It remains unclear whether “Burqa,” the supposed leak from Lady Gaga’s forthcoming album ARTPOP that surfaced just in time for the end of Ramadan, is the real thing (Gaga’s publicist didn’t respond to requests for comment). But the outrage the track stirred up across the Internet is certainly real, and it fits into a bigger pattern of Gaga’s use of the title garment as fuel for her controversy-driven brand.
The song starts like something from a Tarantino score—but by the time the beat drops around the one minute mark, the vibe has changed to something more Skrillex than Spaghetti Western. It’s the lyrics, though, that raised eyebrows—“I’m not a wandering slave / I am a woman of choice / My veil is protection for the gorgeousness of my face” and the bridge, “Do you want to see me naked lover? Do you wanna peek underneath the cover? Do you wanna see the girl who lives behind the aura?” (The use of “aura,” listed as the title of the track on some of the sites where the alleged leak appears, has a second meaning here—in Islam, the term awrah denotes intimate parts of the body that must be clothed, and is used in the Qur’an in reference to both men and women.)
This isn’t the first of Gaga’s ventures into what she’s termed “Burqa Swag.” At London Fashion Week in September 2012, the pop star opened Philip Treacy’s show dressed in a transparent neon pink burqa-inspired garment, sparkly underwear and platform boots visible underneath. Gaga’s outfit after the Treacy show sparked controversy for its similarity to the burqa—or, more accurately, the burqa’s less-conservative cousin, the niqab—paired with a clutch with the c-word on it. Also last fall, a track—allegedly by Gaga—called “Cake Like Lady Gaga (Burqa Swag)” leaked, and though the burqa was only actually mentioned in one line (“Burqa swag like Lady Gaga”), the repetitive and expletive-heavy lyrics led many at the time to wonder whether it was all a big parody.
Of course, the idea of “burqa swag” runs against the ideal of modesty the garment is intended to protect, but Gaga is hardly the first to use this juxtaposition for shock-value fashion. Back in 1996, the designer Hussein Chalayan attracted controversy for showing models in niqabs cut to varying lengths, the shortest of which left the models genitals exposed. Karl Lagerfeld has referred to his dark sunglasses as “a burka for a man.” The late Alexander McQueen sent a chador (a cloak that is like a burqa but can leave more of the face exposed) attached to a corset and birdcage down the Givenchy runway in the 90s, and used the garment again in 1999, at a time when the role of women in Afghanistan was the stuff of frequent headlines. “I’m just showing their plight in the world,” McQueen told Vogue at the time.
Many believed the motivation behind Tamil singer/rapper M.I.A’s choice to wear a niqab on the red carpet in 2010 was similarly political. She wore the outfit, decorated with artwork from a recent single, just after the ban on the full veil passed in France. The ban on burquas and niqabs has been upheld despite waves of riots.
Others have used the burqa and niqab to illustrate the power of covering the body in a world that has become progressively less and less surprised by nudity. In 2010 at Art Basel Miami, the artist Olympia Scarry went to an event called “The Muse is Nude” dressed in a Riccardo Tisci-designed Givenchy burqa. Surrounded by naked people, she explained, “I think I was more interested in the body being covered as opposed to full nudity.”
In the case of “Burqa,” critics abounded, partially because on the new track, Gaga (if, indeed, it is Gaga) sings, “Enigma pop star is fun, she wear burqa for fashion, it’s not a statement as much as just a move of passion,” making clear her use of the garment as a source of exotic titillation. This move is more loaded, though, than the meat dress, or the gun bra, or the song about being in love with Judas, or even that time she made the Pope mad. But considering her track record, this song isn’t really out of character for a pop-star who thrives on a particularly visually-driven brand of controversy. There are few garments as symbolic and polarizing as the burqa, after all.
Even before this latest development, Gaga has garnered criticism from Muslim groups, Western bloggers, and fringe activists alike for her use of the burqa (among other things). The star cancelled a show in Indonesia last year facing threats from an extremist group called the Islamic Defenders Front, which has called her a “kind of devil.” Western bloggers condemning the new song stopped short of calling Gaga a devil, but they did lambast Gaga’s sexualization of the burqa and lack of consideration for the lives of the women who wear it, arguing it’s not her symbol to play with. “Instead of giving insight into a heritage that already exists, she superimposes her own desires—to be seen as sexual in a specific way—onto women who never asked for it,” writes Carmen Rios.
Considering the spread of a song like “Burqa” across the net, or the even more extreme case of the movie “The Innocence of Muslims,” which provoked riots by blaspheming the prophet Muhammad, it might come as a surprise that earlier this summer, a Pew study of 39 countries found that Muslims with access to the Internet were more likely to have favorable views of Western culture than non-Internet users. But it’s not so surprising when one considers that the internet reaction to the song— a rejection of Gaga’s superficial, fetishistic treatment of the burqa— actually ends up serving as a pretty model example of tolerance.