Judging a magazine by its cover or The social life of a thing, part I: The red veil

Judging a magazine by its cover or The social life of a thing, part I: The red veil

This post is the first of a summer series dedicated to Life‘s 1955 “Great Religions Part IV: The World of Islam” issue. The texts, images, and overall packaging of this collectible offer a fascinating window into post-WWII American representations of the peoples, cultures, and ancient-to-modern histories of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

by Katherine Blouin

About two years ago, while browsing through one of the second hand/vintage stores that had recently opened in the fast-gentrifying Toronto East End, I found myself attracted to a particular issue of the American magazine Life whose title was “Great Religions Part IV: The World of Islam”. The cover was almost entirely red. It featured a smiling young woman wearing a Tikka headpiece, earrings, and the traditional red and golden South-Asian marital veil. The caption read “Moslem girl of Pakistan”. The issue was dated from May 9, 1955.

Life May 1955 Cover

The first owner of the magazine was “Mrs L. Hurwitz”, a subscriber who lived on Ava Road, in Cedervale, that is in one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighborhoods (funnily enough, the house, described by the real estate agent’s an “amazing 5-bedroom home sitting on a tree-filled lot” recently sold for a “modest” 2.3 million $). Cedervale was also already at the time home to an important Jewish community, which, based on her name, Mrs Hurwitz’s household might have belonged to. How long did Mrs Hurwitz hold on to her pile of magazines? Did she get rid of it herself or were they sold after she passed away? In what exact circumstances did the issue make its way from posh, post-WWII Cedervale to today’s fast-gentrifying East End of the Danforth? Clearly the shop owner had bought a bunch of vintage magazines somewhere in town. As for the rest, I had no clue. But there it was, a 1955 feminine, bridal, and veiled American take on Islam, reigning supreme on top of a pile of other old magazines, surrounded by country vinyls, clip earrings, hippy woolen ponchos, locally-made organic soaps, and old Fisher Price toys.

In 1955, the retail price of Life was 20¢. Mrs Hurwitz probably paid a bit less as a subscriber. The Danforth vintage shop was now asking 10$ for it. A hipsterish price, but not a shocking one. I couldn’t resist.

I brought the issue to my office, and it has been lying next to my desktop ever since, covered by a fluctuating pile of more urgent paperwork. Now that the school year is finally over, and that my schedule is allowing me to get back to more intensive research and writing, I thought the time was ripe to have myself a treat and turn this gem of a time capsule into a series of posts. Through them, I hope to explore how the texts, images, and overall packaging of this collectible offer us a fascinating window into post-WWII American representations of Islam, as well as of the peoples, cultures, and ancient-to-modern histories of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In other words, I will attempt to pull an Arjun Appadurai and reflect on the “social life” of this particular thing.

So let’s get started, shall we?

As the title reads, the issue is part IV of a series of five entitled to “The World’s Great Religions”. It was released after Part I Hinduism, Part II Buddhism, and Part III Religion in the Land of Confucius. Part V focused on Judaism.

Wait? Isn’t something missing, you might ask. Where’s the issue on Christianity?

Well, get ready for some exciting editorial twist: Life did indeed publish an issue on Christianity. But it did so later, that is just in time for Christmas 1955. In this case though, the issue is not linked to the previous series. Rather, it is said to a “Special issue” that corresponds to “Two issues in one” and, for that reason, was sold 35¢ instead of 20. What a deal! And what a treat!


Life’s “Great Religions of the World” series and the “Christianity” special issue (photo: ebay)

The overall set was published over a period of 8 months (April 4 to December 23, 1955). The order in which the issues were published is, in itself, telling. One can observe a “progression” from what stereotypically qualifies as polytheism (Hinduism) to eastern “philosophies” (Buddhism, Confucianism) to monotheism (Islam, Judaism, Christianity). Similarly, the issues move from so-called “Eastern” (Part I-IV) to “Western” (Part V and special issue) religions, this to the detriment of any chronological logic. The special status of the issue on Christianity – and the absence of text other than “LIFE” on the cover – also indicate that this last “religion” has, for the magazine’s editorial team and what they saw as their main audience at least, a “special” status.

In addition to this, the covers betray a gendered subtext. Three covers feature pictures of human beings. In all cases, the subject is a female one (a child/young teenager, a “girl” dressed as a bride, a “mother”). The cover captions respectively read “Vigil at Indian festival of light” (Part I, Hinduism), “Moslem girl of Pakistan” (Part IV, The World of Islam), and “Jewish mother blesses Sabbath light” (Part V, Judaism). All female subjects are portrayed in a ritual context (Diwali candle burning; wedding ceremony; Sabbath light blessing); their bodies, and especially their head and face, are adorned with accessories that would qualify as “exotic” or “traditional” among white, North American audiences in 1955: Head veils, Tikka headpieces, face painting, embroidered fabrics. In two cases, we see burning candles. The three remaining covers represent male gods: Buddha (statue), depictions of “Earth Gods” (painted festival boats), Jesus of Nazareth (crucifix). These covers thus represent the divine realm is a male dominion, whereas the female plays a central ritual role in the (re)production of the relationships between the human and the godly.

In the case of the cover picture of the issue on Islam, the identity of the generic “Moslem girl” (called “Pakistani Moslem” in the table of content) is actually specified in the caption to another picture that can be found inside the issue (p.81). Her name is “Raiza Khanum” (Khanum is actually a Persian title meaning ‘lady’ that is used as a polite way of referring to a woman in Pakistan/Afghanistan, so it is not a family name; for this reason, I’ll hereby refer to her as Raiza), and she was pictured, it is said, during a mock wedding “enacted by Pakistani girls”.

