Victoria’s Ethnocentric Secret – The Blue Bra

The title is compelling and sits in the faith section of the Washington Post, a respected mainstream media source. Who wouldn’t want to read “The Blue Bra Revolution”…so sexy…such a feminist idea….so Arab Spring,  but with that edgy, cool twist that the western audience craves.

And that’s the problem with the piece. The article is referring to an incident that took place in Cairo during a recent protest. A young woman was attacked and in the course of the attack her abaya was pulled away, fully exposing a blue bra. The author writes:

“Aside from the sheer brutality, I think what got to me was that she was wearing this gorgeous, sexy bright blue bra. Under her abaya. There was something so shocking about it, so unexpected. This person covered from head to toe demonstrated her beliefs through her choice of underwear. The blue bra said what I imagine her to be feeling: ‘I may be oppressed. I may not have rights. I may have to cover up my body and face. But you cannot destroy my womanhood. You can’t rob me of my femininity. You can’t take away my power.'” (Sally Quinn – The Washington Post 12/29/11)

I will not deal with the obvious wrong in the act against the Egyptian woman. There is no question that the force, violence, and resulting embarrassment was a violation and should be condemned. What I take issue with is the ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism that colors the entire article, an article penned by an outsider.

Through the author’s cultural lens we are given a passionate picture of a woman, oppressed, put down, forced to wear the abaya and hijab who in a courageous gesture wears a lacy blue bra. “The real her” The lacy, sexy, woman put down by men, forced to a life that screams “Let me out!”. “I may be abaya on the outside, but I’m Victoria’s secret on the inside!”  Wow. That doesn’t sound like the Egyptian women I know and love. It sounds like a stereotypical viewpoint that will now enjoy renewed support through this article.

The author is indulging in what has become the favorite pastime of many Americans: Interpreting and then prescribing meaning to the behavior, dress and inner cry of women and others in the Muslim world. Cultural imperialism much?

But that’s not enough. After indulging in the diatribe, in an unexpected leap she moves on. Her next victim? Mary Magdalene. She speaks of a new book (“brilliant” she calls it) that looks at the life of Mary Magdalene and argues that Mary Magdalene could well be the lover of Jesus.  The book imagines a conversation between Mary and Peter, the apostle. “You never truly saw nor knew me. You took the garments that I wore to be me, but you never recognized my true self.”  And then the lament by the writer of the Washington Post article “If only Mary had had a blue bra”

At this point, you as the reader (who have read some of my rants) know that I had enough. When will we in the west stop prescribing our culturally based views of freedom on the east? When will we, instead of pointing the finger, take a hard look at our culture and the things that we consider keys to freedom, and be willing to say “maybe we need to reconsider this”. When will we stop condemning the veil and abaya, pieces of clothing that are sometimes forced, and other times worn willingly,prescribing feelings and thoughts to the women who wear them when we have never spoken to them, we have never asked them? When will we stop whining about the veil and start speaking out against hook-up culture? What is our obsession with forcing our views of freedom down other people’s throats? When will we cease to re-write the stories of characters of the Bible to suit our insatiable appetites for sex and seduction? Freedom indeed!

Most of all, when will we display cultural humility, that “life-long commitment to self-analysis and critique” that would, instead of assuming the values and thoughts of another, ask!  And if the person is not available to be asked, as in the case of the Egyptian woman who has not yet come forward (and may very well not), not imagine her thoughts. After all – unlike Mary Magdalene, who can’t defend herself as she is dead, this woman is alive and perhaps even reading western media.

I was too upset. I needed help. I needed another opinion. So I sought it through my friend Lois. Lois has walked through life with me and knows my biases and quirks. She also sees the Muslim world through the lens of having grown up in the country of Jordan. Lois was the one who came up with the words that I couldn’t grasp, so passionate was I.

It is the need to interpret things through our own cultural grid that is troubling, and then the need to fit Christianity into a modern gridwork, and just how we try to alter things to fit our own filters.  It seems that instead of communicating across boundaries, it is easier to bring things within our own boundary of time and culture and interpret them from within those confines of safety.” And that was it. She got it.

When we choose to communicate and interpret only through our bias, we assign meaning to actions that could be way off base. When we ascribe viewpoints and feeling to people from an ethnocentric lens as opposed to a lens of cultural understanding we are on dangerous ground – no matter what respected media source we write for.

Bloggers Note: I urge readers to take a look at the section on women in “What a billion Muslims Really Think”. I believe it’s an important book and could be an eyeopener for many.  There are also a couple of other blog posts that you may find interesting. Another note, the term cultural humility was coined by two physicians, Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia as they looked at developing multicultural education for physicians. The concept is a good one and one that my colleague and I use often in cultural competency workshops. Read more here.

