about that poster: what I think

What’s happening

So the design for this year’s Banned Books Week poster has come out, and a number of people on the interwebs have found it … “problematic” if we’re being delicate, “gross and Islamophobic” if we’re not. There are lots of conversations going on, including among ALA Council and within the Office of Intellectual Freedom (which runs Banned Books Week), as well as a petition for the poster to be removed.

I’ve read the Council discussion and communicated directly with OIF (in my opinion, these conversations are generally moving in the right direction) and had lots of conversations around the internet with lots of people who have lots of different opinions. Here are mine. (Totally as bullet points because my brain hasn’t had time to paragraph yet.)

What should happen next

  • I do not support calls for the poster to be removed from the ALA Store. Banning materials for Banned Books Week is just a bridge too far for me. I’d rather let people buy it or not, as they prefer; stop promoting it; and don’t reorder when the stock runs out.
  • I do want to see the association choose something else to represent my profession to the world. Pick a new design and promote that.
  • Going forward, I want to see the association increase its commitment to involving a diverse array of stakeholders in public communications and major decisions — and take specific, concrete, public steps in this direction. This should have been caught before it was released. Future things should be, too.

As a divisional Board member, although LITA is not involved with Banned Books Week, I still bear some responsibility for enacting this commitment: consulting diverse stakeholders and noticing when decisions might need additional perspectives. I will be working harder to remember this. In fact, I’ve just set a recurring task in my todo system to remind myself. You should tell me if I’m doing a bad job of it.

Why I think this (diversity arguments)

It is extremely important to point out that:

  • veiling practices vary significantly throughout the Muslim world (and there are also non-Muslim cultures with veiling or head-covering practices);
  • women’s decisions about whether, and how, to veil exist at every point along the spectrum from coercion to choice — in particular, lots of women who wouldn’t face blowback for uncovering their heads or faces prefer to cover them;
  • there are all sorts of lively arguments among Muslim women, including Muslim feminist women, about veiling;
  • the West has a habit of assuming that any woman in a veil is ipso facto oppressed and that unveiling her is an important step in her liberation, and this assumption is totally patronizing, threatening, and incorrect.

I knew this before seeing the poster, so it’s been really important to me to seek out perspectives from people who are Muslim, brown, and/or from the Middle East; I don’t want to assume they find it offensive, because that would just be projecting my own (white, western, non-religious) experience. And what I’ve found is that nearly all of the people I’ve talked to who do, in some way, see themselves in this poster have found it deeply troubling. (The notable exception to this is the designer herself; I haven’t spoken with her, but I am reliably informed that she is a Muslim woman who did not interpret the poster negatively.)

In light of all this, my feelings are:

  • Many (not all!) Muslim and/or brown women are very unhappy with this poster.
  • I’ve heard several librarians who serve Muslim populations say that they cannot use this poster in their libraries.
  • My impression of the poster is that it tends to reinforce the destructive trope that veiled women are oppressed; the visual equation of “re(ad)striction” with a key elements of a niqab reads to me like these are both forms of oppression. I think a lot of likely viewers of the poster will bring to it the assumption that Muslim women are oppressed, and they will have that assumption reinforced by the poster.
  • The people I’ve talked with who don’t approach it with that assumption have varying impressions, but mostly (not all!) they’re reading it as an equation of Islam with oppression, too.
  • Plus which it reads to me as brown bodies being used as a site of white gaze to serve the viewer’s – not the woman’s – values in a way I’m having trouble articulating but that totally squicks me out.
  • So do I think that the woman in the poster must be oppressed by her implied religion? Nope, definitely not! (As opposed to the limitation on her reading choices, which is clearly repressive.) But I think the poster spreads and reinforces the message that Islam is repressive and that Muslim women in particular are oppressed, particularly if they cover their heads in some way, and I think that’s a gross message and I don’t want my professional association spreading or reinforcing it.

Why I think this (free speech arguments)

  • I totally, 100% endorse the right of private parties to make whatever sort of art they want, including posters like this, and sell them. I similarly 100% endorse everyone’s right to buy or not buy them, and to support or condemn them. (Insofar as people are condemning this poster, that’s not an attack on free speech: it is, in fact, an exercise of it.)
  • This is not a poster created by a private party. This is created by an association that represents me, as a dues-paying member. It represents people whom I also represent: LITA members. And it de facto represents the profession at large — including nonmembers, whether they like it or not — in the public eye. The association has a responsibility to consider its actions in light of its representational role. (Again, I’m pleased to see Council and OIF having these discussions.)
  • People have drawn analogies between challenging the poster and challenging books. I think these analogies don’t hold:
    • Challenged books are parts of collections. Librarians can quite reasonably say “if this book is not to your liking, check out another”; they can (and generally should) put together collections which encompass a wide range of viewpoints, some of which may offend some patrons. There is not a collection of motifs for Banned Books Week 2015 swag; there’s one motif. You can buy it or not buy it, but you can’t buy something else.
    • Challenged books can be discussed in light of collection development policies, and their inclusion in the collection defended (or not) on those grounds; there is, to my knowledge, no similar policy here.
    • The Banned Books Week swag is much more analogous to a One City/One Book selection. People might, quite defensibly, select a controversial book for that sort of event — but they ought to do so on purpose, having talked with people who have stakes in that controversy, fully prepared to have and to contextualize the ensuing conversation.
  • Some people have said that we’re having all these conversations about the meaty issues of intellectual freedom, so the poster has done its job and we should support it. Which is great, aside from the uncomfortable ends-justify-the-means-iness, and the fact that OIF did not actually intend for this poster to be controversial. Its job wasn’t to get us talking by sparking controversy. They got blindsided by this. If ALA wants to deliberately stir up controversy — and I’m not saying that’d be bad, necessarily — they should know they’re doing it. They should have enough diversity baked into the process to be purposeful about it.
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5 thoughts on “about that poster: what I think

  1. I’m not sure how much more inclusive the design team could have been / needed to be; it has been reported the main designer is a Muslim woman who dresses traditionally. (who, reportedly, has been surprised by the response to the poster)

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    1. Aaron,

      I don’t think the issue is the inclusiveness of the design time, but the inclusiveness of the design reviewers.

      Although I don’t see anything equating Islam with censorship in this. I see it as restricting/banning veiling, which I feel should be an individuals choice, not dictated by governments or religions.

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  2. Well done.

    I’m active as a student member in several of the progressive, social activism-oriented library groups, ALA and otherwise. Two things keep frustrating me:

    1) One of the common threads is that banning the poster cannot be compared to banning books because book-banning is done by schools and libraries, all of which are apparently public and therefore government-run. Since it’s a private group, we can’t refer to removing the poster from the ALA Store as “banning.” So much wrong there, and it concerns me that we don’t seem to understand what banning is…in ALA.

    2) Several people, including at least one holding an ALA position, are publicly skeptical that a Muslim woman was involved. I find that equally if not more offensive — the idea that because an image doesn’t match what largely white liberal groups think brown women should think/envision/produce, that woman must not even exist.

    I don’t like the image. I immediately saw a veil when it came out. I wouldn’t want it in my library. I also think that a lot of the responses to the image are doing a fantastic job of showing other biases and prejudices.

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