Thursday, 3 November 2011
A bikini is not the same as a niqab
I recently noticed a cartoon on Facebook which could be said to represent the relativist view of women’s rights. The cartoon features two women, one of whom is wearing a bikini while the other is wearing a niqab. Looking over her shoulder at the women in the niqab, the woman in the bikini says to herself: "Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated culture". The woman in the niqab returns the scornful look, and remarks: "Nothing covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated culture".
The cartoon, which at first glance seems witty and smart, is in reality attempting to draw a completely 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).
To point this out to most people would hardly be controversial. No woman has yet been beaten up, imprisoned or raped for not wearing a bikini to the beach. A woman walking around in a niqab in the UK may regrettably at times be subjected to verbal 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 or repress it. Both women are more likely to suffer violence when they wear less, rather than when they cover up.
It is a fact that 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 one Iranian protester put it in the aftermath of the killing by state security of Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009, "they always go for the beautiful ones first". 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 equivalence lies 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 use instead a picture of a woman suffering from an eating disorder?
There must be 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 it goes, to impress men, because beauty itself, or our concept of it, is a social construct enforced on women by men. While I am not suggesting 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 very 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 see what’s really 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 arises when such objectification leads to a view of women which says that all that matters is her 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.