  1. On Burqas, Hijabs, and Charlie Sheen
  2. Challenging Assumptions
  3. Books that Inform

Amid Violence Against Women A Blue Bra Sends a Blue Bra Sends a Powerful Message 

49 thoughts on “Victoria’s Ethnocentric Secret – The Blue Bra

  1. I am so happy to have discovered your blog! After spending time in Egypt, and learning first hand about the culture, I came away enriched. My heart was opened in a way that I never expected.
    I was very fortunate to make the acquaintance of a young muslim woman, who was my tour guide for 3 days in Cairo. She wore a abaya as well as a head scarf. I was curious, but afraid at first to ask her about it. I felt as if I would be invading her privacy. Thankfully I realized that it would be foolish not to ask, for in asking I could learn, and perhaps shed some of my own cultural bias.
    What I learned from her over the course of three days was priceless.
    We become richer by talking to others about things we do not understand. Crossing boundaries, bridging cultures means having to ask the questions. Ignorance is not bliss, if I may be so cliche!

    Thanks for a fantastic rant!


    1. Jenni – thanks so much for coming by! Love that you love Egypt, and even more love that you were able to have a great conversation with this woman. When I do workshops for healthcare professionals on culture and healthcare I always stress the question part. I remember in my own life a cultural disconnect and the nurse who resolved it displayed empathy, curiosity, and respect….The curiosity piece is often downplayed or people are embarrassed to ask questions but don’t hesitate to talk about the situation outside of the persons hearing!! I appreciate so much your perspective and caring enough to comment. And you’ve heard the proverb right?? “Once you drink from the Nile you are destined to return!” So keep your bags packed.


  2. My daughter read this and the article and saw the picture and said “I wonder why she went out in just a bra and jeans, without a top”? Indeed why? Does seem a strange choice, but the more I thought about it, the more natural it seemed.
    Of course what follows is just a surmise on my part and probably wrong, but I need to share it.
    I said before that some women would prefer to die rather than show their hair, modesty is very important. So someone going out in a way that could endanger their modesty, must be willing to sacrifice that modesty.
    So this is what my view is, a bit controversial I think but I think this particular young lady knew that showing the brutality perpetrated on the protesters would in itself, not make as much of a difference as something else.
    She thought of what that something else could be, that would make the entire world sit up and take notice. So she boldly went out in her blue bra covered by an abaya. I don’t know how much of what followed, she expected or was ready fo,r but one thing did happen. She made the world sit up and take notice. To me, in my mind, she is a martyr, for she sacrificed that which was precious, her modesty.


    1. Do you think she didn’t have a top? I think she did. In one of the pictures I think it shows the fabric of the top pulled up over her. Also was she expecting that kind of brutality? I don’t think to that extent. I think given the situation people had experienced brutality but none that openly brutal toward women so I don’t think any of this was thought through. I think it’s as simple as that she was there, she was protesting and a violent act occurred. The fact that there was a blue bra was insignificant until the act of being dragged and kicked and having her abaya yanked over her in the process. At the same time, I agree with your last statement. She gave up a couple of things that were precious that day – reputation and modesty given the cultural norm.


  3. Great observations – when I first read Sally Quinn’s article, it made me furious, but I couldn’t quite articulate why. Your post, and the great comments here provided the necessary words. Perhaps I’ll soften my opinion about Sally, and hope she adjusts her “cultural lens”, but I’m not holding much hope.


    1. Mariem, thanks for this comment. I was furious as well and at first I couldn’t articulate at all. I just started writing and writing and….you get the picture! Today I had another moment of frustration when a Seattle business blog linked to my article and didn’t read it but assumed what it was about and asked the question “Should Victoria’s Secret get involved in the issue?” WHAT??? Are you kidding? I was incensed once again. I too would hope that Sally Quinn adjusts her cultural lens. In the meantime, thanks for adding your voice to this conversation!


  4. thank you for this post.
    thank you for pointing out that the west just labels without due consideration.
    wearing an abaya, a headscarf does not mean they are oppressed.
    It most of the time is a choice. Just as someone chooses to wear skirts all the time, or pants all the time, or jeans …

    i wear a headscarf. and I lived in Australia for 4 years. I have been to a few differnt countries and I wear my headscard no matter where. I have not had any instances of people looking at me quizically. a few yes. but those were understandable.

