Chiara Bernardi


Robin Lee Riley, Depicting The Veil. Transnational Sexism and the War on Terror London: Zed Publications, 2013

In his new book, Robiln Lee Riley’s once again delves into how Muslim women are portrayed and represented by the western media. Articulated in five interesting chapters, the book seeks to disentangle the very complex question of Muslim women’s visibility, representation and freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the introduction, the author introduces the topic through the analysis of Afghan and Iraqi women through the lenses of popular culture. What emerges is that by highlighting the greatly simplistic depictions of the Muslim woman, and her representation through symbols, these women come to be seen as either subjugated to arch-patriarchal norms or in alliance with the devil. The Muslim woman of Iraq and Afghanistan, Riley argues, does not have a name or a story in western representation or depictions. She is referred to as ‘the girl with no nose’ or ‘Mrs Anthrax’, ‘Dr Germ’ or ‘Osama Bin Laden’s wife’ (7). As a result, these women’s names and lives are considered only if luscious details can be brought to light, or if the acts of terror at the hands of the “brown man” can be used to justify the divine presence of the United States and some other allied forces in the two countries (Fanon: 1975).

Riley continues this introduction by explaining how “media produced propaganda” has long assisted the United States in the “creation of an enemy”. In her analysis, ‘Hollywood has been busy creating for a United States audience an Arab enemy’ (8), and the author further hints at the presence of ‘embedded’ journalists that stirred such a debate in the early days of the occupation of both countries. As a consequence, because news-producing “entities are owned by multi-national corporations” (10), very seldom is American military action criticised.

Though early on in the book, there is an initial confusion about the scope of the work. What is unclear is what is at stake according to the author: whether it is representation at stake or Western capitalism. The problematic issue that arises early on is that the author seems to forget the embedded and un-embedded framework within which journalists have been slaloming since the occupation of Afghanistan. Nowhere does the author seem to remember the difference between the embedded and the un-embedded journalists that covered the conflicts and that stirred up debates, and many of which have not yet found mention in academic or scholarly works and discussions. This latter point, would have been a perhaps more interesting path to follow when exposing new forms of imperialism and forms of “new racism” (13).

Another problematic encountered, is that the author seems to really want to tackle the ties between capitalism, military, government and news-production. Once again focused on the introduction, Riley highlights how there is a “new empire building” mechanism which is ‘intricately tied in to capitalism” and that is “centred in representation”. According to the author, “it utilises certain people of color as tokens, or iconic figures, in order to screen its sinister motives”. Although the author’s indignation is understandable, especially coming from a feminist perspective, this statement (p13) proves to be very problematic for any expert of media studies and, especially in relation with concepts such as agenda setting, gatekeeping and journalist practices. To say the least, representation through iconic images and biased information is unfortunately the plague of the press since its birth. As a result, this problem has been discussed by Jürgen Habermas in the Postrstructural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1964), by Walter Lippman in the early 1920s and last but not least by Luigi Einaudi with regards to the changes of the press from informational organ to ‘party voice’ in Il Buongoverno (1956). However, if the focus of attention is moved from media studies to colonial and post-colonial studies, a plethora of rich observations and examples of the biased representations of veiled women can be found. Such representations of women secluded in the privacy of their harems could already been seen in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s diaries dating from the dawn of the 18th century. Already, by this time, contacts had been established between the ‘West’ and what was first mapped as Hic Sunt Leones, or what is the present day Middle East and African. Nevertheless, these omissions do not seem to affect the overall purpose of the book which, despite minimal faults, presents an interesting account of how simplistically women are represented by English-speaking media and news outlets, as well as how “transnational sexism” is entrusted to ploys and tactics where “women are simultaneously threats, soldiers and nurturers, bombers and bombed upon” (13).

