For most of my life, I’ve traveled between the US and the Middle East. During the school year, my neighbors and friends were devout Christians in Texas. In the summers, I socialized with my extended family and friends who were equally devout Muslims in Egypt. Each society believed the other oppressed its women. Both based these conclusions on the covering or uncovering of women’s bodies.
My Christian friends often lamented how Muslim women must be subjugated under the headscarves and long gowns that they presumed were imposed on them by men. The hijab, in its various forms, corroborated the Orientalist critique that the Middle East had failed to modernize with the rest of the world. Meanwhile, my Muslim friends pitied American women for exposing so much of their bodies due to a presumed need to please men’s sexual desires in a patriarchal society. Bikinis and miniskirts was further proof that hedonism and materialism was subjugating women in Western society.
Thus, the current debate over Burkinis is just the latest iteration of a transnational fixation on women’s bodies in public debates over morality, modernity, and freedom — with a new twist. Women’s bodies are now at the center of national security anxieties. Weeks prior to the Burkini bans passed by over fifteen French cities, a French citizen killed eighty five people when he ploughed through a crowd in Nice. The tragedy understandably engendered debates on how to improve security in France.
But the perpetrator’s Muslim identity also unleashed collective punishment on France’s Muslim population, with a particular focus on women. Indeed, French controversy over Muslim women’s head coverings has surpassed purported claims to preserve laicite. What a woman wears now affects whether citizens feel safe from terrorism. That is, the very sight of a Burkini in France instills fear and anxiety among (non-Muslim) French citizens.
Such irrational fears are privileged over France’s proclaimed commitment to individual liberty, as the Muslim woman is denied her right to choose what to put on her body in a public beach. Instead of being viewed as an individual French citizen with liberty rights, she is a representative of a group held in contempt solely for its religious affiliation.
The Burkini controversy in France, however, is not much different than the culture wars over abortion in America. Nor is it dissimilar to cultural family honor codes in Muslim majority countries. In America, women’s bodies are at the center of moral debates about life, death, and morality. If a woman becomes pregnant, her choice as to whether to carry the fetus to full term is not a matter of private liberty. Rather, it is at the center of a heated public debate about when life begins and murder occurs. As lawsuits and media campaigns contest these issues, American women’s bodies are transformed into passive vessels. The latest chapter in this culture war was recently on full display when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that shut down fifty percent of the state’s abortion clinics.
Similarly, in many Muslim majority countries, women shoulder the burden of preserving the family’s reputation and honor in society. If her clothing or behavior signals a lack of morals or sexual promiscuity, the entire family’s reputation is tarnished. All the while, her male relatives are often given a free pass if they violate religious tenets. Thus, what a woman places on her head, face, and body are a matter of public concern in a patriarchal society. While most Muslim-majority societies enforce these rules through cultural practices, Saudi Arabia and Iran have codified into law women’s dress codes in public—much like the French city laws banning the Burkini.
Women in both Eastern and Western societies face multiple coercive measures—through law, religious precepts or social pressures—to manage their bodies in ways that appease patriarchal norms. Whether the fight is over a woman’s reproductive organs or her hair, the latest Burkini ban controversy shows that the fixation on women’s bodies traverses continents. Until women’s bodies are no longer the political footballs in policy debates that hold little regard for a woman’s individual liberty, gender oppression will remain a transnational problem.
Sahar Aziz is a professor of law at Texas A&M University School of Law and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. She is the author of From the Oppressed to the Terrorist: Muslim American Women Caught in the Crosshairs of Intersectionality
This article first appeared in The New Arab and is reprinted here by permission.