"Exhibiting You" - Story

Struggling to Understand

By: Brenda Oelbaum
Submitted: 07/02/2008

I decided to use my fear and work through it in my art. So I took images of women in hajib and burkas and juxtaposed them with images from popular culture that seemed less threatening and yet very similar visually.

One of the most powerful of the collections was my piece that included the image of Elizabeth Smart a young Mormon girl who had been stolen from her bed in the middle of the night by someone her parents had hired as a day worker. She was held in captivity for 9 months before she was found and returned to her family.

The incredible thing was that her kidnappers took her out to mingle amongst other people shrouded in a kind of make shift burka...held together with safety pins. There where even pictures taken of her in this shroud by someone atone of these events.

In many cases in the U.S., stories like this end up in tabloid newspapers, and the picture of her in her burka appeared on the cover of several magazines as recently as several weeks ago in honor of the anniversary of her return.

By juxtaposing these images of women of Muslim faith with Elizabeth Smart, I was able to really examine and illustrate in a visual way how the burka can work in many different ways. For a Muslim woman it may be choice, religious belief, empowerment, or put upon her by her by her family or her husband. But in the situation regarding Elizabeth Smart, she was a hostage, hidden, weak.

As someone living in North America, I often hear other Westerners say things about how horrible it would be to wear a burka, and how these Muslim women are being treated unfairly and in a manner less then man. But I have come to see it differently. Every one is different and until you have actually spoken to the woman in her burka do you know her true feelings.

Unlike Elizabeth Smart they, for the most part, are not held hostage, for some the burka is empowering and a sign of unity at a time when many people were (besides myself) fearful that all Muslims would be terrorists.

I have learned a lot from my work. I hope it will also make others think about this and realize that we must communicate and not be fearful or put our own judgments on others.

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