Essay: Cultural Appropriation, Lady Gaga, and the Burqa


One of the most recent instances of the Western appropriation of Muslim culture is Lady Gaga’s highly sexual song “Burqa.” The resulting backlash was vicious, but not well documented by mainstream media outlets. Without even going into the incredibly offensive #burqaswag display that followed the leak, this song and the arguments against it bring to light three key things about the United States’ perception of Muslim culture: First, this song’s lyrics are a prime example of the eroticism placed on anything deemed “other” by US American society. Second, the fact that most people do not find this song offensive illustrates the concept of “white men saving brown women from brown men” that is incorrectly labeled “feminist” by mass society.  Third, this song also reveals the tendency of US Americans to incorrectly interpret other cultures in the scope of their own paradigms.

In a letter to Lady Gaga published by the Washington Post,  college senior Umema Aimen asks the artist to realize that she needs to stop exoticizing the Muslim culture, as it is harmful to both women of this religion and all women in the United States. Aimen states that, “contrary to the portrayal in ‘Burqa,’  Muslim women cover [themselves] because [they] are not interested in flirtation.” The reader is reminded that the song lyrics (“Do you wanna see me naked, lover? Do you wanna peak underneath the cover?”) helps bolster the already debilitating rape culture that is often ignored in US American society. These lyrics imply that “no” really means “yes.” Aimen then elaborates on the subject, saying these lyrics “add to the perception that if a woman shows signs of refusal, she is just being titillating and playing hard to get; that she secretly wants to be pursued and seduced. This perpetuates violence against women … that by tearing off your clothes he is fulfilling [her] fantasy.” While this is problematic for numerous reasons, this notion proves to be even more destructive when applies to Muslim culture. The eroticization of the burqa is an unfortunately common sight, and has turned “such a sacred symbol of [Aimen’s] religion into an Tthe point of a burqa is to de-sexualize the wearer and “defy the male gaze,” forcing men to value the wearer’s intellect over her appearance, physically making this woman sexually inaccessible. However, the Western hypersexualization of the Muslim culture has dehumanized the wearer by implying that the very act of covering means they are sexually oppressed, or are sex toys just waiting to be revealed. This discrepancy can be linked to the burqa”s defiance of one of the main indicators of traditional masculinity–the ability to have sex with any woman he chooses. Perhaps this is why US American society hates the burqa? In a culture already rampant with images that objectify and diminish women, it is sad that this practice has been twisted to deliver this hegemonic message that makes men base consumers and women base products.

Along with the sexualization of the burqa, McKayla Reilly accurately explains the “savior” concept this song conveys in her article on This song enforces the notion that “Muslim women of all nationalities [are] outsiders who need to be liberated from their supposed perpetual prison.” The notion of “white men saving brown women from brown men” furthers the incorrect justification of colonialism and imperialism, and sets up a binary in which “civilized” men are the heroes and all others (the “brown men”) are the villains. Adam Abboud, one of hte people quoted in this article, clarifies that “Lady Gaga’s obsession with the burqa is not coincidental regarding the current foreign policy of the United States; her co-opting of the burqa feeds into a consuming Western stomach, hungry for images of oppressed Muslim women that need saving. These constructions function within the current framework of the war on terror, and produce complicit populations that allow occupation and war in the name of feminism.” This savior notion also prevents people from remembering that Muslim women can speak for themselves. As was said in lecture, the Revolutionary Association of the Women in Afghanistan has been around since 1977, and has actively worked to achieve social equality for women there. It’s funny, then, that politicians have often justified the invasion of other countries with the idea that the United States will be “freeing” them because they cannot do this on their own when clearly the case is otherwise.

Although this song is only one instance of such blatant cultural appropriation, it is important to take into mind the acceptance and the meaning behind the message offered. Lady Gaga can claim her notions were merely artistic, but it does not change the societal norms of making non-conformist cultures immediately exotic and fetishized. Hopefully, more discussion about the topic of global feminism will bring about a better understanding of the flaws in United States’ view of the rest of the world and subsequently produce a means to better the knowledge shared by society as a whole.






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