    Now during my time in Australia – people who came to know me and were comfortable discussing the headscarf did ask whether I am forced to wear it. and asked me why I wear it. asked me don’t I feel uncomfortable with it.
    All I simply could say to my friend Tim was: “why do you wear a shirt when you go out? why don’t you go just in your shorts?”
    Wha I tried to explain to him was that this was our choice. this was what we believed in. It does not mean we want everyone else to dress like we do. But what we ask is that people respect the way we dress. It’s just like an average western woman will no go out in their undergarment!!! Different people define decently dressed differently. For some of us, we feel comfortable covering up.

    When I say this I do have my issues about some people wearing the full hijab covering their face except eyes – or in some cases even the eyes. I agree that for me that looks oppression … so I empathise with westerners seeing the abaya as oppression.

    but as you have very nicely written out – let’s not assume things. and let’s not ridicule and mock people, their culture, their way of life…

    nice post :)


    1. I am so happy that you read this and provided this wonderful comment for all of us. I love the response you gave to your friend Tim – asking him why he goes out with a shirt – wonderful response. I also appreciate your willingness to see this from the view point of westerners – a gift of bridging cultures. You bring much insight into the conversation and your last sentence is so right on – “Let’s not ridicule and mock people, their culture, their way of life”. Mocking never helps build relationships. Thank you for being willing to speak through these comments.


  5. Love the passion that simply pours out of you here. I write my best too when something makes me passionate. The anger somehow makes my mind see more clearly and concisely and the right words pour out, like they have done for you here. I was going to refrain from commenting only because I am too tired. But I just had to, I love this post so much.
    I don’t wear a veil, It is not me, but I respect the choice of women who do. I know for many it is a cultural thing, there are women I know, who would die if they had to show their hair to a man outside their family. maybe this lady should watch Little Mosque on the Prairie.
    Arabs enjoy good lingerie, they also dress very well and smartly. I have often been surprised at the variety of lingerie available in the souqs and malls here, certainly never seen the like in India. Some of it has me quite open mouthed… yes even seen metal bras. Arab women take great pride in their appearance. Yes and they exercise their right to show their beauty of face, form and dress only to those whom they choose. To me that is truly exercising your rights. There are many Pakistani tailors here who whip up the most beautiful off shoulder dresses, which are worn by many traditional Arab women for parties and weddings but of course when they are outside they are covered by the abaya.
    Many of them could probably give a few lessons in dress, makeup and deportment to Sally Quinn too. I am not saying she must be badly dressed, just that they are really very well dressed. Whatever it is a person has the right to dress as they want, to reveal or to conceal, it should not be anyone else’s problem.
    If a statue of Mary came to life and started walking down a street in Washington, I wonder what Sally Quinn would have to say about her dress. No one has any problems with the way nuns dress. The other day I took a picture of a priest in India and suddenly realised how close his dress was to an Arab’s. Once more no offence meant, just saying it like I see it.


    1. I love your descriptions of fashion, beauty and lingerie – you have added exactly what I thought was missing from my post – describing to people what is so obvious when you live there. When I first moved to Egypt I was told: “When you are invited to a wedding – wear your finest and all your gold (which for me is not significant…!) You will still be underdressed” -so correct! Arab and Pakistani women have taught me volumes about dressing up and fashion in general. One of my huge regrets is that we dress up so little in this country. I miss it! And the lingerie….yes, you have described it perfectly. To assume that love of lace, lingerie, fabric and fashion is not present because someone chooses to cover it up to the outward world is ridiculous. Thanks for adding this piece – I always feel like your additions make the blog posts so much richer! Thank you.


  6. Thanks for this. I was very offended by Sally Quinn’s column (and wrote about it
    here), and I’m an American Christian who lives in Nashville TN, which is the buckle of the Bible belt. However, I’m a woman, and looking through my own cultural lens, I found Quinn’s column to be terribly outdated and myopic. To say a woman who was openly protesting in the streets of Cairo was somehow expressing her “empowerment” by her choice of underwear would be laughable if it weren’t so ridiculous.


    1. Southern Beale – thank you for commenting and linking to your post. Loved your post and left a comment on it. Loved the insight of this comment and the recognition of how ludicrous this concept of “empowerment” is. Would love for Sally Quinn to read both of our posts….maybe it will happen. Thanks for stopping by.


  7. After reading the blog, cyperbullying comes to mind. An occurrence that leads young people to commit suicide because they are publicly humiliated. Unfortunately, public humiliation and wrongful interpretations lead to unthinkable acts. It appears to be an increasing societal problem. When will we wake up and change our interactions (on any level)? Maybe you should write to the author of the article to increase her awareness. It is possible that she had good intentions and lacked the necessary awareness.


    1. I actually tweeted the article to her – but I think I will email. As I said to one reader today, I passionately wrote this and defend what I wrote but it would be great to enter into dialogue with her on this. Thanks for the encouragement and the great comment Petra!


