“Women in the West are sexually exploited. They are portrayed indecently in their media.”
That’s a paraphrase of the words printed on the inside cover of my Grade 5 school book in Iran. And while I don’t recall the precise wording, the message made a lasting impression on me.
I instinctively felt that objectification of women in the West did not justify subjugation of women in the East.
What I read in that textbook in 1981, and what I learned in Iran in many contexts, did contribute to my looking critically at how women are treated and sexualized in Western media and culture. And when I came to Canada with my family in 1983 at the age of 12, I could see, in ways that some of my peers could not, the impact of fashion magazines and the movie and television industries on girls’ free will, on our conduct, and certainly on how we dressed.
Bikinis or burqas: is one a sign of greater emancipation and one a sign of greater oppression? Is it outrageous to ask the question?
There are vast differences between the institutions and value systems that permit or require these extremes. Still, neither system grants us women complete autonomy. And neither frees us from objectification or coercion.
Neither the protectionism of religion nor the liberation of secularism; neither the modesty of a long, flowing dress, nor the freedom to go shirtless on public streets; neither the building of a closer relationship to G-d, nor the legislation of gender equality; none of these have succeeded in granting women complete autonomy over our bodies and our choices.
None of these have freed us from sexual harassment and assault. None of these have stopped the rape of women and girls in war. None of these have stopped abusive marriages. None of these have stopped the trafficking of young girls and the marriage of young girls to much older men. None of these have placed us on an equal footing in high-powered jobs and in the boardroom.
I am not arguing that as a progressive, inclusive society, we should embrace or even permit all religious practices or restrictions. We do not and we must not. And I am not arguing that the political, religious and cultural institutions that permit bikinis or require burqas have equal impact on women’s rights or even equal moral legitimacy. They do not.
But unlike theocracies or extreme interpretations of religion, progressive liberal democracies give us the freedom to engage in meaningful discussion instead of coercion. And that is precisely why the liberal democratic state should not overstep its role and irresponsibly legislate what women cannot wear.
What could we discuss?
My views may seem irrelevant to some — after all, I am not even Muslim (I am Jewish) — so who am I to offer my opinion? Yet for years, I adhered to and internalized the Iranian State’s values with regards to modesty, so much so that when we first arrived in Spain after leaving Iran, I refused to remove my hijab. In Canada, I resisted wearing shorts. And I did not wear a bikini until my late 20s. Many Jews, as well, adhere to a strict notion of modesty in dress. So I have had my own discussions about these complex issues, and have arrived at my own conclusions. I have clearly and consciously chosen progressive, liberal democracy, despite its shortcomings in achieving gender equality, over state-sanctioned or culturally imposed religious authority.
I know the undeniable value of discussion and citizen engagement in a robust democracy.
Dialogue over dogma: we need to have an open, honest and civil discussion about bikinis, burqas and everything in between. It is incumbent on us to have this conversation, for the sake of our democracy and the rights and freedoms we cherish. This is a discussion we need to have, before we think about whether there is a need or justification for a next step.
But the people having this discussion first should not be decision-makers who then impose broad discriminatory laws. They should be women, primarily. We should be having the discussion about bikinis and burqas. We — women — must engage in an open, meaningful exchange about our choices and challenges; societal and cultural pressures and freedoms; oppression and liberation; sexism and misogyny; and whether bikinis or burqas are appropriate in certain circumstances. We, including burqa-wearing women. We must make every effort to have respectful discussions in the absence of a sense of moral or religious superiority.
Through dialogue, understanding and mutual trust, we will achieve better social cohesion.
So when it comes to bikinis and burqas, let’s seek conversation, not coercion.