Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Al-Qaeda's (Supposed) Ladymag, and How It Connects With American Women's Magazines

The cover of Al-Shamikha, the "Jihad Cosmo." Love the color scheme, fresh for spring! 

Those crazy extremists! News outlets are reporting on Al-Shamikha magazine, or the “Jihad Cosmo,” supposedly a women’s rag backed by Al-Qaeda. (It came to me, though, via an e-mail from my aunt, subject line "Muslim Bombshells.") Of course, the reports call out the nuttier side of it: advice for marrying a mujahideen, wearing the full-face niqab to protect skin from sun damage, and a feature on martyrs’ wives.

It’s news because a women’s magazine seems like such an unlikely place to spread a wider, uglier agenda. But pointing and gawking belittles the ways in which women’s magazines have long been an effective awareness tool for those who know how to use them. Al-Shamikha seems off mainly because the end goal is so distasteful to us, not because its means are so wild.

In the States this is most clearly illustrated by coverage of women’s health issues, which is arguably the #1 service that women’s magazines perform for their readers. Ladymags tend to be vocal about advocating reproductive rights, at a time when those rights are in peril. Women’s magazines are hardly working on behalf of lefty legislators—but certainly legislators who battle for reproductive rights have an enormous ally in women’s magazines, an ally that is schooled in personalizing issues that can get lost in a sea of rhetoric and misleading information.

It’s not just women’s health, though. The magazines most frequently thought of as the smart-girl women’s mags have earned their cred in other ways: hate crimes (here in the form of honor killing), unionizing (“A Girl’s Guide to Unions” in May 1967 Cosmo is sandwiched between “Why German Men Are Insane About American Girls” and “How to Behave on a Boat”*), sex trafficking, cults that target young women, and undocumented immigrants. There aren’t political machinations here, but there are plenty of people in the industry eager to advance women’s political agendas.

It’s overall good news that magazines treat women’s lives more comprehensively than just fashion and beauty. That said, when the information gap is being filled with information that seems exotically abhorrent—as is the case with “Jihad Cosmo”—it calls into sharp relief how weird it is that we want to lump beauty tips in the same outlet as news coverage. The juxtaposition of beauty tips with extremist advice makes us double-take because it seems downright bizarre, but it’s only bizarre because we can’t imagine any women’s magazine telling us to marry a suicide bomber. We can, however, imagine a magazine asking us to take action that fits more into our paradigm. The propaganda tool just takes the model of women’s magazines—a model we all accept—to its logical, and extreme, conclusion.

The shock! horror! mockery! knee-jerk reaction about the “Jihad Cosmo” points toward a combination of xenophobia and righteous anger toward Al Qaeda, using what is a legitimate tool as bait and turning it into something ludicrous. The Daily Mail singles out bits about the niqab without acknowledging the complex history of the veil, and points out how the magazine directs women to not go out except when necessary. But I remember reading ladymag advice about using Twitter as a safety tool—I could tweet wherever I was going so that when I was inevitably abducted, my followers would know where to start looking for my body, or something like that. It’s not the same thing—but suggesting that women basically install auto-tracking devices isn't actually that far from “Don’t leave the house.” And while it seems extreme to suggest that veiling one’s face is an effective tool against sun damage, is it any weirder than suggesting that dieters pour Diet Coke and Splenda over a cored apple to make “apple pie”? (Yes, that was a real tip.)

Other stories in Al-Shamikha have more direct counterparts in American women’s media: Al-Shamika and Allure both caution against “toweling too forcibly”; Al-Qaeda martyr widows and Operation Iraqi Freedom war widows are each given treatment, the latter in Glamour. As for staying home to avoid sun damage, Fitness tells us to stay out of the sun—after an expensive, painful chemical peel, which, depending on your perspective and pain tolerance, is nearly as drastic in its own way. (Actually, this has me thinking about some sort of cross-cultural beauty tips exchange. I’m picturing editors at Allure donning niqabs.)  

All this is complicated, of course, by the strong possibility that the magazine is a fake. Which I didn’t mention earlier because I wanted you to read the whole piece. (Sorry! But now you know how to make Diet Coke apple pie!) Actually, whether it’s fake is irrelevant, because our reactions to it are what’s of interest to me, not whether there’s a group of extremist women making honey facials while plotting how to snag the cutest mujahideen around. Rather, that’s very much of interest to me—but without being there with them, without listening to their words and witnessing their attitudes, I really can’t comment there. And maybe that’s the real moral here: While there are plenty of Islamic feminists, the extremist agenda that’s (maybe) creating this propaganda prefers its women silent. If it’s a hoax, its grand reveal won’t be able to come from them.

*”The saltier and goofier your clothes, the better. The thing to avoid is any material printed with anchors (you’re trying too hard) or brass buttons (they might scratch the teak on the boat).” Noted.


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