Saturday, May 06, 2006

Shawls and Bikini Tops

The Muslim custom for women to wear a shawl over their hair is controversial in the West and is often associated with patriarchal oppression. In the following, I will argue that shawls are analogous to bikini tops, and that if anyone wants to forbid shawls then bikini tops must go too.

Disregarding nudists, all cultures have taboos for the display of certain bits of the human body; most often the genitals. A person who flaunts them is considered shameless and asocial. But there is a gender asymmetry: women are expected to react with disgust if a man shows them his taboo parts in the wrong context, even if he's an attractive specimen. Men, on the other hand, are expected to enjoy the corresponding sight in an attractive woman immensely. This has to do with traditional roles regarding sex, where ideally men are active predators and women passive prey.

Unlike modern Western culture, Muslim culture has a sexualised taboo for women's hair. Muslim men are expected to react to hair like a Western man reacts to breasts. (The sexualisation of breasts is far from universal.) A Muslim woman who flaunts her hair is consequently seen as shameless, possibly sexually promiscuous.

Compare this with bikini tops. Wearing one is a bit of a hassle, I gather, but not wearing one means to lose face. Men on the beach stare and grin, other women frown and whisper among themselves; briefly put, you feel uncomfortable unless you're a serious exhibitionist. Women in the West wear bikini tops not because they're forced to against their will, but because they'd feel uncomfortable without them. Most Western women would feel far more violated if they were forbidden to wear bikini tops than they ever do by having to wear them. And the same goes for the shawls of most Muslim women. They wear them because they want to.

There's quite a strong argument that women's willingness to wear shawls and bikini tops is in fact a symptom of internalised patriarchal oppression. But I think feminism should choose its battles. The important thing isn't what society teaches our daughters to want to wear. What's important is that they have access to education and jobs and the freedom to make their own life decisions. Never mind the shawls and bikini tops – are women allowed to ride bicycles, go to university, participate in sports, work outside the home?

Looking at a shawl-wearing Muslim woman and saying, "oh, poor thing, she's so oppressed" is simply patronising. She is entrusted with the right to vote in general elections; surely we must assume that she can choose her own headwear.

And besides, even if every single bikini top on the planet was burnt tomorrow, it would still take centuries for men to lose interest in boobs.

Update 7 May: I should have known. Merely mentioning the word bikini attracts lots of search engine users to the blog. I suppose this means that there are men out there who want to see female anatomy but not the bits covered by a bikini. Or are these people in fact women window-shopping for bikinis? Make yerself known, oh ye bikini-questing ones!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting, I'm curious though what your source is that muslims consider hair so sensual.
Personally I both agree and don't agree on banning shawls. I think shawls should be banned because I think men force women to wear them and I don't think they should be banned because people should be allowed to wear whatever they want. Solve that riddle if you can.
On a side-note I think Cato was right, bikini tops must be destroyed.

07 May, 2006 16:59  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I curse you registration demons!


07 May, 2006 17:00  
Blogger Martin said...

I don't have a good source, I've just heard and read many times that the reason that a virtuous Muslim woman should cover her hair is that it makes men randy to look at it. Or, more euphemistically, that she should "save her beauty for her husband".

No Muslim readers who can help me get this straight?

07 May, 2006 17:34  
Blogger Martin said...

Vitnir, you do realise that your comment to this entry made it clear that you only come here by googling on naughty words.

07 May, 2006 20:26  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only people from the muslim world that I know have been atheists, communists etc. I have to ask myself too.
My googling skills are sorry to witness, I'm not revealing how many searches it took to find the correct Cato reference. I'm also too whimpy to google naughty words, so many hacked websites with virus lurking. I'm browsing with Firefox with the additional security of "NoScript" for evil java code. On your page I block who apparently wants to know more about me.
Googling for naughty muslim words got me to the page "United States Camel Hair Shawl"
Not to your page, sorry.


07 May, 2006 21:24  
Blogger Martin said...

That is one seriously naughty shawl! If my wife were a Muslim, and not an ex-Buddhist, I'd ask her to wear that shawl around her hair like a decent woman. And nothing else.

07 May, 2006 21:57  
Blogger Miss Gillette said...

Enligt den roman jag nyligen har översatt och just korrläser, och som är skriven av en 25-årig muslimsk kvinna i Australien, påbjuder Koranen att såväl män som kvinnor klär sig "anspråkslöst" eller "anständigt" (förf. har inget citat ur Koranen men har valt ordet "modestly" för att beskriva hur klädseln ska vara. Enligt denna unga kvinna är valet att bära eller inte bära slöja antingen ett resultat av ett socialt tvång -- företrädesvis hos lågutbildade muslimer som mest följer traditionerna på den ort där de bor eller som de har utvandrat från -- eller också, som hos de bättre utbildade, ett sätt att visa att man är troende muslim, ett synligt bevis på ett aktivt ställningstagande. Hon beskriver normalmuslimen ungefär så att jag känner igen mig i den svenska normalkristendomen: många är inte särskilt aktivt troende, och de flesta vill heller inte tvinga nån till nåt som vederbörande inte själv ställer upp på.

