway after all – it’s the cover that really jars.

Reminiscent of so many exoticised book covers featuring women in black veils, only their frightened eyes visible, this seems to be an attempt to turn the cliché on its head. Yet, if this is a reply to the cries of oppression, what exactly are we saying? That veiling is acceptable if it defeats its own purpose by being alluring? Or that the choice to cover makes it innocuous, a choice that many women simply do not have?

It’s commendable that Hadid wishes to celebrate her heritage and promote diversity in the fashion industry, but is sexyfying the veil the way to do it?

This is not a criticism of veiling but, rather, the disturbing use of it to fetishise Arab women. Though some will argue the demographic is fashion-savvy Arab women, when we glamourise veiling, we are merely capitalising on the obsession with its mystery. When I wore hijab years ago, I lost count of the number of times people ‘reassured’ me that it still made me attractive – nay, men love it; it’s so mysterious, they told me. Didn’t you know? Men want to know what’s underneath all of that modesty.

Still, who cares that it’s mysterious and draws attention? As many Muslim women will attest, they wear it in observance of their devotion to God, not for men.

Moreover, hijab and its variations are consistently attacked as oppressive and backward. Yet, when a supermodel wears it, it’s beautiful.

The English version of the magazine reads ‘reorienting perceptions’. But what exactly has been reoriented? The veil? The image of the Arab woman? The latter is a bit disingenuous given the magazine has used a woman of partial Arab heritage who grew up in the west to champion being an Arab woman. And in the process, it has advanced nothing. All I can see is a recycled stereotype, beautified and commercialised for mainstream consumption.

All I can see is a recycled stereotype, beautified and commercialised for mainstream consumption.

Vogue is simply continuing a popular narrative. But we don’t have to buy it. We don’t have to celebrate it. As viewers of the spectacle, we can turn our gaze elsewhere.

Vogue Arabia's editor-in-chief, Saudi princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, praised Hadid's work: “The collage of countries across the Arab world are long-deserving of a place in fashion history and there’s no better first ‘face’ to lead the charge for Vogue Arabia than Gigi, a model who defines tomorrow’s entrepreneurial and dynamic generation”.

Which begs the question: why not offer an evolved face of Arabia? Someone who will surely not represent all, but will not rely on tired stereotypes that all Arabs are Muslim, or even that all Muslim women wear some type of veil?

How daring is that?

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Amal Awad’s new book, Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Real Lives of Arab Women will be released in June. 


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