The Dutch province Overijssel has started a new campaign in which it puts the spotlight on the (indeed beautiful) landscape of Overijssel. On the front page of the website it says: See. The landscape is in you. And then below: A beautiful landscape. See, that is what the province Overijssel would like to devote itself to:

Public campaign of Dutch province Overijssel

Public campaign of Dutch province Overijssel

Now there are more people you can see on that website than the ones on the screenshot above but I would like to have your attention for the girl at the right: the one with the headscarf. Just like the other people she also features in the public campaigns on billboards:

Girl on billboard in Overijssel

Girl on billboard in Overijssel

And her picture has raised some eyebrows as we can read now in the Dutch newspaper Telegraaf. Their story is based upon a story of the Dutch magazine Elsevier. Someone has put a sticker on the billboard saying: Overijssel…is not Islamic. According to some anonymous complaints at Elsevier the campaign “lacks respect“. “What has Overijssel got to do with Islam? In particular when it concerns the landscape and culture of Overijssel“. According to a spokesperson of the province they received several other negative reactions about the campaign as a result of the girl’s picture on a brochure people received in their mail boxes. ‘We received about twenty critical reactions’ a spokesperson said. ‘We explain these people the persons featuring in this campaign are not models but actual residents of the province. Also the lady with the headscarf lives in Overijssel. Then they understand.’ Earlier, according to Elsevier, also a poster from telephone provider Ben with a Muslim woman with headscarf, was the target of the same action.

I don’t really know how big this anti-islam action really is nor do I know how many companies or local or national institutions use Muslims in their campaigns. It is certainly not the first time that it caused a (minor) debate. Last year the SNS Bank had a campaign in which we would see a woman with a headscarf.

Dutch Arabist Hans Jansen, known for his hostile views and distortions about Islam, complained at the bank stating that the type of headscarf of the woman refers to a non-liberal version of Islam (he also complained about ‘an Arab looking guy with a Muslim extremist beard’ who showed his feet which is ‘a standard insult in the Islamic world’.

Campaign 2008 SNS Bank

Campaign 2008 SNS Bank

In the case of the province of Overijssel the decision to include to Muslim woman has probably to do with sending a message to Muslims and non-Muslims alike that Muslims are part of the local community. In the case of the SNS Bank it is probably about appealing to a wider audience and potential customers. In both cases this might lead to a normalization of Muslims in the public landscape and I think a lot of the complaints against the campaigns are complaints against the normalization of Muslims in the public landscape. Some people don’t want Muslims or Islam to be part of the Dutch culture. Muslims do feature in public campaigns for a long time now but usually related to some exotic (halal) product or to some campaign related to integration of migrants or campaigns designed to promote social cohesion and public safety. The fact that they now appear in other type of (commercial) ads might indeed lead to further normalization. Nevertheless, there is something that troubles me about these ads. And that is in fact the headscarf. I’m not troubled about the fact that some Muslim women wear a headscarf, but I’m troubled about the fact that Muslim women in public campaigns always seems to wear a headscarf. Same thing seems to happen when you search for pictures of “Muslim woman” in Google images. On the first page you only see woman who, in different ways, covered themselves. With three exceptions. One Muslim woman who designs ‘decent garments for Muslim women’ and two models (one miss). This reminds me of something that Lila Abu-Lughod has written about in the Power of images and the danger of pity:

Eurozine – The Muslim woman – Lila Abu-Lughod The power of images and the danger of pity

one of the most distinctive qualities of representations – literary and scholarly – of the Muslim “East” has been their citationary nature. What he meant by this is that later works gain authority by citing earlier ones, referring to each other in an endless chain that has no need for the actualities of the Muslim East. We can see this even today in visual representations of the Muslim woman. I have been collecting such images for years, ones that reveal clearly the citationary quality of images of “the Muslim woman”. The most iconic are those I think of as studies in black and white. One finds, for example, impenetrable Algerian women shrouded in ghostly white in the French colonial postcards from the 1930s that Malek Alloula analyzes in his book, The Colonial Harem.[3] This kind of photography, Alloula argues, was dedicated to making Algerian women accessible, if only symbolically, to French soldiers, tourists, and the people back home. And then one finds in the late 1990s covers of American media, even highbrow, such as the New York Times Magazine or the Chronicle of Higher Education, that similarly depict women whose faces are hidden and bodies covered in white or pale Islamic modest dress. These are women from Jordan or Egypt whose lives and situations are radically unlike those of women in colonial Algeria, and unlike many other women in their own countries. One also finds in Alloula’s book of postcards images of women dressed dramatically in black, with only eyes showing. Again, almost identical images appear on the covers of the New York Times Magazine and even KLM Magazine from 1990 to the present, despite the fact that the articles they are linked to are on different countries: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Yemen. There is an amazing uniformity.

As she rightly points out, these images do not in any way reflect the variety of styles (and the meaning of that) of women’s dress. To what extent is that a problem? As Abu-Lughod explains:
Eurozine – The Muslim woman – Lila Abu-Lughod The power of images and the danger of pity

There are several problems with these uniform and ubiquitous images of veiled women. First, they make it hard to think about the Muslim world without thinking about women, creating a seemingly huge divide between “us” and “them” based on the treatment or positions of women. This prevents us from thinking about the connections between our various parts of the world, helping setting up a civilizational divide. Second, they make it hard to appreciate the variety of women’s lives across the Muslim or Middle Eastern worlds – differences of time and place and differences of class and region. Third, they even make it hard for us to appreciate that veiling itself is a complex practice. Let me take a little time over this third point. It is common knowledge that the ultimate sign of the oppression of Afghani women under the Taliban-and-the-terrorists is that they were forced to wear the burqa. Liberals sometimes confess their surprise that even though Afghanistan has been liberated from the Taliban, women do not seem to be throwing off their burqas. Someone like me, who has worked in Muslim regions, asks why this is so surprising. Did we expect that once “free” from the Taliban they would go “back” to belly shirts and blue jeans, or dust off their Chanel suits?

Always using veiled women in public campaigns (no matter how well intended they are) might in fact not lead to normalizing Islam and Muslim women. It does not do any justice to the diversity among these women and in fact sets them apart from other people. This tendency is even stronger because no other women from migrant groups are displayed with a religious symbol. We do occasionally see black women, Hindustani women but only in ethnic and integrations campaigns we may see them with religious symbols (and even then on very rare occasions). Of course, Hindu women or black women are not the focus for the integration debates; its the Muslims. But then only using Muslim women again singles them out as category of people ‘we’ have some issues with and moreover a specific type of Muslim woman: the ones with the headscarf. Are the ones without a headscarf not really Muslim? Or not really modest Muslims? Are these campaign designers not creative enough to come up with something else? They problably designed it knowing/hoping it would appeal? Why would they think that? And in these cases it did appeal in a particular way. What does this mean? Again, the image of the Muslims woman, the way the appear in public and her type of dress in public is one of the battle grounds on which the integration struggle takes place.