Looking at the renewed debate around the policing of what is considered appropriate for a woman to wear, or not to wear, since the so-called burqinis were outlawed in a nonsensical move at certain beaches in the South of France, it appears that problematic equivalencies and heaps of invested ignorance are plentiful. As is, simultaneously, a tendency to try ‘shaming’ women and men in the public eye or political sphere as ‘hoe’ and ‘gay’, respectively. So, at a time of widely professed pro-gay-pride and anti-slut-shaming sentiments, it is precisely the very self-determination over one’s body and sexuality that is, and not rarely even within the same circles, turned around in a heartbeat to ‘discredit’ opponents and celebrities (or, heck, your unconventional colleague) by insinuating something (were) ‘shameful’. More recently, there were slut-shaming attempts against Melania Trump (porn, sex worker), and various images depicting Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in a way so as to insinuate homosexuality meant to ‘disgrace’ them as opponents/their politics. The regular excuse that one wants to call out these people’s reactionary, right-wing-populist politics and thus draw attention to their ‘bigotry’ (by what, compulsive copying?) does not hold.
At the same time, not only have there been days of ‘hijab-solidarity’ recently, there is now also a massive rise in sales of burqinis being reported. Let me get a couple of things out of the way: Firstly, I do not care in the least what anyone wears on a beach, and to force a woman to take off or put on clothing is obviously unacceptable. However, the comparisons being made between enforcement of hijab and the outlawing of niqab and burqa, and now the burqini in some areas of France, are problematic for many reasons. These analogies ignore political, social and juridical contexts, and they do not in the least break from the prevalent madonna/virgin-vs-whore paradigm peddled by various modesty- and shame-brigades often with deadly consequence. Secondly, the notion that the recent burqini bans were racism seems an issue, or non-issue, which – paradoxically – those non-Muslim women from any background who rush to burqini-wearing-solidarity must have grasped: that if they are going to get harassed it will be much more likely on the grounds of the ideology suspected due to the garment worn rather than because of their ethnic/’racial’ background. The assertion of racism also implies that the burqini were an issue of ‘civil rights’ for every (?) Muslim (?) woman, and thus disempowers once more those who loudly protest the islamization of their individuality and of public spaces.
Ever since the increased hype around ‘modest’ fashion lines, including the burqini, and some social media hoe-shaming unfolding around the time of this year’s International Women’s Day, I found it increasingly disturbing how these ‘modesties’ and ‘shamings’ currently intersect. And 2016 thus far disturbed the hell out of me (also) in this context. What follows are some thoughts on hoe-shaming at the example of one of the social media spats around nude selfies earlier this year, on the hiding of female bodies and the hype around ‘modest’ fashion, and on the problem of what it means that a term like burqini isn’t questioned in the first place.
This year on International Women’s Day, aside from all the trouble in the world, droves of internet users felt compelled to criticize Kim Kardashian’s then latest nude-ish selfie that came with the line ‘When you’re like I have nothing to wear LOL’ (followed by another nude selfie hash-tagged with #liberation in response to the dissing responses). Things heated up after Bette Midler snidely tweeted ‘If Kim wants us to see a part of her we’ve never seen, she’s gonna have to swallow the camera’. Shortly after, 19-year old Chloë Grace Moretz tweet-lectured Kardashian with the words ‘I hope you realize how important setting goals are for young women, teaching them we have so much more to offer than just our bodies’. KK hit back with a number of comments and more selfies. And on and on it went.
As for International Women’s Day: Not that there’s much to celebrate, nor was celebration ever meant to be the day’s sole purpose. It has, anyway, acquired a connotation similar to both Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. And in midst of violence against women, including genital mutilation and domestic abuse, in various parts of the world (and next door to wherever we are), and, moreover with ‘honour’ murders and slavery, and with culturalizing double-standards going through the roof, one may be forgiven for asking about the need for one day in a year for fancy speeches or spectacular events. Still, it was twice-infuriating to see so many women diss another for ‘having no shame’ or ‘modesty’ around the 8th of March. And it is frustrating to see so many women now rushing to defend what is undoubtedly an Islamist symbol (we’ll get back to that).