I romanen finns också representanter för den riktning som verkligen tvingar kvinnor att bära slöja, och den sidans argument tycks mycket riktigt vara att det är slampigt att visa håret hur som helst. Din parallell med bikinibehån verkar rätt adekvat, åtminstone om man kompletterar bilden med att det finns miljoner kvinnor i väst som det inte bekommer det minsta att sola topless, precis som det finns hur många muslimska kvinnor som helst som känner sig fullkomligt väl till mods utan hårdöljare (behöver ju inte vara en slöja).

08 May, 2006 10:24  
Blogger Martin said...

Maybe the actual fact is that Mohammed and his 7th century pals used to get really turned on by the sight of female hair, but that today's Muslim men are more jaded.

08 May, 2006 10:33  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or that it's true that in some muslim cultures women realy are thought of as property to the father and later to her husband. Much like a donkey or a camel. I'm not comfortable with allowing that kind of thinking in my country. I usually think that the radial feminists in Sweden are nuts but they are on to something in this case.

08 May, 2006 14:09  
Blogger Martin said...

So should shawl-wearing women lose the right to vote in public elections? It would be a reasonable step if we believe that they're bullied into wearing shawls by their fathers or husbands.

08 May, 2006 14:33  
Blogger Miss Gillette said...

Du sa: "Maybe the actual fact is that Mohammed and his 7th century pals used to get really turned on by the sight of female hair, but that today's Muslim men are more jaded."

Har mejlat med Mohamed Omar på Minaret idag; han säger att slöjkravet har hårdnat i och med den nya fundamentalismen inom islam. Och som vi alla vet är majoriteten av muslimerna inte fundamentalister. Så nog för att jag tycker det är fånigt att M Sahlin sätter på sig slöja när hon håller tal i förorten, men jag håller ändå med dig, Martin, om att man måste lita på att de allra flesta har en fri vilja och klär sig som de själva vill.

(Här vidtar diskussionen om vad en fri vilja egentligen är och hur hjärntvättad jag är som av "fri vilja" noppar benen, men det där berörde du ju redan i bikiniteorin.)

08 May, 2006 15:23  
Blogger A.R.Yngve said...

Men bikini är inte en "gammal" tradition... betänk vad som kom före den: den hela baddräkten, baddräkten med byxor, baddräkten som täcker armar och ben (plus hatt), skåpet som transporteras ända ned till vattenbrynet...

Kort sagt: Bikinin byggdes inte på en dag. Vem vet var "traditionen" står om att visa huvudets hår om hundra år.

(Men en SKALLIG kvinna då? OM hon inte har nåt huvudhår alls, slipper hon bära sjal då?)

10 May, 2006 11:01  
Blogger Martin said...

Sure, things have changed fast in the West. But as Molle said, many Muslims are moving the other way and becoming more Medieval. I gather that quite a number of Muslim women living in Sweden only started wearing shawls when they came here, because in their countries of origin their Muslim identity wasn't perceived as threatened in the same way.

10 May, 2006 11:12  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post has been included in the 15th carnival of feminists, found here.

21 May, 2006 07:02  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This seems to ignore the fact that there are many beaches in many countries -- primarily Western Europe -- where bikini tops are entirely optional.

29 May, 2006 19:29  
Blogger Martin said...

Topless sunbathing is of course legal in Sweden, but not very common these days. As a kid in the early to mid-80s I saw quite a lot of boobs at beaches, but that fashion was dropped in the Age of the Yuppie. It seems that most women in Sweden nowadays like to wear a bikini top on the beach.

29 May, 2006 20:21  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a fundamental misconception here - the wearing of the shawl is not a Muslim requirement. It is fairly uncommon in Indonesia, for example, the most populous Muslim country on Earth. Rather, it is an Arabic cultural requirement that has been adopted by many non-Arabic (but Muslim) communities. Irshad Manji, for example, calls this Arabic cultural imperialism. (In short, Arabia was the homeland of the Prophet, so you should adopt our ways. The Quran should only be read in Arabic. Etc.) I think that seeing it as a cultural issue, rather than a religious issue, puts a bit of a different spin on it. The requirement to wear a shawl is no longer a religious one, but just a cultural one.

(I am simplifying things somewhat, but I think it's important to separate religious requirements from cultural ones. In Canada, for example, children are banned from carrying knives at school. Sikh children, however, are allowed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to carry kirpans because they are an important part of the Sikh religion. I would still be against banning shawls, but just want to put it into perspective. Without realizing it, some people are buying into Arabic cultural imperialism in the false belief they are following a religious requirement.)

