Women in burqas get a bum rap in the Western media. Photographers portray them as silent statues, pillars of salt in flowing black robes. Cartoonists ridicule them as creatures of silent menace carrying who knows what beneath their ample garments.
The burqa — which is only required in some Muslim societies — is meant to shield the face and figure of women from the eyes of unrelated men. But, at least for Westerners, it conceals their humanity as well. It conveys submissiveness, or mindless patience, or perhaps the hostility of an impenatrable and mysterious culture. Never tenderness or grief. It creates an Other which could have come from another planet.
Breaking this stereotype is what makes the winning entry in the 2011 World Press Photo so humane and so shocking at the same time. The photographer, Samuel Aranda, a 33-year-old Spanish freelance, snapped it during demonstrations in Saná, the capital of Yemen. Government troops had just killed ten demonstrators and wounded others. The scene was chaotic, with people shouting and screaming, and in the midst of it, Aranda captured this woman cradling a wounded demonstrator, perhaps her son or her brother. A few moments later he was taken away. Aranda commented on his photo to the Spanish newspaper El Pais:
She is not weeping or screaming, but holds her relative in her arms while she waits for help. She reflects the strength of women. It’s not uncommon. I believe that the image we have in the West of Arab women as oppressed creatures is not altogether right. In Yemen, in the plaza where the huge demonstrations took place, the leaders of the revolution were women. In Yemeni society, it is they who bear the brunt of the action.
The photo is a stunning portrait of motherly grief which echoes centuries of Christian depictions of the dead Christ resting in the arms of Mary.
Had it been a painter who created the image, it would have seemed like a ironic jab at Christianity. But this unstaged moment captured by a camera underscores the universality of a mother’s love, of unrelieved grief, of solidarity with those who would otherwise suffer and die alone. It is a Muslim Pietà.
Too often, we in the Christian, or largely Christian West, regard the Islamic world as implacably alien. This stunning photo shows how much we have in common.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.