by Grania Spingies
A few days ago I wrote about a new sports outfit for Afghanistan’s women soccer players. It always disappoints me bitterly when Westerners help prop up parochial norms in other societies, especially ones that have have been enforced against women without their consent or approval of those women – or of society in general . The one bright light in that story is that perhaps some girls will get to participate in a sport that they might not have been able to.
Now there’s a new example of this closer to home. Marks & Spencer in the UK now offers a swimsuit, the burkini, for sale. Their sales pitch is this:
This burkini suit covers the whole body with the exception of the face, hands and feet, without compromising on style. It’s lightweight so you can swim in comfort. [Ed. by Grania: Yeah right.]
Its other use is to avoid sunburn, and I suppose if someone wants to appear in public in a full gimp suit, that’s their own business.
While some people are patting M&S on their collective heads for embracing multiculturalism–and I am sure this outfit was marketed with the very best of intentions–what they are also doing is endorsing the mindset that says that women’s bodies are shameful, and are to be regarded as the property of either their fathers or husbands. They are to be concealed under the guise of “modesty” and “virtue”, very often with the explicitly stated corollary that those women who do not cover up are immodest, dishonorable and immoral.
There is no way for any woman to win when faced with that sort of choice. You are doomed if you comply, you are damned if you refuse.
We all know that pretty much the only proponents of this point of view in the 21st century are conservative religious authorities.
Back in the 1950s it was the Catholic pope bitterly complaining about the bikini when Kiki Håkansson won the Miss World beauty pageant wearing one. History is silent on what the pope, the epitome of celibacy, was doing watching beauty pageants. We only know that he didn’t like it and felt it incumbent upon him to say so in public.
For years the Miss World pageant in all its tawdry and pointless glory treated Western religious sensibilities with the contempt they deserved. In 2013 they did a 180 degree about-face on the bikini issue. The reason? The organisers were afraid of offending Muslims in that year’s host country, Indonesia. To be clear on this, the host country had not demanded anything of the sort. This was a “proactive” decision taken unilaterally by the organisers, and in so doing they sent out a very clear message that the only the feelings of the most conservative religious people mattered. As Dr Brooke Magnanti wrote in The Telegraph:
[I]t continues to be surprising that many feminists seem to have no great problem with this. Sure, the ends some wanted have been achieved. Bikinis gone thanks to the Pope or Muslims or whoever it is this time. But at what cost? As they say where I come from (the US), ‘you got to dance with the one who brung you’. Such dirty alliances always, always, come with a hidden cost. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what outcome religious conservatives of any faith are aiming for when they order the womenfolk to cover up.
So why is this a problem in a cosmopolitan melting pot like the UK in 2016? When retailers in Western Europe produce these sorts of garments, they are not “helping” women. They are pandering to the whims of male ultra-conservative religious leaders, and in so doing are tacitly endorsing the misogyny contained in all such religious edicts on female clothing. Like the well-meaning fools who rushed out to don a hijab in a show of solidarity (and lack of neural activity), it betrays those Muslim women in the community who do not wish to conform to whatever the most conservative and parochial voices of self-appointed leaders have ordained acceptable. These acts endorse and promote the worldview of those who suggest that women are to be treated like children or possessions. It severely undermines the voices of women who wish to live as authors of their own lives.
Here’s a simple test: if you are promoting clothing that looks like it predates everything in the last century and at least half of the century before that, you are promoting the opposite of progress.