One doesn’t need to care about celebrity selfies, censored-nude or otherwise, or the doings of the respective folks themselves, but the arguments erupting around such issues on social media are obviously often an in-a-nutshell expression of wider societal attitudes. The interwebs-whirlwind around that throwback selfie posted by Kardashian is an excellent case in point as far as perceptions of ‘modesty’ and ‘shame’ go, regardless of the wealth and thus relative freedom of the celebrities involved. The entire affair seemed symptomatic for a whole host of things going wrong – and they cannot be relegated to pop culture or the culture industry or whatever we may associate with so-called celebrity feuds. It’s a feud over morals; and KK comes to stand in symbolically for the supposedly depraved ‘West’, or ‘America’, and just the same for anti-feminism, or, in fact, for everything combined, depending on people’s vantage point. A bit like the bikini for some people, perhaps. Of course, the people furiously dissing her came from all sections of society but the interesting point was exactly where it all converges: in widely held sentiments about ‘the real value’ of a ‘woman’, ‘unnaturalness’, ‘modesty’, and ‘shame.’
Reading through comment threads and tweets, one could see a ‘feminist’ majority applauding Midler for her tweet and making a direct comparison, and this is where it’s at: one woman is classy, smart, truly talented, modest, has earned everything through hard work, versus the other who is trash, stupid, has no talent whatsoever, and has earned everything through her body (also with references to her sexual relationships and porn). A few people who commented publicly on Facebook in defence of Kardashian got, in the case of women, the hoe-treatment, too. Mind-boggling enough, in one such case a U.S. American man opted for a choice ‘Muslim slut’ in a comment to a woman in India.
Let’s get back to that well-meaning tweet by Moretz about the responsibility of a celebrity, thus a role model, to teach young women that ‘we have so much more to offer than just our bodies’. That’s funny, so ‘we’ do have our bodies to ‘offer’? Just also, like a bonus, ‘so much more’? Or is it the other way around, and whom are we offering ourselves to? It is the language of the sales pitch that often extends by now to close and personal relationships – today it is no longer the old contract around access to income, housing, reproduction, sex. In the 21st century, we have so much to offer, and it is all about the inside, it is almost a spiritual offering (are we seeing the link to veiling/covering up the ‘distracting goods’ already?). And when it comes to employment/career, the expected sales pitch has become almost indistinguishable from the ‘offerings’ laid at the altar of personal relationships. I suppose, Moretz intended to remind KK and us that brains and talents are what we have to encourage in young women. This is true, and surely true for children and young people of any sex and gender but maybe we should value that for ourselves aside from the sales pitch. And maybe not forget to value and enjoy our bodies with those brains and souls any way we decide while we’re at it, in whichever combination and philosophical tradition we may break down our existence for ourselves.
The emphasis on fighting against the commodification of women’s bodies has begun quite a while ago to be juxtaposed to the freedom to do with one’s body as one wishes. This overlooks, denies, and thus perpetuates another problem: that many women grew up learning to hide, suspect, and feel shame for their bodies; or to treat their bodies like a holy grail, as a prize for only one (male) winner. It is also unsurprising that numerous comments dissing KK not only objected to her publicizing nude images but to her body as such. Most of all, people considered her body ‘fake’ and pointed out how disgusted they are by any and all plastic surgery she may or may not have undergone. Proper women, feminists, women who have brains and talent, who ‘value their body’ and so forth, are ‘natural’ – this appears to be the tenor. So, after a while, it was equally unsurprising to come across comments which linked KK’s ‘fake’/’unnatural’ body to the ‘fake’/’unnatural’ body of Caitlyn Jenner and others. While we all have to ‘be’ and ‘offer’ so much more than just our bodies, the emphasis on the ‘inside’ ends with the verdict of ‘fakeness’. The assumption here of what ‘natural’ supposedly is overlaps with a longstanding feminist strand. In this particular row, there seemed to be a more supportive attitude toward KK from LGBTQ folks. Well, you know you’re not in a good place when people start dissing not only plays on/with nudity but especially ‘unnaturalness’. Meanwhile, and mind-bogglingly, some folks, at least in Berlin, thought it fitting to protest against the French burqini bans with rainbow flags. This is a like a slap in the face and just sickening when I think of all the gay and trans people being murdered in Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, the areas occupied by the Islamic State, and elsewhere. And, oh, the irony that in some places women are throwing off burqa and niqab after having been liberated from Islamic State terror, that in Iran women take off the veils and men put them on in a campaign to ridicule it all, while people in Europe demand and stand in solidarity with covering up.
