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.
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.
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.