Body-talk and the limits of Islamic erotica (Part 1: The fans)

In March of 2010, two popular blogs featured articles concerning a body of particular concern these days: the female Muslim body. Although the subject of discussion was “Islamic Erotica,” it was nevertheless the Muslim body that was speaking. Writing in The Daily Beast, for example, Betwa Sharma described how Muslim women’s bodies are talking about resistance. Exploring the prohibition of nudity in Muslim art, Sharma introduced her readers to a few aspiring artists whose representations of naked bodies have been branded as artistic acts of defiance against religious restrictions.

For Sharma, these young and daring Muslim artists are breaking ground with the loud voice of nude, specifically Muslim, bodies. Menachem Wecker takes a similar (albeit less researched) tack in Houston Belief highlighting the work of Islamic Erotica’s creator, Makan Emadi. In his piece, Wecker celebrates Emadi’s artistic representations of popular American actresses including Angelina Jolie and Marilyn Monroe wearing long black veils. In an interview with the Irani-American artist, Wecker provides a polemical pulpit from which Emadi lays siege on the “civilizational” divide between a freer, monolithic “West” and an oppressive “East.” Wecker describes Islamic Erotica as “an aesthetic representation of religious reductio ad absurdum – of extending aggressive censorship and modesty to absurd conclusions.”

The birth and apparent celebration of Islamic Erotica underscores a broad pattern in which the Muslim female body is doing an awful lot of talking. Immediately after 9/11, for example, Afghan women’s fully-covered bodies spoke loudly to the American public via Laura Bush, who attempted to justify her husband’s invasion of Afghanistan on their behalf. In this case, the burqa-covered bodies of Afghani Muslims represented all that was wrong with Afghanistan and all that was right with America. Since then, there has been no shortage of tasteless and dubious critiques of Islam and Muslims that use Muslim women’s bodies as their soap box.

But all of this body-talk relies on one basic dichotomy: freedom and oppression. Whether Laura Bush, Bill Maher, or Makan Emadi, all agree on the central idea that Muslim women’s bodies tell us a great story about who’s truly oppressed and who’s truly free. Indeed, it seems that the female Muslim body has almost come to stand for oppression: scarcely an image exists in which a veil says anything but women’s inferiority. Islamic Erotica is no exception in this regard; central to all the artists discussed is the basic tension between freedom/nudity and oppression/veil. Tempting as it may be (Muslims included), reliance on this age-old approach fails to account for the complexity of women’s lives and severely limits our understanding of the experience of freedom.

If one takes the artists behind Islamic Erotica and their fans seriously, the answer appears to be “yes.” In their world, one sharply divided along Oriental/Occidental lines, the veiled female Muslim body speaks oppression. Conversely, where women are permitted to expose their bodies, the language expressed is one of freedom. According to this logic, Islamic Erotica represents a critical challenge to the veiled body in which freedom is the privilege of the exposed.

One of the basic problems with such a narrow reading of Islamic Erotica is that it is grossly ethnocentric. According to the dichotomous interpretation of writers like Wecker, everything “good” with the art reflects all that is “good” in the West. Indeed, the only contribution provided by the East is its distinctively oppressive culture depicted by the veiled portion of Western women’s bodies. Islamic Erotica thus offers a unique opportunity for Western spectators to applaud their own civilizational values and engage in inconspicuous acts of cultural narcissism. Western audiences have few reasons not to support it given that it allows them to both condemn the injustice of the East (represented by the oppressive veil) and celebrate the freedom of the West (represented by all that is unveiled).

Then there’s the problem of audience. Assuming that these artistic acts of rebellion are speaking to Muslims about religious prohibitions, many supporters fail to appreciate the fact that the bodies of Islamic Erotica are also speaking to them. Given women’s long and difficult struggle in the U.S. for equality (voting rights, economic rights, etc.), it seems cheapening to celebrate Angelina Jolie’s exposed leg as a symbol of freedom. Even if we stick to the idea that Islamic Erotica concerns freedom of expression, are the bare bodies of pop stars and models – women who hardly represent the experience of most women in the U.S. – our best representatives? This, to me, suggests an interpretive blind spot in which the logical flipside of the veiled body – the unveiled body—goes under-analyzed. Freedom is taken for granted.

There is another interpretive lapse among Islamic Erotica’s supporters – despite their focus on the veil as an object of oppression, writers like Sharma and Wecker fail to recognize that in the creation of the “erotic,” the veil is still in the picture. Throughout Emadi’s gallery, the veil provides its own unique sensuality and is constitutive of a voyeuristic experience in which women’s bodies speak the language of erotica. By ignoring the role of the veiled body in the production of eroticism, Islamic Erotica’s supporters are failing to see the complexity of an experience that ironically defies the freedom/oppression dichotomy they suppose it promotes. Veiling is oppressive. Veiling is liberating. Veiling is sexy. Veiling, in short, is much more than we think it is.

Michael Vicente Perez is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Michigan State University. His research concerns questions of displacement, nationalism, and human rights among Palestinian refugees. Michael is the former senior editor for Islamica Magazine and is currently teaching at Lansing Community College in Michigan. This article was originally featured on on May 7, 2010.


