A bikini is not the same as a niqab

James Bloodworth

103337609 300x220 A bikini is not the same as a niqabPerusing 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.

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  • Nat55

    thanks for sharing your observations, and honesty.

  • Nat55

    sadly, that’s a real ‘jump to conclusion’ reply…. it was a  xenophobic attack – the women were attacked by non-muslims who didn’t like them wearing a headscarf…   

  • Nat55

    Oh my… and from your blatant hate-filled, ugly reply judith, you have now shed light on the subject of why some muslims seem to hate Westerners… Well done.


  • pearson

    Western women are not “repressed” oppressed of discriminated against. 
    They are self indulgent, advantaged and spoilt beyond measure. ”I wear micro mini-skirts because I am comfortable”, (tugs at skirt in stupid gesture to conceal underwear) ”officer those two men are staring at me, please arrest the ugly one.”

  • pearson

    Women dress to compete with or impress other women. Not men. 

  • DaiWales

    you (high handedly) treat JB’s thoughful article to …
    ” An incredible exercise in intellectual deception (or self-deception?)”

    and then proceed to come out with some questionable ideas about women’s alleged jealousies …….. 
                 er ….  who’s indulging in self-deception ???  

    If I were your missus I’d give you something to be jealous
    about !

  • DaiWales

     ”And then you write this still garbage” 
    EnoughAlready,  most of what you have posted has little to do with the article as written by JB, niquabs and bikinis …

  • LordJustin

    And your point is…?

  • DaiWales

    I am sorry ……………..

    I didn’t realise you were a Troll.

  • LordJustin

    I’m not clear what you mean by “troll”.  Do you mean someone who has a different view than the orthodoxy you believe should dominate these columns?  When I was growing up, we called that sort of thinking independent – ooh, and this paper’s called the Independent, what a coincidence!

    BTW, my point was that your comment was incoherent and appeared to be no more than: “I don’t agree with you, I can’t explain why, but I don’t think you should have the right to express your view, and someone should assault you to curtail your right of free speech”.  

    I thought surely DaiWales isn’t just an ignorant thug who believes in beating people up if s/he disagrees with them.  Therefore, I asked you to clarify what you meant. But you just confirmed my fears by adding further insults.  Oh well, you know what they say about casting pearls before swine…

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