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Cardi B in Red Sea

While wandering through the mall, a popular pastime in Saudi Arabia, my cousin and I found ourselves face-to-face with a remarkably large photo of Cardi B, alluring us to “Sport the Unexpected” with the newest line of Reebok sneaker. We knew her music, though we dared not repeat it; we admired her activism and feminism, though we knew it opposed our social values; we enjoyed her fashion, though we knew we could not publicly dress like her. 

There she was, in a skinny jeans, seated on one of those midcentury salon chairs, her rainbow hair still in curlers, wearing golden necklaces and belts, a forest green robe, and her gaze directed at the viewer. Behind her, two cropped and obscured squares denoting where, in other countries, two framed images of women, familiar advertisements in the American salon, and rather unoffensive but for their exposed upper chest. Censored, too, is Cardi B’s exposed midriff. 

The composition is symmetric with three apple green chairs. The background wall is divided horizontally with a dark forest green color on the bottom part and a floral wallpaper on the upper part. Her pose in the photograph reflects female empowerment through her confidence, boldness and the way she is looking beyond ‘the looking glass’ at the viewers and passers-by. She glances carelessly but provokingly; her eyes are challenging the norms of the society. The way she is posed reflect strength and playfulness simultaneously; being in a hair salon, doing her hair and nails, a popular feminine practice, at the same time not looking traditional or feminine in terms of the way she is dressed and posed, saying both; yes I can be feminine and feminist. She is representing an image of a strong woman who have a choice, a right over her own body. 

As I looked at the photo, admiring Cardi B’s fancy and eye-catchy manicure, I recalled an incident that took place in 2012. While shopping in a mall, a woman wearing burqa stopped by the religious police for indecency. Her crime? Her bright colored nail polish. The men demanded she leave the mall or remove her nail polish at spot. She recorded the whole scene, and the video instantly went viral. What, it seemed to ask, are the socially acceptable measures of women appearances in public? Do stranger men have the right to control how stranger women dress and look in public? Should women willingly obey? Should they resist? 

The Saudi Arabian woman was the subject of intense and tireless debate in the near past, from the start of the Islamic Awakening (Al-Sahwa) in the 1980s until roughly few years ago. What, men asked, is her role? Her duty to the family, to the home, to the private sphere? Must she be protected or guarded? Or perhaps guarded against? These ideas were discussed in mosques, schools, universities and sometimes privet houses, often by men, and often with the conclusion that keeping women at home was the best way to prevent them from seducing men into sin, thus creating a public image of women as objects to be desired. That is not to say that women did remain at home, but rather that the image of a woman’s place in the public consciousness is her home, protected, covered and objectified.


That idea, up until recently, was evident in most of public advertising where printed advertisements that featured female models were censored and covered in black or harshly blurred to the point that viewers cannot see female models’ faces. From my perspective it implied that women have no face in public. For this reason, the image of Cradi B startled me at first, because around five years ago, you would not see a female’s face in an advertisement in public spaces. Mainly, all advertisements with female models were completely obscured for religious and social reasons. The presence of males dominates the public sphere, where they have the right to be in public places, while women did not. 


It is interesting how a society, once conservative; blurring female images in public, teaching little girls to cover their faces and whisper when they speak, have changed abruptly to show a wall tall photograph of a seductive woman looking straight at you, at that past, at those values. How does a representation like this influence the women who grew up through those taught conservative values?  

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