“Because we believe in her,” reads a heartening UNICEF advertisement depicting a young girl in veil, at Schiphol’s international airport in the Netherlands.

When I asked a woman to step aside to take a picture of the banner, she looked puzzled. Perhaps unsurprising, as for the uncritical passerby there might be nothing unusual about the picture. But there’s something quite troubling when an NGO can manage to convey a message with only six glossy words and a simple picture of a smiling child.

The Child’s Double-Imagery

At first glance, the image radiates the innocence of a child. But this, through our white male western gaze, is quickly tarnished by the garment that covers her head; a symbolic manifestation of oppression, gender inequality, cultural inferiority and general backwardness. Her gender, age and ethnicity inform us she is inherently passive, subjugated, vulnerable, powerless; a victim. The picture needs to say no more.

At the same time, our western gaze allows us to identify a common humanity: the innocence of a child. And it is this common humanity that stirs the conviction of our cultural superiority that accords us the moral duty and responsibility to “civilize” and “rescue” the inferior “other.”

“Because we believe in her” vs. “Because they don’t believe in her”

Behind the self-identifying wording “we” or “us,” the modern, civilized, moral and omniscient white hero, whose high ethical standards are unquestioned, is uncovered.  This is juxtaposed to the implied but unknown “them” who, in turn, are imagined as repressive, illiberal and apathetic; the villain, the lesser human. They do not care about their children, not least the female ones. But hey, fortunately, We do!

It is appalling for one that a humanitarian organization of such high standards manipulates pre-established prejudice and stereotypes, which abound in the increasingly Islamophobic Dutch society, to obtain funding for its projects. But it is perhaps more worrying that these visual and narrative discourses of Orientalist nature have been so deeply internalized that this advertisement’s consumer immediately perceives the young girl as a victim because of a headscarf and the color of her skin.

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