The Burqa Issue. OF NOTE Magazine. 2016 The Burqa Issue. OF NOTE magazine. 2016 - Page 26

Rada Akbar: Making the Invisible Visible By Stephanie Seguino In her 2013 photographic series, Invisible Captivity, depicting women in burqas, Afghani artist Rada Akbar draws attention to the religious and cultural forces that shape women’s lives. The images consist primarily of black and white portraits or sculptures of women whose bodies are inscribed with passages from the Quran. They are bold, and deeply evocative. Akbar was born in Juzjan, a northern province in Afghanistan, in 1988. She moved to Pakistan with her family to escape the Taliban regime and later returned to her homeland in 2002, where she is now based in Kabul. Just prior to interviewing Akbar in late October, I had returned from a trip to Cairo. While there, I found myself uneasy at the sight women wearing the burqa or niqab. I saw them as disenfranchised, disempowered women, not autonomous human beings. And yet, women in Egypt, by comparison to the Gulf States, face less pressure to veil. However, those who choose to wear the burqa or niqab were not allowed to vote in the October elections and at least one university banned its lecturers from wearing the garment. Because the interview with Akbar was imminent, I wrestled all the more with my very strong reactions. Seeing women in burqas makes me simultaneously afraid and angry. Afraid because the burqa that shields the eyes makes human connection impossible. Angry because the burqa has the air of a movable prison, of solitary confinement. If this indeed is a prison, then who imprisoned the woman? Does she imprison herself ? Is the wearing of a burqa voluntary or the result of social pressure? Is it forced on her? Has she adapted so much so that in the end, she feels as though it is a choice? I come to those perceptions of the burqa as a Westerner who has spent the last 20 years working to promote and advance gender equality via my work as an economist and artist. And I grew up in a patriarchal Italian family, which sensitized me to the oppression women experience in traditional families. Still, I am acutely aware of the dangers of women in Western countries drawing conclusions about the lives of women in other countries. With Akbar’s work, I approached our conversation and her photographs with the desire to let go of my own stereotypes so as to understand her own feelings about the burqa. What surprised me and led me to feel solidarity were Akbar’s own words. “The burqa seems like a cage to me, which keeps a woman imprisoned. I do not believe there is any positive aspect of the burqa. . . it is against humans’ rights and women’s rights,” she says. Akbar’s images of women in burqas are at once powerful and disquieting. In The Veil, one of the few color images in this series, a headshot of a woman in a black niqab with brightly colored brassieres hanging above her head looks intently into the eyes of the viewer. We know her look is intent because there is no netting over the eyes, although it is difficult for the viewer to discern what the eyes reveal. Invisible Captivity. © Rada Akbar, 2013. Courtesy of the artist. 26 OF NOTE 27 OF NOTE