It’s all About Choice!

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burqa vs bikini
This cartoon, drawn by male cartoonist Malcolm Evans became viral in the social network sometime ago. It is, as you can well understand, a rather interesting and complicated scenario lending a graphic twist to the burqa vs. bikini debate in an attempted definition of women’s oppression in a male-dominated culture. Which of these two women is more oppressed? Can we think of a situation where neither of them really is? Fashion is always a site of political expression.

There is a lot of discrepancy regarding the way different people view the burqa and the bikini. Western women think of it as a mark of oppression, since it evidently dictates that a woman’s body is to be kept covered and revealed only to the husband, thereby highlighting his possession of her and her body. For example in SEX AND THE CITY 2, the four white women, during their vacation in Abu Dhabi take the burqa as a sign of women’s subjugation.

Sex And the City 2. Scene where Arab women want to dress like American women

Sex And the City 2. Scene where Arab women want to dress like American women

Frankly speaking, the problem of women’s liberation here is inextricably intertwined with the problem of racism and western superiority. In an age of neo-colonialism, Western fashion, especially American fashion and lifestyle is considered to be the icon of liberation and modernity. The West vs. East debate is now being translated into a Modern vs. Traditional conflict, where the Third World, the so- called developing nations are viewed as more traditional and hence more backward than the First World. In 2011, the French Prime Minister Francois Fillon banned the burqa in his own country. Forcing a woman to wear a niqab or a burqa is punishable by a year in prison and a 30,000 euro fine. Likewise western feminists condemn the burqa without really taking into account that it might just be some woman’s individual choice and not something thrust upon her. In 2011, once more, in the Women, Money Power Summit Rep. Carolyn Maloney, self-identifying feminist and champion of (U.S.) women’s rights, discussed the oppression in the daily realities of the women of Afghanistan. It was a patronizing speech, meant to appeal to donors and activists in the crowd, to get them to feel sorry for the women entrenched in Muslim culture and abused by the Taliban, and that U.S. women must do something to help through the use of the U.S. government. To illustrate her point in how severely oppressed the women of Afghanistan are, Maloney pulled a large burqa out of a bag and put it on over her head. In my opinion, this is almost like isolating a single cultural practice from its context and selling it for the feminist movement. The black burqa in the west adds colour and spark to the feminist movement while women of Afghanistan are imagined to be an indistinguishable mass, all oppressed by their men by their burqas.

western hypocrisy

Similarly, the case with the bikini represents a homogenizing attitude where the tables are simply turned around. In the 1990s, Turkey banned the bikini on the grounds that women’s modesty was being violated. Beach clubs often offered separate facilities for men and women and required Islamist dress. There was also the sad tale of the group of Islamist girls who were drowning but not rescued for fear of offending their modesty. It is ironic because Turkish women got the vote before French women did. This was a new form of sexism that was settling in – a form of sexism that occupies itself directly with rather problematic areas of culture and social expressions. So a woman in a bikini, who would be understood a s as a radical symbol of liberation in some cultures, is often viewed as an object of male sexual fantasy in another culture.

In both these views however, what is not considered is the individual choice of the particular woman wearing the bikini. Questions of a person’s sex appeal are always political. If the argument is that women got rid of their Victorian corsets and girdles to liberate their bodies, the other side would point out that there is just as much beauty in the concealed as in the revealed.

Gender identity and expression are issues that are being defined and re-defined every moment according to context. I think it is time we realised that a true definition of oppression is hardly possible because situations vary from time to time as well as from place to place. Ultimately, it depends on individual choice and freedom. I mean a woman can feel perfectly comfortable in a burqa or a bikini and not feel like they are catering to a patriarchal culture at all. Of course, there is always the case of ideological oppression( you know, where you can always say, that someone believes they are choosing something for themselves, when actually it is their cultural conditioning dictating them), but at the end of the day, we must be ready to grant people whatever makes them feel satisfied and happy. Maybe neither the size zero model on the beach nor the burqa clad woman preaching about woman’s modesty is a model woman. To each one, her own. Political debates about dresses are redundant since they think of people as a mass, on as individuals.

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  • BPatMann

    The difference is that western women can choose whether or not to dress as nuns or orthodox Jews. Muslim women are forced to wear their burkas.

    • Eashrat Mohammed

      that statement can just be from someone who makes up his mind by what he/she sees in the media, but never looks behind the scenes. (no offense!) I understand that you have this opinion. I was born and raised as a muslim girl in a muslim family, yet because of the media I sometimes find myself in a position where I feel like every single muslim woman/girl is living in a hell on earth. But then I come back to reality when I see my friends and family here in Austria AND in Bangladesh, the country I come from, and a lot of other people from many other countries. What you read in a book is just what someone else decided to write. And just like that, what you see in the TV is just what people show you. But you never know what the reality looks like unless you go and do your research first hand. My mother does cover up. And so do I. And that’s how I feel most comfortable. It was her decision to cover up just as much as it was mine. And I never regretted it, actually it made me a lot more confident. I used to be a very shy and insecure girl, but wearing the Hijab and covering up, I realised that as long as I feel comfortable with the way I am, it doesn’t matter what other people think about me. I am who I am and I will do whatever makes me feel good, makes me feel peaceful. And I find my peace in modesty and education (believe me or not) Point is: not everybody is forced to wear these things. (Some are, which is really really bad and just as much of a problem as domestic abuse – which exists among every culture and religion! – and seriously needs to be solved) And in a lot of countries, like in mine, modesty is a part of fashion. You will find Hijabs, Burkas and Abayas in many different designs and varieties. They are not all black, only old people wear the black ones. But even they have designs, they never are plain (unless you are a bagger ): ) What I am trying to do is to give you a liittle insight and tell you: Don’t make up your mind by what you see. Talk to people who are muslims! (or whatever, depending on what you want to know) It’s frustating (for us) that everybody talks ABOUT us, but never WITH us XD

  • Eashrat Mohammed

    I don’t think I have ever read an article as PERFECT as this. Every single thing you wrote was just what I thought and how I feel. And finally been acknowledged as an individual and not just “another girl who wears the headscarf” makes me feel indescribably … esteemed. We are individuals and none of us represents a whole community, grour or even a small entity. All we represent is ourselves! Thanks a lot for this incredible post!!

    • sixguinness

      Sad.