City of Brass

City of Brass

The Burka and the Bikini

Islam has respect for women hard-wired into its fabric. While Islam
makes much of the equal status of women to men, it also specifically
acknowledges that women are different. This is different from the
rhetoric of Feminism in the West, which asserts that women are “equal”
to men. The difference is subtle but profound.

Along these lines, comparisons of womens’ status, especially with
regard to oppression, can be made between Islam and western culture.
The degradation of women in Saudi Arabia, for example, is
reprehensible, and only defended by those few Muslims who have
succumbed to tribal impulses and the inexplicable allure of ignorance,
lacking basic human decency as well as an coherent understanding of
their own faith. Westerners and Muslims (and Western Muslims) alike can
agree on the obvious fact that the burka, as practiced by Wahabis and
the Saudi theocracy, is oppression in its purest form.

But if we Muslims are to cast a critical eye at ourselves, surely the
West can do the same? For example, in the matter of the bikini. Far
from being an expression of freedom, the bikini is as much a tool of oppression as the burka.

Here follows a justification of this statement, from an Islamic
perspective (rather, of of many possible Islamic perspectives. Your
mileage may vary). But to understand the nature of the bikini, we must
revisit the burka.

What is the burka? As routinely imposed on women, it is a full-length
one-piece garment that covers the woman from head to toe, almost
invariably black. Usually the face is uncovered, except in extreme
cases where there is a veil or even worse, a metal faceplate. This is
almost exclusively a Sunni-Wahabi innovation of recent times, whereas
if you look at the modes of modest dress in other Islamic societies you
see much more healthy interpretations, ranging from the two-piece
colorful ridah garments worn by women in my own community, the Dawoodi Bohras,
to fully-Westernized business attire (jacket, pants) topped with
headdress or scarf. Many muslims living in America use a particular
form of headscarf known as hijab, which is a shawl that drapes around
the woman’s head and shoulders. It’s a matter or ethnic and cultural
variance as to how much hair is visible, or whether the shoulders are
covered, or whether it’s black or white or some other color. There is
an incredible variety of which non-Muslim commentators are almost
universally ignorant of – it’s no exaggeration to say that the variety
of Islamic female fashion easily matches if not exceeds the variety of
fashion found in Western societies. In fact, since many Muslim communities are Western, there is a healthy mixing between these two
fashion universes, with many innovative and (dare I say it?) attractive
innovations.

However, none of these fashionable garments are worth anything if they
are imposed against the woman’s will. However, apart from a few cases
(worst offender being Saudi Arabia, homeland of Wahabism), modest dress
is part of the culture and not a cruel imposition.

It’s important to emphasize that the Qur’an places restrictions on
womens’ and mens’ dress (both). These restrictions are solely for modesty, whose importance as a virtue is common to Judaism and Christianity. Attractiveness is NOT the same as sexiness.
It is possible to be attractive and yet retain modesty, but sexiness is
inherently immodest, because it promotes women as sex objects. Modesty
is retaining your dignity – and maintaining your identity as a person,
to be respected on the basis of your character. Webster’s dictionary
defines it as “humility respecting one’s own merit.” The concept of
merit is intrinsic to the Islamic concept of modesty as well.

Many women choose burka freely, as well as lesser variations such as
hijab or ridah. Even the most oppressive-seeming burka with metal
faceplate and voluminous robes is actually a weapon in the hands of a
woman when chosen willingly. My own wife wears ridah full-time, even to
medical school, though I was initially against the idea. But I
supported her in her desire to achieve her modesty, and the result has
been astonishing. But the benefits she derives from wearing ridah are a
topic for some other time.

Contrast the Qur’anic prescription of modest dress with the tribal
custom of imposing oppressive dress on women. It’s not exaggeration to
say that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity brought the first concepts of
equality between genders to tribal peoples who at the time had
decidedly primitive notions of gender roles. To take one self-aimed
example, pre-Islamic customs of burying first-born daughters alive was
stridently condemned by Muhammad SAW. Yet these practices still persist
in modern times – for example in Nigeria, where a woman was sentenced
to death by stoning
for adultery. Also recently a woman was sentenced to be buried up to
her neck in sand and again stoned, for having a child out of wedlock.
And there is the case of the gang-rape of an innocent girl in Pakistan, and riots in India.

These kind of barbaric decisions are always made in remote villages by
a band of grizzled elder men, who invariably call themselves an
“Islamic court”. The truth is that these are immoral primitive tribal
customs, which are used by the tribal elders as a power play of
enforcing their authority. They are wrapped in poorly-argued Islamic
reasoning, often bundled with some selective out-of-context Qur’anic
verse, so that no one dares argue. But this is not Islamic, it’s purely
a primitive cultural practice, with its sole aim as a power play of
I-have-control-over-you.

These tribal impulses of control are the root cause of the Saudi burka,
and the absurd punishments in Nigeria and Pakistan, and the concept of
honor killings. They also, to a lesser degree, are the underlying
philosophy behind the bikini, which is the real subject of this essay.

The bikini was invented in 1946 by an engineer in Paris, Louis Reard (here’s a history link
via Google). The historical record doesn’t mention whether Reard was
grizzled or an elder, but he was definitely male, and the bikini was a
invention specifically designed to “stir the masses”. What the bikini
does is reduce the woman to a caricature of sexual desire – by
revealing almost every part of her anatomy, it completes obliterates
any trace of modesty (and hence, undermines her respect in her own
merit).

It’s true that some women wear bikinis because they have pride in their
bodies and don’t care (or need) what men think. But a larger fraction
of women wearing them are doing so because they want to influence the
response of men in some way. Jim Henley called this the “sexual power
if women” but it is analogous to appeasement. Whatever power the woman
has, is being bent to serve the desires of the other party (in this
case, titillation of the male). One of the major flaws in Jim’s
argument is unstated but implicit assumption that the bikini is an
expression of female power – but in fact, it’s an abject surrender. Is
it really true that women have to strip down to two strategic strips of
cloth just to exercise their power?

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
please males.

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.

That said, the bikini is not Islamic, because it is immodest. Whether
you care about modesty or not of course is irrelevant to the issue of whether you are being oppressed or not.

But in the West, many women wear bikinis to try and attract the
attention of men. And in the East, many women are forced to wear burka,
especially cruelly oppressive versions. In that case, both are wrong
and immoral[1], and this is why I claim that they are equally oppressive.

(originally posted in current form at altmuslim.com – based on an earlier draft also titled the Burka and the Bikini at pre-Beliefnet City of Brass. Also see this post on the myth of the barbie doll)

Related – Beliefnet’s Guide to Hijab and Muslim Dress

[1] I am not saying that the woman wearing
a bikini is immoral, though that opinion is shared by many, not just
Muslims. We can leave that open to debate. But for the purposes of this
essay, the manifestation of men’s control over women, is what I am
labeling immoral. I am careful to only use the word “immoral” in the
context of forcing women to wear burka, or the power play which makes
(some) women (sometimes) want to wear a bikini to please men. The burka and bikini
themselves are simply pieces of cloth, nothing more.

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