As for shameful displays of nudity on social media, of course, it is entirely possible that Moretz hinted more at Kardashian’s role-model-status somehow deriving from motherhood. This certainly is a common theme of the shame-brigades. As a mother and wife it was even more irresponsible of KK to post nude selfies, one read. What almost broke the brain, however, were comments stating that ‘women like Kim Kardashian’ are precisely the reason why the Islamic State and other Islamists ‘hate us so much’. Here we are right back with the trope of ‘the depraved West’ (‘America’, but Kanye would do, too, exemplarily, according to some comments). This is where the sentiments of a varied bunch of people seem to intersect at the core. Not only does such a world view go nicely with victim-blaming attitudes, e.g. with that mini skirt she was asking for it, but it also fits with ‘feminist’ approaches which consider, say, the wearing of more revealing clothes and the compulsory wearing of hijab merely two different sides of the same coin. They are hardly just ‘two sides’ and arguably it isn’t the ‘same coin’ either. The idea that concealing one’s body would in any way indicate a ‘higher morale’ and/or actually prevent objectification of women’s bodies is not only ludicrous but once more a regressive fetishizing of female bodies. How is having to hide one’s body, and even (a part of) one’s face not the height of objectification?
For someone who lived through a feminist coming-of-age when wide, baggy clothing was becoming the hallmark of liberation, it has been interesting to see this trend moving into a – granted, rather well-to-do – mainstream in Europe over the past decade or so. Some artsy, academic and like-minded folks seem to be particularly drawn to things wide, flowy, and a kind of body-con that comes from ‘concealing’. Certain quality brands which market themselves as alternative to the High Street and often don’t produce for the mass market, especially in Europe, have gone since years for the discerning ‘layering’ style for those who can and want to afford it. Most of the clothing in these collections would be perfectly fitting for any runway show-casing ‘modest’ wear or ‘Islamic’ fashion. It is also no surprise that such dress is particularly appealing to many women who work in intellectual, especially humanities and social sciences, and similar environments because these are the places where women will be taken least seriously in clothes that cling to the body (add high heels and make-up beyond the ‘natural’ look). The message, as many women academics, for instance, could surely confirm is that if you are ‘made up’ and, god forbid, looking close to the despised, ‘trashy’ (lest we forget the class resentment) idea of ‘sexy’ then you cannot possibly be a serious thinker.
Women have to go for ‘desexualisation’ or ‘disembodiment’ in order to be ‘taken seriously’. Which is why I am tempted to bet that, for instance in academia, a woman in hijab will be taken more seriously than a woman in high heels, miniskirt and with an extravagant haircut. Generally, one can reveal one’s body, and even work it, so to speak, say, as a practicing artist to a certain extent, hence in all the ways that scream ‘brains’ and in works that provide potentially a vehicle for critical analysis and engagement. That is to say, nude displays or working with one’s body just not as an end in itself, or, let’s face it, as an obvious in-itself-source of income, are acceptable. Considering a climate of ‘shame’, the hating of ‘fakeness’ and a return to (offering) ‘inner values’, concealing and ‘modest’ clothing is hyped ever more, in fashion/style blogs, and not least on the runway.