29 May, 2006 22:22  
Blogger Martin said...

Good point, but then, is it meaningful to separate cultural traits from religious ones? I don't think so. It's all in our minds.

30 May, 2006 10:01  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely it's meaningful to separate the two. If not, one can have some trait on the basis of false pretenses. Bombing abortion clinics is a radical-right extremist Southern Bible-belt wacko thing to do, not a Christian thing to do. But of course those who condone such actions represent it as a Christian thing. How can those outside the Christian community easily distinguish between 'genuine' Christian traits and extremist traits?

I used Indonesia as an example earlier. Indonesia has a architectural tradition for its mosques that is quite different from that of the Arabian penninsula. However, the Saudis are spending vast amounts of money in Indonesia to promote Wahabbism, the Saudi form of Islam. The mosques they build with this money look like mosques in downtown Riyadh. Now, I'm not privy to Allah's thoughts on the matter, but are Saudi-style mosques superior to native Indonesian style mosques? I don't see why. However, they are being imposed on Indonesia by Saudi money and traits.

The problem arises when cultural traits are being mistaken for religious traits. Are all Muslim women in Sweden who wear shawls of Arabic background? For those who are not, why are they wearing the shawl? Are they under the mistaken impression that is is a Muslim duty? If so, they are misinformed. It would be sad if they genuinely feel they are doing their religious duty when they are actually bowing to the dictates of a foreign culture.

30 May, 2006 16:51  
Blogger Martin said...

My reply grew into a blog entry.

30 May, 2006 19:58  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I highly suggest reading H. Hoodfar's "The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: Veiling Practices and Muslim Women." I couldn't find it on GoogleScholar, but if you search for it you'll find many articles which reference this article and can get the gist of her story.

The short hand is that women chose to wear the veils for a variety of reasons - the author herself is a college educated woman who choses to wear the veil while she lives in Canada. This fact that women in free countries are not forced by anyone to wear them yet still chose to is key to her arguement.

Most interestingly she remarks that in Muslim culture, a woman wearing a veil can take it off in the presence of a man as an insult to him - it means she does not think of him as a "real" man.

It's an interesting topic, but there's far too much misinformation going around on it for many discussions to get deep into it.


31 May, 2006 17:13  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'll preface my comment with I didn't google to get here :)

"But there is a gender asymmetry: women are expected to react with disgust if a man shows them his taboo parts in the wrong context, even if he's an attractive specimen. Men, on the other hand, are expected to enjoy the corresponding sight in an attractive woman immensely."

Do you think that's incorrect? I mean do you think women want to look at naked just as much as men would want to look at breasts? Even if a man is "an attractive specimen" it doesn't make penises better looking, I would think. Breasts are smooth and rounded (generally), but penises are just kinda odd - don't ya think?

25 January, 2007 06:39  
Blogger Martin said...

Interesting idea -- you're suggesting that the reason that women don't applaud flashers is that men are intrinsically less beautiful than women. Well, I don't agree. I don't think anything has intrinsic beauty.

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Women would love to be flashed by men if culture taught them that this were a desirable thing.

25 January, 2007 09:35  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to inform you of one thing. Firstly, a woman is required to wear the head scarf by the quran( the word of god), not by her husband or father. This is a misconseption based on customs and tradition.Second, If you ever saw a woman modestly coverd , including hair and boday . And then saw her in shorts, t-shirt, hair flowing and some make-up, she would look alot more attractive. Hence, the reason to cover up. You know this is not a new thing. most religeous woman have done this for centuries. eg. nuns, Mary mother of Jesus and woman in europe couldnt even show their ancles at one time. Hm... I wonder if their fathers and husbands made them dress that way...

21 February, 2007 14:45  
Blogger Martin said...

1. To myself and many other liberal people, the Quran is a book written by a man in the Early Middle Ages, embodying strongly patriarchal principles.

2. It is not self-evident that female beauty should need to be covered up. In the opinion of myself and many other liberal people, it is a joy to look at.

21 February, 2007 15:00  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you or anyone else have a question about women in islam or a question about islam in general? you know with it getting such a "bad" immage and all. By the way Islam does not supress women by making them dress modestly , Islam gave them the right to vote when no government before it did. eg. not so long ago in in britain women could not even open a checking account in their name, had to be the husband!

21 February, 2007 19:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, who said that wearing a headscarf is cultur and tradition? that person obviously hasnt studied islam or has a clue about what they're saying! Too much missinformation going around! somebody needs to clear up all the missconceptions about this religeon. let the people know the truth and then to each his own .

22 February, 2007 00:52  

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