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Beyond the burqa and bikini debate

Last updated on: June 25, 2011 10:42 IST

France has banned the niqab

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Ali Khan Mahmudabad

France recently implemented the ban of the niqab, or face veil. A few days later Syria overturned its ban on teachers wearing the niqab because of pressure from Muslim clerics following the protests in the country.

One of the arguments that is often put forward by "feminist," or "liberal" thinkers is that women have traditionally suffered within religious societies and their rights need to be protected by constitutional safeguards.

Prominent in this criticism is Islam and Muslim treatment of women. Conveniently some Muslim commentators as well as critics forget that women, historically, were often in a position of power and in public life. The Prophet's wife Khadijah was a wealthy businesswoman.

The Caliph Omar, a man famous for his strict implementation of law, chose Shifa bint Abdullah ash-Shams to be an administrator of the market in Medina. 

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Religious groups similar to advertising executives

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However, because of cultural traditions as well as the need to define ones identity according to the "other" rather than as a self-sufficient whole, some people often perpetuate stereotypes that in turn reflect badly on religion. Instead of focusing on debates centered on the niqab or Muslim women, it is important to explore how the "problems" these issues raise are often shared, albeit in different ways, by women in non-religious societies.

Religious groups that curtail women's rights, forcing them to adhere to certain principles are similar to the advertising executives in various businesses who utilise the female form to sell products or to magazine editors who entice male readers with pictures of scantily-clad women while also selling hair gel or shoes.

If one was to switch on the television during an ad break in any country and mute the sound, it will be apparent how women's bodies and sexuality are treated as nothing more than an aid in selling anything from ice cream to mobile phones.

One recent advert for a popular cereal in England has a man ogling at what the audience thinks is a seductive and voluptuous woman only to find out that he was actually just staring at the food in her hand.

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Both objectify women

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In Arab countries attractive women, albeit wearing the hijab, are used in order to increase the desirability of various products.

There are talk shows on Italian TV where pretty girls in bikinis stand smiling and giggling while serving the role of props on the show. "Ah," I hear a wise critic say, "at least these girls have the freedom to not go on these shows."

One cannot deny this but the very fact that the physical female form is still a mere advertising ploy goes some way in illustrating how men, whether they are atheist, religious, liberal or conservative, do the same thing: objectify women. One group does it by covering women up, making them "invisible", while the other reduces women to nothing more than sexual objects.

Of course, there will always be women who will participate of their own accord. Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape, said in a television interview, "We have a culture [Muslim society] that treats women as the sexual property of men it reduces their worth."

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Men strive to control women

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Although this may be true for some percentage of Muslim women, the problem is as endemic in most societies. Mr Harris should watch the adverts of any deodorant company that use smell as bait for sexually hungry, scantily-clad women. Interestingly, India has taken steps to counter such ads by banning "overtly sexual" deodorant ads.

The malaise, then, runs far wider. Men, irrespective of religious creed or political belief, strive to control women albeit in different ways. The difficult conversation that needs to take place is about how to move beyond the constrictive paradigms of the burqa or the bikini (as symbols not items of clothing) in order to create spaces where women can imagine, define and construct their own roles within society without the constraints of men's desires.

It is wrong to assume that we have reached a point, particularly in Western countries, where women have as much agency as men. Although there are a vast number of successful women who accomplish their goals, this is despite the fact that society is largely still driven by a male-dominated culture. It is too easy to allow the debate to centre on Muslim women.

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We are ignoring the deeper problem

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A pop song by Jessie J, Do it like a Dude, was released in November last year and illustrates the argument. The song was in the UK top 5, sold more than 300,000 copies and had 28 million hits on YouTube. The chorus goes "I can do it like a brother, do it like a dude, grab my crotch, wear my hat low like you." The sexually-angry video goes some way in showing how Jessie J is asserting herself as a woman, even empowering herself, by singing about how she can behave like any man as the title suggests. One can only guess as to whether the majority of the hits on YouTube were by men.

Conservatives would cite this video as an example of the moral degeneracy from which it is important to protect women. Others will say that freedom of expression and individual freedom to make autonomous choices validates the creation of this video.

The ensuing discourse centres on both these positions whereas it is important to understand how this video is symptomatic of a wider problem: women are often forced to define their identity in relation to or in competition with men. The law in France, which only affects a few thousand women and seems to have been passed because of anticipated political mileage rather than any serious engagement with women's rights, should not serve as an excuse to sensationalise the experience of one group and, therefore, ignore the deeper and more universal problems that women face.

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