The Answer: A lot of things.
In case you haven’t already heard: this Saturday, pop-star Rihanna was asked to leave the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi after staging an impromptu photoshoot on its grounds and posting the photos on instagram. Naturally, when the mosque released a statement regarding the incident yesterday morning, the response went viral and suddenly everyone had to voice their opinion (whether positive, negative, or indifferent) on Rihanna’s controversial shoot.
Although I seriously doubt Rihanna gives two thoughts towards the cultural weight of her photos, or the implications of her actions, (…come on, her publicist had to know that the mosque would not be happy!) her Middle Eastern glamour shoot raises greater questions than merely speculating whether she’s guilty of trespassing on holy ground, or not—namely:
1. Where does the fine line between creating “art” and being disrespectful fall within cultural appropriation?
2. Does our Western glamorization of the hijab empower Muslim women or exploit them?
In response to the shoot, many people pointed out that had it taken place in front of a Cathedral or even a synagogue, the media’s response would not have been as strong. It seems like every day in Lindsay Lohan is posing like Jesus for a magazine, a mainstream fashion designer crafts a line of clothing assaulting the Catholic church, or a musician takes a stance against organized religion. It’s almost as if, as Westerners, we feel we can criticize Christianity without repercussion because it is “our own.” There is no denying that Christianity is greatly entwined within our cultural heritage—whether we observe the faith or not. (ie…Christmas is about as mainstream as you can get.)
Also, we re-appropriate and secularize traditional Christian symbols without thinking much about it—such as an individual who is not religious wearing a cross as a fashion statement, or Dolce & Gabbana & Givenchy’s use of religious iconography within their Fall collection. However, when it comes to cultural appropriation—i.e. Rihanna donning a hijab (a signifier of Muslim culture and it’s epistemic value of modesty) although she does not practice Islam or align with its beliefs—where does the boundary lie between celebrating different cultures, and exploiting their differences? Why is it “worse” to appropriate a culture we aren’t familiar with, than to re-appropriate our own?
This raises the topic of religion within art, and the boundary between creating work that is thought provoking versus outright disrespectful. What makes Madonna’s Like A Prayer artistic and forward-thinking, while Rihanna’s poses in front of a mosque while wearing a a hijab are categorized as disrespectful to our Muslim sisters, and culturally backwards? Could it be that Like a Prayer accepted because it deals with Madonna’s personal experience growing up as a Catholic and feeling oppressed by a patriarchal society? Is it that we cannot relate to whatever message Rihanna’s is trying to convey, because she is an outsider and was not raised within the culture?
On the other side of the topic—Is Rihanna’s western appropriation of the hijab promoting religious tolerance by showcasing and familiarizing the beauty of middle eastern culture, or objectifying it through re-appropriating it to enforce Western ideals of sex appeal?
Although I (obviously) do not take issue with Rihanna’s outspoken and bold mentality, I do think her misappropriation of the hijab, and blatant use of a holy landmark as a personal playground is completely inappropriate. Through superimposing her “personal twist” on the religious garments by incorporating a bold red pout, and striking seductive poses in a figure fitting jumpsuit—she is hyper-sexualizing the burqa—ultimately eroticizing Islamic culture in a way that completely undermines the agency of Muslim women’s choice to express their sexuality through covering themselves. Covering yourself is as much a personal choice, as exposing your body on stage.
In condoning Rihanna’s disrespectful behavior as a society, we are accepting the fetishization of Muslim women as status quo. Our trivialization of the hijab as mere fashion accessory contributes to xenophobia towards Islam. Whether Rihanna was trying to make a cultural statement, or just wanted a pretty picture—it’s important to remember that feminists come from all different cultures, races, and ethnic backgrounds, and it is never inappropriate to put down one group of women to advance your own agenda.
However, there is no right or wrong answer—what I wrote above is merely my personal opinion, and I would love to hear what you have to say. Cultural and gender equality as well as religious tolerance are everyone’s issue.
In your opinion, Was Rihanna completely out of line? OR In reprimanding her behavior, are we taking it too far and drawing an even bigger division between Eastern and Western culture?
all images courtesy of @badgirlriri’s instagram account