In early January 2016, Dolce & Gabbana announced the launch of a collection of hijabs and abayas, hash-tagged on Stefano Gabbana’s instagram account with #dgabaya. This was commented on and welcomed by many fashion bloggers, one of whom swooned ‘Stunning clothing! I would love to buy them for a economical price … I’m not a Muslim but I love the style’. Others, hilariously, criticized the announcement as a marketing ploy. No kidding. Aside from luxury brands presenting new ‘modest’, ‘Islamic’ collections, there is in general an ever growing market for every budget. H&M has a ‘modest’ or Muslim Wear line. Marks and Spencer launched the sale of burqinis early this spring and got into a bit of deep water, with, among others criticizing the new line, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown demanding in the Daily Mail to ‘Bin the Burkini!’ Alibhai-Brown had some years ago also strongly supported the French ban of the burqa. Recently, Barbie has gotten hijabified, too, as instagram-star ‘Hijarbie’, and she is meant to be a ‘modest doll who offers Muslim girls a role model’, according to her creator, Haneefah Adam. This is on another level of disturbing, but perhaps not surprising in view of the young age of some little girls whom one can see in various degrees of hijab.
The dissing of nudity and the calls for ‘modesty’, at a time when not least Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists of all genders fight for secularism and thus precisely also for an end to the oppressive linking of ‘morals’ and a specific way of dress, are harmful and align with a puritan and Islamist agenda. In the context of the burqini, it is oftentimes pointed out that Nigella Lawson, of all people, was the first high-profile Western woman to don this garment at a beach in Sydney in 2011. She made headlines for it in the UK and, as ever, her motivations as well as her ‘curvy’ figure were annoyingly scrutinized. Whatever may have been going on, it was later being reported that she only wore the burqini because Charles Saatchi preferred ‘his women to be porcelain white or have alabaster skin’. Well, screw that.
Currently, and aside from all the news reports, one can see a whole array of memes related to the French burqini bans popping up on social media. There are manifold comparisons of the burqini with at first glance similarly covering garments being worn on beaches, a favourite being apparently images of nuns in their habits having a beach day. The implied, or outspoken, question is always ‘Why not ban this?’ The nun/woman-in-religious-convent habit = any-(Muslim)woman burqini equivalence has gotten support not least from Catholic clerics, such as the secretary-general of the Italian Bishops’ conference, Bishop Nunzio Galantino. He has openly criticized the burqini bans, saying that he found it difficult to imagine that a woman in a burqini ‘who enters the water is there to carry out an attack. I can only think of our nuns and I think of our peasant grandmothers who still wear head coverings’. The burqini bans are indeed rather idiotic, but this is not the point here. What interests me are the comparisons, and also Galantino can’t help himself to draw equivalences to women who are, firstly, unlike any everyday civilian woman, members of a religious order and thus wear a kind of uniform. Not to mention that, in this day and age, their garb does not signify an all-encompassing subjugation of women. And, secondly, he misleadingly brings up our obligatory peasant grandmothers; which is almost funny, at least in that it also makes me think of my own peasant-German and urban-Turkish grandmothers and their head scarf, or no head scarf, habits. This whole ‘our grandmothers-wearing-head-coverings’ does of course apply to many countries, including Muslim-majority ones, in that many older women and women in the countryside wear head scarves which are, however, not related to an Islamist agenda. Additionally, cartoons around the burqini ban outrage are abound. One image in particular deserves a closer look; it is by Khalid Albaih and juxtaposes two situations which look ‘the same’ at first glance. But only for a moment; as soon as you look properly at the image, the false equivalences become apparent. Both side-by-side depictions within one frame (on sand-coloured background. Beaches and what, ‘deserts’?) are based on the same visual template: a woman sitting on her knees on the ground while two men stand looming over her. Now, in one of the situations, the woman wears hijab/burqini, and the two men looming over her wear dark uniforms and carry weapons. In the other, the woman has long dark hair freely visible, and the men looming are clad in white jellabahs and carry no weapons but one of them holds a pen in an act of what we may decipher as writing a ticket, a bit like when you get a parking ticket on the spot. It’s all a rather intriguing subtle-ish apologism: as if women in countries enforcing hijab would a) be only harassed by men who do not carry weapons, b) have nothing more to fear than a fine (just as in France), and c) would only be harassed by men. For one, in several countries, it falls under the jurisdiction of cops to enforce sharia, too. Thus, they will be armed and in (depending on country, sometimes in dark coloured) uniforms. Moreover, to suggest as a norm that a mere fine will always get an ‘offending’ woman off the hook means that either the cartoonist does not know what is going on in Iran or Saudi Arabia, not to speak of parts of IS-occupied Iraq and Syria, or that he knowingly draws misleading equivalencies. Finally, what seems also very problematic is the suggestion that it will only and always be men enforcing hijab on women. This is a denial of the fact that women play quite a part in enforcing sharia on other women, if need be in specific women’s brigades. This makes me wonder as to what happened to all the insights in recent decades, gained not least from research into the history of women as complicit and as perpetrators whether in colonialism and slavery or National Socialism and the Holocaust. I’d thought we were over certain simplified perceptions at least since the last major fights over this in feminist circles during the 1980’s/early-90s. I must have been mistaken.
