In my essay The Burka and the Bikini, I argued,
The bikini and the burka are so far to the extremes that they meet
again. They both serve to reduce women, from a person, to an object. In
the case of the burka, that object is “slave”. In the case of the
bikini, that object is “sex”. The burka is forced upon women, for fear
of consequences, whereas women are induced to wear the bikini, out of
desire for consequences. But in both cases those consequences are to
The bikini and the burka can both be used by women as expressions of
power and independence. The burka, or ridah, or hijab, can be a
powerful weapon of modesty, if chosen freely (and in fact, it is in
Western countries like America that Qur’anic modes of modesty in
women’s dress do finally take on the meaning they were intended to
have, because of the freedom of choice. America is the greatest Islamic
country on earth). Likewise, the woman wearing a bikini solely out of
her personal pride in her appearance has turned the bikini into a
weapon of self-expression.
This sentiment earned me a great deal of critique, I am proud to say. The view that the burka is not necessarilyily oppressive, and that the bikini may be so, is one that threatens the basic cultural-supremacist narrative of Islam as barbaric / West as enlightened.
To argue that Islam offers the potential (admittedly, largely unrealized in most of the present-day Islamic world) for more meaningful women’s rights than Western feminism is a kind of cultural blasphemy. That’s why at least one person felt compelled to express their dissatisfaction via anonymous postcard to PostSecret:
It is encouraging to see the dogma of bikini as liberation is being questioned. The burka and the bikini are just pieces of cloth, nothing more. What matters is why they are worn – and who makes the decision.