With these premises, Riley enters the first chapter with a very interesting quote from Sherene Razack whose idea about the “Muslim woman body” was that it serves the purposes of “reinforc(ing) the threat that the Muslim man is said to pose to the West” and is “used to justify the extraordinary measures […]” taken to tame the Muslim man. Riley talks of the ‘rescue narrative’ put in place by Western powers and media outlets, and delves into the many accounts of women interviewed by major newspapers and news producers to introduce the first representation and misrepresentation of the Muslim woman as the nurturer of future bombers or liberated from oppression through the lifting of the burqa. Sketchy pictures of women getting rid of their body covers are, to the author, clear examples of the cultural construction of femininity, whilst reinforcing “western superiority” and conferring western powers the authority to intervene in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Therefore, issues concerning the veil, women’s invisibility and patriarchy become symbols of oppression and as derived from the need for a humanist intervention on the part of the white man to liberate Muslim woman from the ‘brown man’.

Pictures of unnamed women appearing on newspapers and magazines, television and news reports contribute to “further dehumanise already covered bodies” despite providing “tantalizing images” that usually are shot to reinforce “implausible titles and articles” reported in the press (27).  Following this reasoning, ‘orientalised’ women are those who can nurture jihadists – their invisibility becomes a useful stratagem for terrorists that can cover up in burqas and blow everything up. They are victims but they can also been accused of killing people like Mrs Anthrax and Dr Germ, none of which have been referred to by their names in the news. In this first, chapter Riley wants to highlight how “Western media helps create, authorize, and buttress the guise of concern for women” although, “there is no reference to how these women may be endangered by the ‘democratic’ process put in place by the occupiers, a process ostensibly intended to liberate them” (37). Of course, as in any very shallow and short-sighted strategy, liberation seems to be limited to the establishment of dilapidated parliaments, shaky electoral systems and even shakier constitutions that seem to be a mix of Islam and Western rhetoric of democracy and equality for women. This initial chapter offers the theoretical framework of a transnational sexism based on the ‘orientalisation’ of the Muslim woman that has irremediably affected these women’s lives. The chapter also includes interesting statistics about the lack of schools and teachers as reported by Michael Parenti (17), the lack of drinkable water and the limited access to electricity.

The second chapter is perhaps the most interesting, although highly problematic. Here Riley talks about the representation of the Muslim woman as the ally of the Devil (Charrad, 1989). In this chapter, she introduces three main characters: Mrs Anthrax, Dr Germ and Osama Bin Laden’s wife. It seems as if the reader is invited to swing between definitions and representations. The process of dehumanisation of the woman at the hands of English-speaking media outlets are skilfully exemplified in the reports about Mrs Anthrax and Dr Germ whose identities are nothing more than pseudonyms linked to their devilish (or supposed so) activities. In the chapter these women’s lives are unravelled through alternative views, reports and another aspect of the stories offered by the mainstream media where the stereotypical coverage of the Arab woman is stressed and continuously reinforced. The conclusion of the chapter is perhaps the most problematic. In ‘Survival Sex’ Riley talks about the sinister devices set in motion by war. As history has taught us over and over again, war brings liberators and winners, war brings with it a heavy arsenal of men under continuous stress. War also makes civilians suffer and makes soldiers – potentially – inhumane killing machine with ‘high level of testosterone’ (71). Women in many parts of the world have gone through this ordeal, while  many of them still do. However, Riley makes the big mistake of highlighting how the West has ‘complete disregard for cultural prohibitions against these practices’ and the potential retaliations for women who become prostitutes or fall into the war sex-machine. These assertions become problematic under any perspectives, feminists, cultural and ethical. Cultural, religious and social unacceptability of prostitution are not an exclusive problem of the ‘Muslim’ woman. Although Riley’s intent is that of showing her indignation against the US Forces, there many well-documented cases of Catholic, Orthodox and even Buddhist women forced into prostitution by both State and non-State actors. Books such as ‘Half of the Sky’ and stomach churning movies like ‘ The Whistleblower’ are a proof of how ‘liberation forces’ being them tourists or the UN can turn into a lucrative business and an endless nightmare.