      1. I liked what you had to say. I have learned so much about a culture foreign to me since I am reading your blog. Many issues, I have been ignorant towards previously. Ongoing dialogue is the only way we can learn from one another. Thanks for sharing such wealth of knowledge and insight, Petra


  8. Thanks, Marilyn! Perhaps the greatest gift I got from living in Pakistan all those years was the ability to get behind the veil and purdah and see life from the point of view of my Muslim friends. Another book: “I Speak for Myself:American Muslim Women on being Muslim.” It consists of 40 essays from a great cross-section of North American Muslim women.


    1. Mom – the book sounds great! I will look it up. You not only got behind the veil, you helped me to get behind it! I think especially of Jamila and meeting her, clad in her heavy burqa, then getting to know her and her amazing personality and struggles. Thank you!


  9. Brava! I doubt that any of us is fully free of bias and judgment . . . I know that one of my own is a bias against judgmental people, so where’s my cultural humility?? But when we assume a certainty about the feelings and values and beliefs of another — WITHOUT ASKING FIRST — and when those assumptions come solely from our own values and beliefs, we’re ALWAYS on dangerous ground. I can clearly recall three separate experiences of communicating across boundaries, two with American women who willingly chose to wear a veil and one with a sister-in-law of a woman who did. All three spoke of their gratitude to anyone who could accept a woman’s feelings of comfort with and appreciation for the veil for all it stood for in her family or cultural history. All three spoke of the pain of the judgment of others. None of these women felt oppressed or forced to wear the veil by others but chose to do so because it was meaningful to each. As you so well said, rather than assume the thoughts and feelings of another, if we ever hope to have authentic dialogue across differences, we must ASK. I’ve admired Sally Quinn’s writing in the past and my impression of her willingness to learn from others, so I hope this blog makes its way to her . . .


    1. Haha – oh how I relate to the “bias against judgmental people!” Thank you for the comment and for the stories of the women who let you into their world and how it changed your view. That is how it happens – person by person. You carry this spirit with you in all you do and all your work – Thank you.. I actually hope the article makes it to her as well.


  10. Marilyn I am so glad I found your blog. It is refreshing to read a point of view that is sensitive and based on an understanding of fact rather than pontification.

    It is sad and rather unfortunate that people choose to perpetuate a divide rather than seek to bring people together with more responsible reportage. Truth be told many Muslim women who live in my country (India) choose to wear the burqa, while it is also equally true that some are compelled and others expected to and hence comply… But isn’t that true of many cultures around the world, including several western cultures… long sleeves, stockings, longer hemlines, veils etc? Why then rail against one particular community of people who seem to have become the world’s favourite whipping boys. It serves to drive the wedge in deeper between the ‘them’ versus the ‘us’… or perhaps we want it that way.


    1. Averil – this is mutual! I’m glad I found you! And I couldn’t agree with you more about the many cultures around the world that have created dress, looks etc where women feel forced to look and be a certain way. One place that comes to mind is Phoenix, Arizona where some plastic surgery is a given once you hit middle age and one never knows if it’s a real or fake body part.
      But what struck me in your comment is your last sentence. I’ve really been thinking about the phrase “or perhaps we want it that way” – I think there’s some real truth to that which makes it even more troubling. Hmmm – more to think about. By the way – you may want to take a look at the post Bright Pink Razais written by Robynn Bliss. It’s about missing India! Thanks so much for the comment.


  11. Preach it Sista! Preach it!
    In the very insightful book, Cross Cultural Servanthood, Duane Elmer encourages us to “suspend judgement” –which essentially means the same thing as cultural humility. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t assign meaning. Don’t guess. Don’t interpret. Instead suspend judgement. Ask questions. Be curious. Learn. Learn. Learn.
    In Sally Quinn’s defense she likely speaks from the space of her own pain. We do that. We often assign our own emotions and hurts to another. Perhaps Quinn feels hidden and veiled and invisible. Perhaps she feels insecure and lonely. Perhaps she longs for a metaphoric stripping down and the revelation of who she truly is. But I should probably suspend judgement…


    1. I LOVED this! “longing for the metaphoric stripping down and the revelation of who she truly is…” The book sounds great – and the wisdom of suspending judgment is something I need to continue learning and growing in that area.


  12. Thanks for ranting, Marilyn! That was very insightful. I suspect we often impose our values to interpret others’ actions even within our own culture. It’s pretty risky to do so across major cultural and religious lines.


    1. Ruth – you are absolutely right – interpreting other’s actions…Robynn in another comment talked about “suspending judgment” – wise words. Thanks for commenting. Would love for you to think about doing a post on China and some of your life there!


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