Raiza other pic

Raiza Khanum, the bride of a mocked wedding “enacted by Pakistani girls” (Life, May 9 1955, p.81)

Raiza, we learn in the caption to that latter picture, “wears a gay scarf used for festive events” (my italic). What the caption doesn’t say, however, is that red and golden saris and veils are traditionally worn by both South Asian Hindu and Muslim brides (red is the colour of the planet Mars, which is believed to oversee marriages; it is also associated with the rising sun, and thus symbolizes prosperity and fertility). They are absolutely not, in other words, a sign of a woman’s Muslim identity, but rather an indication that she is getting married and that her wedding includes a traditional, South Asian component. Thus Kim Kardashian’s recent – and controversial – red-themed photoshoot for Vogue India has, from a South Asian perspective, a clear bridal touch.


Kim Kardashian in Vogue India, March 2018

The Life cover picture is, therefore, a cliché. It is a cliché because, well, the eroticization (as well as fetishization, and stigmatization) of veiled, Muslim – and more generally “Oriental” – female bodies is an old Orientalist trope, about which a lot has been written, and which is still very much alive. From the theft of Tanit’s veil in Flaubert’s Salammbô (studied notably by Mary Orr) to the Enlightenment allegory of the Veil of Isis, to Orientalist painting, to public “de-veiling ceremonies” staged by French colonial authorities in Algeria, to recent public debates regarding the presence of “veils” or “headscarfs” (that is, let’s be real here, a metonymic way to refer to visibly muslim women) in “secular”, public spaces (a recent case of which involved a candidate of the French version of The Voice), the ability to access – and control – what exists behind a women’s veils has been an ongoing obsession in Europe, North America, and Oceania for a long time.

To the average reader of Life in 1955, Raiza’s veiled portrait must have been experienced as exotic. It must also, somewhat, have felt a bit familiar too. Why? Two words: Virgin. Mary.

Indeed, Jesus’ mom is commonly represented wearing a veil, and while the typical Catholic Mary wears blue and white, its Orthodox version is dressed – and veiled – in red and gold. In this case, the chromatic convention expresses the “royal”, divine status of Mary, who is said to belong to the House of David. For in the ancient Mediterranean, purple (also called “Tyrian red” for its redish colour) garnments – all the more so the ones embroidered with gold – were very expensive, and thus generally the prerogative of royal and religious élites (Sarah Bond has written a handy post on the topic).

The parallel between Raiza’s picture and Orthodox Mary struck me when I was cooking one night. The thing is, I have been accumulating a nice number of “Virginal” icons over the years, and these cover a nice geographical and denominational spectrum (I like to rationalize this particular taste of mine by the fact that the iconography and cult of Mary is, in many ways, a Christianized version of those of Isis, Artemis, and more broadly of several ancient mother goddesses). It is the case of a close-up, plasticised depiction of the Virgin I was blessed enough to buy several years ago on a small stand right next to the entrance of the Coptic quarter in Cairo (call it tacky as much as you want, I find it absolutely amazing a catch; and if ever you wonder, no, it is not a toilet seat cover). I also have an Armenian icon featuring the same veil, and the icon painter’s workshop I visited in Athens recently featured several similar depictions.

IMG_1174IMG_1175Life May 1955 Cover

Coptic (left) and Armenian (center) icons of the Virgin Mary; Life’s May 9, 1955 cover

In my next post, I’ll focus on the specific section to which the second picture of Raiza belongs. For now, I’ll end by pointing out that the person who took her picture is American photojournalist David Douglas Duncan (the authors of the text and captions of the section on Islam are not specified). According to a profile put online by Life on the occasion of Duncan’s 100th birthday (2016), the WWII soldier-turned-photographer is particularly famous for his pictures of the Korean and Vietnam Wars; he also covered the end of the British Raj.

When it comes to assessing the potential biases and subtexts of magazine photographs, we ought to assess what part of their perceived effect stems from the artists’ own work, and what part results from the overall journalistic product they are embedded in (that is the organization of pictures in a documentary whole, and, especially, their definition through captions, and relationship to the main text). Some of Duncan’s photographs feature in the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center’s aria windows. The online “From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows“, provides some context to Duncan’s complicated relationship with LIFE’s editorial choices:

In 1946, just one month after discharge from the military, Duncan was hired by Life magazine to be its correspondent to the Middle East, a position he held until 1956. The magazine sent Duncan all over the world to cover important events, including the end of the British Raj in India, various cultures of Africa, Afghanistan, and Japan, and conflicts in both the Middle East and—most notably—Korea. His photographs and captions reflect the viewpoints of ordinary people as well as those in power. While working for Life, Duncan grew increasingly frustrated when his images were used to illustrate articles by writers with whom he strongly disagreed. So in 1951, he published This Is War!, his own photo-narrative of the Korean War. Since then he has published 25 photography books on a number of subjects.

The artistic quality of Duncan’s photojournalistic work cannot be doubted. Yet in the context of the issue that interests us here, his cover portrait of Raiza comes across as yet another iteration in a long-standing series of iconographical fantasies about the “Orient”. Thought relatively bare, the cover as a whole is faithful to Orientalist tropes according to which the “World of Islam” (for whatever it means) is an exotic, feminized, virginal, passive, and ancient, “frozen in time” space that sharply contrasts with the familiar, male, conquering, active, and forward-moving “West”.

In what context did Duncan take the picture of Raiza? How did he get access to what seems to have been an all-female “mock wedding”? Why was this picture chosen for the cover? And by whom? I wasn’t able to find any answer to these questions. I now pray that Duncan will somehow stumble upon this post, and feel generous enough to share some of the back story with us.

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