Why Western Feminism Needs To Fight Against The Oppressive 'Burkini'
A few weeks ago, Marks & Spencer (M&S) started selling the 'burkini'. For £49.50, wearers can “cover your whole body with the exception of the face, hands and feet, without compromising on style”.
Burkinis were popularised for Muslim women, so their 'modest' dress – key for Islamic womenswear – could also be worn whilst on the beach. Made of swimsuit material, it covers the whole body except the face, the hands and the feet.
Not everyone was happy to see the British retailer selling an Islamic piece of clothing, including the Telegraph. But the paper opposed it for the wrong reasons, claiming it's regressive for women in the Western world, because it's "an insidious attempt to normalise the treatment of a woman’s body as something to be embarrassed about".
But the problem isn't that a renowned retailer is selling it – with a rising Muslim population in Britain, we should welcome diverse clothing choices. But there's a problem with burkinis when choice isn't a guarantee.
I'm aware that whether imperative modest Muslim clothing is misogynist or not is a subjective, seemingly answerless discussion. Where some women of Islamic faith reject the idea of the burkini/burka/veiling, others note the 'empowering' influence of hiding the female form away from the male gaze.
And yet, there are qualities in modest clothing for women, especially where it is instated with law, that are oppressive. And to deny or overlook that as a women's rights activist risks furthering what men's rights activists and anti-feminists argue – that Western feminism lets down women who need it the most.
There's a difference between having a choice, and being forced. Of course if a woman chooses to wear a burkini, burka or a hijab, everyone's a winner; the same goes for a gal who dons a thong bikini by the pool or hot pants in the high street. But the reality for many Muslim women is that the burkini and other modest wear is often not a choice.
Safiya Alfaris, a 20-something progressive Muslim feminist living in the North of England, believes wearing modest clothing, in particular the burka, is not a choice for most Muslim women. It may seem like that at first, but after a lifetime of expectations to cover everything up, expectation, pressure and lack of options blur into one.
Recently writing about burkinis and the suppression that comes with forced modesty for Muslim ladies, Alfaris is advocating for reform of the religion. She tells me she is "of the belief that modesty is a good quality, however it is not necessarily defined by what one wears, but rather it's an attitude."
"I have no problem, however with women who wish to wear hijab or abayah to cover their bodies. What I do have a problem with is the perceived notion that to be a good Muslim you need to wear one or should wear one."
She adds that she is "no supporter of the niqab or burka, which is so imposing and covers a woman up totally. There is absolutely no need to walk around like that. In my opinion, it is not civil, and it is not Islamic, for I know, a real loving god would not women walking around like that."
When it comes to burkinis, Alfaris is vocal that if it means women can get involved in an activity she wouldn't be allowed to enjoy otherwise, that's no problem. Her issue though, "runs deeper than that." She tells me the "popularisation of the burkini is pandering to male dominance, feeding the agenda of some men who wish to control women, control what they wear, what they do and how they come across. Control their bodies."
If, where religion was not involved, a woman was pressured to completely cover up by a man who can happily strip off to his shorts in the scorching sun, we in the West would cry misogyny. But it seems, when it comes to women elsewhere in the world, especially in the East, feminism can just shrug it off. They are 'there', and we are 'here'.
Alfaris says how important it is "for feminists of all backgrounds address the burkini, burkah, hijab etc." Noting it is "very difficult for most muslim women to speak out" on such mandated dress, she believes "it must be addressed by those from all backgrounds in order to create a platform that helps those who do feel oppressed by such 'modest' wear."
In contrast, in a video for the Guardian, Hanna Yusuf explains how many women find it empowering to reject being reduced to their sex appeal and not all women are forced into covering up. In the video she asks: "In a world where a woman's value is often reduced to her sexual allure, what could be more empowering than rejecting that notion? By covering up, we reject the message that women must be sexy."
Of course nobody can tell anyone else to wear a burkini or not, but it's vital for feminism to provide the platform for women who do feel oppressed by it.
Following the Femen protest where two of their activists stormed a Muslim conference (held by a preacher who openly promotes male marital dominance) topless, many were quick to climb back on the "Islamophobic" horse – a label that's plagued the feminist group for years. Similarly, many who have dared to criticise parts of Islam are deemed Islamophobes or anti-Muslim, which isn't always true.
Spectator blogger Agnieszka Kolek is on side with the Femen activists (who are actually of Muslim backgrounds), arguing that battling genuine misogyny – like forced modesty – is fighting "for women’s rights in a way many would never dare" and that she wishes "other feminists were as outspoken and unapologetic in calling out genuine misogyny."
It's a risk as an atheist like myself to call out suppression within Islam, something I've feared for some time. After all, I've no first-hand knowledge of the female Muslim experience. But, as Kolek instates, it's time to unapologetically stick up for women of all backgrounds. This isn't about refuting every element, just criticising the oppressive ones. This isn't about rejecting the burkini all round, but defending free choice.
It'd be naive to ignore problems with feminism, like with any movement. Each wave of feminism – in particular the third and, narrowly the fourth – often forgets its suffering allies of different backgrounds. It also often forgets its cause – to wage war on misogyny against women, whoever those women are.
The usual argument against Lena Dunham's feminism is her very white, middle-class approach to menial white girl problems. While her on-screen conversations about urban love, online equality and body positivity channel very Western problems (which need fighting, btw) it's fair that we all pressure her, other celeb feminists and ourselves to also fight for the cause of the overtly-oppressed; in this case, anyone forced to wear a burkini.
"Just because these issues don't affect Western feminists, it doesn't mean that they shouldn't be addressed," Alfaris tells me. "In fact that is even more reason to challenge them, openly. To call out those that mandate hijab, so that future generations of Muslim women don't feel that they must wear hijab or dress a certain way in order to show themselves as being a good muslim. In conclusion, this is an important issue which must be addressed to allow all women the freedom of a free choice."
White feminism ignores violations aimed at women in other parts of the world too regularly, something I believe to be a shameful quality of how feminism can be. Fighting for gender equality in Britain isn't just about standing up to the UK's pay gap, rape statistics or street heckles. While these issues are incumbent to tackle, so is defending women elsewhere, who perhaps could do with another voice to back them up.
It's obligatory for us as people to stand up for human rights abuses, not that only affect ourselves, but that damage the lives of others. Because what impacts me, impacts you too.
By Lydia Morrish, publish on 29/04/2016