A bikini is not the same as a niqab
Perusing Facebook recently, I stumbled across a cartoon that could be said to represent the relativist view of women’s rights. The cartoon was of two women, one of whom was dressed in a bikini while the other was wearing a niqab.
Looking over her shoulder at the women in the niqab, the western woman in the bikini is saying: “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated culture”. Turning to face the women in the bikini, the woman in the niqab returns the scornful look, and remarks: “Nothing covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated culture”.
At first glance, you might think the cartoon was trying to be subversive. All women are repressed, it seems to imply, it’s just that some women are repressed in more subtle ways than others. And to a point, that is undoubtedly true. In the west women still suffer discrimination, objectification and a shockingly high level of sexual assault. It is certainly not the time to start getting smug. But I can’t accept that it helps the victims of misogynist violence to draw a false equivalence between an item of clothing that women wear freely (a bikini) with one that is in some instances forced upon the wearer by men (a niqab). After all, no woman has yet been beaten up, imprisoned or raped for not wearing a bikini to the beach.
To point this out to most people would be uncontroversial. A woman walking around in a niqab in the UK may regrettably be subjected at times to racial abuse, but a woman dressed in revealing clothing runs a far greater risk of harassment, unwanted sexual advances and assaults due to the same attitudes that in other circumstances seek to shroud female flesh in niqabs and burkas – that is, a desire to assert control over female sexuality and repress it. Both women are more likely to suffer violence when they wear less, rather than when they cover up.
Hatred towards female sexuality is often directed at beautiful women precisely because they have the confidence to dress in a way that unapologetically expresses their sexuality. As a fellow Iranian protester warned Neda Agha-Soltan before she was tragically murdered by government thugs in 2009, “My girl, why don’t you dress a little bit more conservatively. They usually go after the beautiful ones, and you are a very pretty girl”. Such jealous hatreds can also, at times, be directed at men. Anyone who has ever attended a football match will have witnessed the overweight, balding middle-aged men hysterically shrieking “poofta” at virile young athletes in their prime. Again, the Ronaldos, Beckhams and Torres’s of the game almost always come in for the very worst of it.
What a cartoon like this demonstrates is that underneath a certain kind of supposedly emancipatory moral equivalence can reside more sordid motivations. If the message in the cartoon were really about the objectification of women, there would be little need to use a picture of an attractive, confident woman in a bikini. Why not instead use a picture of a woman suffering from an eating disorder?
Rather, there is a suspicion that the idea of an attractive woman being secretly repressed because of her beauty is vaguely gratifying to those who consider looks to be insufficiently egalitarian. Women only dress in such and such a manner, so the logic goes, to impress men, because beauty itself, or our concept of it, is a social construct enforced on women by men. While I would not suggest that the objectification of women does not occur – it does, and is in large part dictated by what men consume – the underlying assumption here is that women couldn’t possibly be the sex hungry mammals us men are, as eager to lure a potential mate into the bedroom as the other half of humanity and often enjoying the validation they get from men finding them attractive. The “progressive” attitude in such matters views women as blithely floating through life being told what to say, do and wear by us men. This is, as always, down to the notion of “false consciousness”, which dictates that only a few are really enlightened enough to really see what’s going on.
Objectification of women (and increasingly men) in the west is real. However, the problem is not one of women dressing “provocatively” (to use a disturbing word with disturbing connotations), or that women are “dressing to impress men” (we all try to impress the opposite sex, we simply have different ways of going about it). The problem occurs when such objectification leads to a view of women which says that all that matters is a woman’s looks, rather than her intelligence, integrity and humanity.
Female sexuality can at times be subversive and powerful. It is for this reason that many men feel threatened by the presence of a woman expressing it. They feel that she has the greater degree of sexual choice and power so they try to control or dominate her. This is not, as some believe, confined strictly to the remnants of old-fashioned male sexism or the devout followers of monotheistic religion. Beauty and sexuality are a threat to orthodoxies of all stripes because they are an expression of our animalistic ancestry which cannot be levelled out or extinguished by force. Political creeds, however emancipatory their rhetoric, are also very often rationalisations of deeper emotional problems.Tagged in: bikini, burka, feminism, niqab, objectification, sexism, women's rights
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