The central issue, however, which is tellingly overlooked in midst of the current outrage over the burqini bans, is the very naming of the garment, and thus highlights the apologism of the Islamist symbolism. As has been pointed out, the look is similar to a diving suit/wet suit. The inventor of the burqini, or at least the designer who claims the trademark on the name in both versions, ‘burkini’ and ‘burqini’, Australian Aheda Zanetti, reportedly says that she created the garment to make women more free. And that she feels she’s empowering women; not least because her customers come from any and all religious backgrounds, and she doesn’t fail to mention women who suffer from skin cancer. But then, and one must ask, why the term ‘burqini’? Were I to be in any way favourably inclined in the first place, and I do think that it is important to think through this particular naming, I might say that ‘hijabini’ would have presented itself, or even a somewhat more snazzy ”jabini’ (with a bit of play on ‘to jab’ included, because a jab at the bikini it is surely, too); or perhaps a more general ‘hoodini’ (it is after all also a tight-fitting hoodie with leggings, and, again, excellent play on word possibilities here). But no, it had to be ‘burqini’/’burkini’, obviously drawing on ‘bikini’ while coming up with a diminutive of ‘burqa’, thus perfectly aligning with the commonplace dictum of ‘two different sides of the same coin’. Yet nobody appears to be disturbed by this naming which constitutes the cutesy-form normalization of what is the most restrictive, most ‘disappearing’, most misogynistic piece of fabric women are being made to wear. Unlike a burqa, the burqini does not cover the face (not to mention the eyes), is rather skin-tight in places and thus really closer to a diving suit; nonetheless, with ‘burqa’/’burqini’ the swimsuit positively references one of the expressions of totalitarian Islam. Zanetti may point to the multi-verse that is her customer base as much as she wants; the naming and identifying is done: burqa-light for everywoman. Faith-inspired ‘modest’ swim wear (for women) is nothing new and also blossoming with new designs and companies that cater to Amish and Jewish women and any woman who covers up on a beach. Hence, the explicit drawing on the most oppressive Islamist ideology in practice spelled out in ‘burqini’ alone should give people ample reason to pause before they go, as currently in various cities and countries, and sit protesting on beach towels in solidarity-makeshift-burqinis or otherwise hijabified. Alas, such pause doesn’t seem to happen.
Personally, while I will side with any individual who is insulted or physically attacked for their dress-code, ‘madonna’- or ‘hoe’-style, religious or otherwise, I would never don hijab in solidarity, and certainly not any piece of garment which, if worn with conviction by a woman, means that it contains a wearer who despises my entire lifestyle and -choices. Incidentally, at least in my experience, my way of living has never been judged by women in varying degrees of hijab from countries where women are expected or forced to cover up, or from a family background that had more or less enforced veiling here. On the contrary, I am called ‘sister’ just so – smoking, alcohol-drinking, no-shame sister in conversation and laughter. One wears hijab out of habit not ideology, and it may change anyway, but not – and this is the difference to the ideological push also in Europe – as a flag or a banner. For the Islamist flag bearers I got no solidarity, and certainly no sisterhood. For anyone who still remembers barricades… that would be the other side. My sisterhood-solidarity belongs, beyond sex and gender, to those folks whom many of these women would rather see enslaved or dead. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and snap a few selfies on my balcony.