Shawls and Bikini Tops
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!
[More blog entries about feminism, islam, gender, women, taboo; feminism, genus, islam, kvinnor, tabu.]