This line of reasoning continues in the third chapter where Riley introduces the story of Bibi Aisha,  who then becomes Aesha Mohammadzai or, ‘the girl with no nose’ as appeared on Time Magazine in 2010. The scholar goes through a very interesting comparison between the picture shot in 2010 and another, similar, shot in the early days of the Afghan-USSR conflict. Her detailed account of how the image is constructed and how it serves the purposes of the ‘rescue narrative’ is brilliantly presented. Some of the every-day reading practices emerge. It is almost impossible to not notice the hypocrisy of the photography, the message it sends to the public and how there is some form of monetary gain even in reporting despair through pictures. Although we are aware of it, reading about it is a wake-up call. Especially after reading that the photographer won monetary prizes. At this point, especially when the amount of the prize is mentioned (USD 10,0000) any reader is left thinking about how lucrative the ‘truth’ can be; if truth is. The surprise continues when other pictures are analysed and their meanings and significance are displayed and explained by the author. The traditional idea of Ingres’ ‘La Grande Odalisque’ seem to perpetuate in Western imagination through the pictured beauty of the girl without a nose who will be ‘saved’ by plastic surgery in California. At the same time, the picture itself perpetuates the rescue narrative, and the author also adds the question asked to a shelter worker by a photographer “How many were physically beaten”(81) as the perpetuation of the rhetoric of the bad ‘brown man’. For anybody with a media background and a great interest in Gender studies, journalists’ appeal to ‘pulp’ and little ‘juicy details’ are not new and they have unfortunately become a matter of extra sold copies and ‘scoop’. Through Riley’s indignation it becomes almost impossible not to see how journalism has moved from information to sensationalism. Perhaps more problematic is Riley’s intent to exculpate ‘Bibi Aisha’s husband and his barbarian acts of physical violence on the girl and his brutal act of throwing acid at her. The way she articulates her argument seems to almost excuse the girl’s husband and his family. She claims that the husband was not affiliated to the Taliban and therefore this girl was never really a victim of a regime, rather she served greater purposes; those of strengthening the salvation rhetoric (the rescue narrative) put in place by the Allied Forces. It should be noticed that Time Magazine never claimed the husband was a Taliban or that he was affiliated to the Taliban.  Although it is possible to understand where Riley is trying to go and what she is trying to highlight, the idea that a non-expert reader is going to form is that the Taliban regime is altogether a machination of Western invention and the Buddhas of Bamiyan (or Bamiwan) were never really blown up and that the Taliban weren’t so bad after all. Although a second and a third reading of the book can make any academic of Gender Studies understand where Riley is coming from, her accounts can become relativist and, potentially, dangerous. In this chapter especially Riley seem to stop wearing the clothes of the academic and puts on those of the activist by also championing the case of Aafia Siddiqui and her own ordeal between invisibility and visibility, guilt and mistreatment. The profile of this neuroscientist is sketched along with the many accusations coming from the CIA, the US and Afghan forces about her alleged affiliation to terrorism and illegal immigration in the USA. Again, a very interesting and potentially intriguing issue, becomes suddenly disappointing. Especially when asking “I wonder how many science-y fundamentalist Christians in the US are regarded as dangerous by the CIA” (94). This very sentence could mean that Christians cannot be scientists because they are ‘science-y’ or that the author is hinting at some plot between Christians in the US and the CIA. This sudden and very American-centric cynicism contributes very little to better knowledge and understanding of representation, body and media in an Iraqi and Afghan context. Throughout the whole book the reader never really knows if the focus is the Muslim woman as perceived by Western Media, if the target are the Allied Forces whose malign influence are deteriorating the lives of millions, Christians or non-Muslims. Chapter four is very much on the same line and the conclusion tries to sum up the whole intent of the work. The book has great insights but the overall impression one could gather is that it comes from a militant, a party-liner rather than from a feminist or a scholar of gender who wants to delve into the representation of the Muslim woman in popular American and Canadian culture; the impression is one of an ’Orientalism in reverse’ (Sadiq Jalal Al-Azm, 1981) where the author seems prone to universalising US Forces and address them as ‘the West’. In conclusion, it could be argued that each chapter is, in-nuce, a potentially great project that could lead to an in depth (and perhaps collective and multidisciplinary) study of representation, gender and agenda setting.


Chiara is completing her PhD in Warwick and works as International Media consultant for many International and UK based companies and charities.