the burka and the bikini

(formerly titled 'the oppression of the barbie doll')

Jim Henley (of the great Unqualified Offerings) took issue with my earlier statement that the bikini is a tool of female oppression much like the burka. It's hard to do justice to his critique by excerpting just part of it, and I feel odd about just copying the entire text here, so do take a look for yourself at his link.

I think that Jim's analysis of the burka is fundamentally sound. It's an oppressive and cruel imposition on women when worn against their will (as a significant fraction of burka wearers undoubtedly are). But I was talking more about the bikini, not the burka, and Jim's response is very burka-centric (though since he doesn't consider the bikini to be oppressive, he takes understandable umbrage at the comparison). While Jim hasn't posted on his specific views about the bikini, I'll assume that he holds similar views as Steven Den Beste, in that he equates the bikini with Freedom.

So, let's start with the burka. What is it? 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 women'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 comunities 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 emphasise that the Qur'an places restrictions on womens' and men's dress (both). These restrictions are solely for modesty, whose importance as a virtue is comon 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 moodesty, 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 excercise 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 whethr 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, and this is why I claim that they are equally oppressive.

UPDATE: Abraham in the coments asks:

The second problem is your last clause. I don't follow why something being immoral is the same as something being oppressive. The only relation between these two concepts is that oppression is immoral. But you have somehow reversed it and are claiming that immorality is oppressive. If this is the case, then do we maximize freedom by forcibly minimizing immorality? I find this a dangerous and disturbing line of reasoning.

in my last clause, I said that women wearing a bikini solely to attract the attention of men is comparable to women being forced to wear the burkah by men. This is a manifestation of men's control over women, and it is that control which I am labeling immoral. I was careful to only use the word "immoral" in the context of focring women to wear burka (or the power play which makes women want to wear a bikini to please men).

UPDATE 2: Glenn has linked to me ! He asks:

Is it a "power play" when women want to wear bikinis to please men? Is it a "power play" when men dress or groom or whatever in a particular way to please women? And -- even assuming that this statement is true -- what precisely is immoral about it? Not much that I can see.

The target of my immorality label is more subtle than that - Glenn is right, the desire of the woman (or the man) to please the man (or the woman) is perfectly moral (in fact, celebrated in the Shi'a interpretation of Islam).

I am targeting those specific instances, when a woman wears the bikini because her entire sense of self-worth (or "self-merit") is founded on te reaction she is trying to induce in men. I am not saying teh woman is immoral and I am not even saying teh man in this scenario is immoral. What I am labeling as immoral is the force acting on her to subsume her sense of self merit into a a stereotypical perception of herself as sex object.

UPDATE 3: Jim comments, and since I still can't find much to disagree with in his commentary, I still feel we are talking slightly past each other. I find his opinions to be perfectly compatible with what I wrote above. Of course, I could just be slightly insane :) And Jim, I readily apologise for the comparison to Den Beste ;) Also, Jim points me to this commentary from Diana Moon. She says I'm "full of shit".

UPDATE 4: Jane Galt weighs in (I confess to hoping she would comment :) :

What Aziz is arguing for is, in my opinion, a well meaning but futile attempt to take sex out of male-female relations. ... Aziz is, probably without knowing it, endorsing another brand of feminism, the "difference feminists". Those are the folks who set up the speech codes and sexual harassment laws in a futile attempt to excise every trace of sex from all but the narrowest spheres of human life. Can't be done.

I appreciate the comment, but respectufully, I don't think it has any bearing to my argument. In fact, Shi'a Islam not only takes explicit notice of teh differrence between men and women, it insists on it as part of a fundamental philosophic worldview. The fact that men and women are differrent is integral, is essential, to understanding the roles of men and women in society and culture and religion.

The root of the misunderstanding seems to be that Jane thinks I called the bikini "immoral". It isn't, and neither is the burka (both are just pieces of cloth). Hence she deduces I intend to ban it outright and thus make men and women neutered clones. What I am saying is that the bikini and the burka can be used as tools - and their very existence often creates a kind of societal pressure - that reduces women's sense of self-worth to a carictaure.

It's ironic that opne of the people leaving a comment pointed out that the argument above doesnt really apply to men - and the lack of symmetry in the argument therefore invalidates it. I think that poster is more guilty of "difference feminism" than I am, Jane. In fact, my entire argument is founded solely on the premise that men and women are different.

UPDATE 5: Meryl Yourish mischaracterizes the post so grotestquely, that I can only assume she skimmed the post, ignored the comments and the updates to date, and just cherry-picked a few choice sentences with which to construct her straw man. I've replied to her in a new post.