  • asmauddin says:

    I apologize for the trouble posting. Next time you have any issues, please email me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

    I checked out your link and noticed the polls in your sidebar re Sobia’s piece – curious to hear the results when they’re in!

  • emaanwahaj says:

    sure, will get back with results.

  • emaanwahaj says:

    right. i tried commenting twice already, and it doesnt get posted. now i just direct to my interpretation of islamo-erotica:

    but to summarize: to me, this genre is not about hijab being a symbol of oppression or liberation to the outside world, as per the direction of western meanings, i.e angelina jolie bare legs – liberation. to me it is more about the woman herself. a liberation of herself, even when inside that piece of fabric. to realize, accept and express her sexuality without being scared of the preassumptions of the other, the men, or the husbands.

  • Thanks for mentioning my article in your post. I fear that you misunderstood my point. I certainly was not celebrating Emadi’s work, but was remaining agnostic on the matter. If I was celebrating anything, it is Emadi’s guts and provocative interpretations of Islamic traditions, but that makes the work newsy, not ‘good.’ My objections to your interpretations of my comments aside, I appreciate your bringing them to the attention of your readers, and I’m thrilled that the discussion is continuing on a very important subject. I’m a big fan of Islamica Magazine, and I would welcome further discussion with you offline. (My email is easy enough to find.)

    Menachem Wecker

  • Saadia says:

    I agree that its too easy to buy into the dichotomy – especially for political reasons that tend to divide the West and the East, create stereotypes on both sides, and put women’s bodies in the center of conflict.

    At the same time, when people in the West have feared or experienced an imposed or aggressive Islamic revolution of some sort (like perhaps when there was an Islamic movement/takeover in Algeria, a former French colony), it may create a fear or discomfort with anything that symbolizes that movement, like the veil. It would be interesting to see how that conflicts with movements arising from the desire for justice and the symbols and methods that are employed (whether they are legitimate or not).

    I personally agree with commentators like Muhammad Asad who say that clothing should be appropriate to the context and environment. He doesn’t interpret the Quran to say a specific type of covering is required, but that it depends on what is needed for self-protection (commentators also say the weather and self-beautification are important).

    Frankly, I personally don’t think that the face veil is suitable for Western countries, where public identification is a big part of being a citizen. Also, although I think that veils can help with privacy and protection against men in the chaotic streets of some Muslim countries, women might feel limited by the burqa.

    But it is unfortunate when these stereotypes affect women who choose to cover themselves, at least their hair, out of personal belief, to symbolize their identity, or to protect themselves. They may be doing it out of a religious conviction, but at the same time its their bodies. Regardless of any debates, I believe women have the ultimate say and a self-interest in what they choose to wear.

  • Saadia says:

    “to me it is more about the woman herself. a liberation of herself, even when inside that piece of fabric. to realize, accept and express her sexuality without being scared of the preassumptions of the other, the men, or the husbands.”

    eeman, that is an interesting thought.

  • emaanwahaj says:

    It is sad really. I dont know how it works, or why such a conclusion is reached.  A burqa-fied woman is associated with the modesty of an angel. As if that very physical body inside is missing. A body that is capable of all the sexual pleasures and needs. Too much is expected of it. And too many disappointments are associated. And this is part of why i hate the burqa.

    when and where i feel the need to cover, i do. when and where i feel the need to protect myself, i do. so what’s the problem? where i feel safe, why do i still have to show that i am scared?

    Saadia, i was really curious about the Mohd. Asad translation/commentary. had heard a lot. unfortunately, i havent come across anything radically exciting of different. still waiting.

  • Saadia says:

    emaan: well I think the idea is for women to have a place where they can relax and be comfortable – and to protect themselves against harmful elements in public places.

    When women are too restricted, the problem might be in the environment and what is expected and tolerated from men.

  • tlen says:

    Where in the Quran does it state that the veil or the burqa for that matter are required dress for women? The veil is viewed as oppressive when it mandated by the government(men).

  • tucompay1976 says:

    Dear Tlen,

    I think your point about what the Qur’an states is important.  I agree that mandates about dress enforced by any government runs the risk of being oppressive. However, Muslim governments do not bear this burden alone.  Most modern governments enforce mandates concerning dress that are linked to social norms about modesty.  In the U.S., for example, nudity (with the exception of Portland, as I’m told) is strictly prohibited.  Now, it’s clear that restrictions are not as heavy in the U.S. as they are in say, Saudi Arabia.  But I mention this because I feel we often lose sight of the bigger picture. 

    There are countless societies that, prior to colonial contact, lived according to very different ideas about the body that did not require covering it the way we do here in the U.S.  They, in my opinion, were not “freer” than we are.  They were also not immodest.  They were simply living life differently.  Discussions of the body should try to see the bigger picture.  I fear we too often forget that there is a much bigger world we are part of that we can learn from.


  • tlen says:

    I fear we too often forget that there is a much bigger world we are part of that we can learn from.


    I tend to agree with your broader point.

    However, we’ve gone from the extreme of the niqab,  to your extreme of nudity. A happy ‘medium’ will suffice. I would hope you think that some mimimum standard of govt mandated dress is appropriate, as I wouldn’t want to see a nudist at say—the bank or my local Thai restaurant.

    Saudi ‘emo’ girls busted by religious cops: report

  • tlen says:


    forgive the typos…

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