Of Burkas And Bikinis: Exercise, Body Image, And The Veil

Does wearing modest dress free Muslim women from the pressure of being a sex object? And is that the point? Two recent articles today explore these issues, with some help from Naomi Wolf.

The first is about not politics, but exercise. Abby Ellin writes in the Times about the unique challenges some Muslim women face in maintaining both fitness and modesty. Some prefer not to work out in front of men, while others are dissatisfied with the choices of exercise-wear available to them (one woman interviewed finds the embattled burkini too formfitting when wet). What's surprising about Ellin's article, though, is it take on exercise, modesty, and beauty.

Ellin writes, "On the one hand, Muslim women are spared some of the body-image issues that other women face; on the other, that freedom can be a detriment to their physical well-being." Then she quotes personal trainer Mubarakha Ibrahim, who says,

We don't have the external motivation that non-Muslim women have. There is no little black dress to fit into, no bathing suit. When you pass through a mirror or glass you're not looking to see ‘Is my tummy tucked in? Do I look good in these jeans?' You're looking to see if you're covered.

Ibrahim's words make a certain amount of sense — after all, much of American exercise culture is geared towards looking good. But did Ellin really have to recast this by implying that freedom from body image issues is bad for Muslim women's health? In fact, the rest of the article makes it sound like a dearth of women-only gyms and the inadequacy of modest workout wear are bigger health risks to Muslim women than an inability to see their "tummies" in a mirror. Isn't it possible that modest dress might make Muslim women healthier, by exempting them from the pressure for a "bikini ready body" that can lead to eating disorders and feelings of inadequacy? Maybe not if Ibrahim has anything to do with it. She tells Ellin,

One of the ideas I promote is that when you are married and you take off your clothing, your husband should not be like, 'You should put this back on.' Even if you wear a burqa, you should be bikini-ready. You should feel comfortable and sexy in your own skin.

Take out the burqa part, and you've got Self magazine. Apparently modesty on its own doesn't free women from the idea that the point of fitness is to please men — at least, not if they're Ibrahim's clients.

Meghan Daum examines this issue further in an editorial in the LA Times. Inspired by the recent release of Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese woman arrested for wearing pants, Daum looks back at Naomi Wolf's essay in praise of Muslim dress. In it, Wolf wrote,

I put on a shalwar kameez and a headscarf in Morocco for a trip to the bazaar. Yes, some of the warmth I encountered was probably from the novelty of seeing a Westerner so clothed; but, as I moved about the market - the curve of my breasts covered, the shape of my legs obscured, my long hair not flying about me - I felt a novel sense of calm and serenity. I felt, yes, in certain ways, free.

Wolf's description of herself here is weirdly sensual — it sounds like she's saying, "thank God for this veil to hide my lush hotness." And Daum accuses Wolf of fetishizing modesty. She writes, "Wolf, for her part, is hardly the first Westerner to find a kind of romance in the idea of being covered. [...] It's not difficult to understand how demureness and chastity can be a source of fascination, even a kind of fetish, for all kinds of people."

Apropos of Lubna Hussein, Daum is mostly concerned with reminding readers that not every woman gets to choose whether to wear a headscarf (or pants), and this is a valid reminder. But what Wolf's somewhat tone-deaf piece also shows is that non-Muslim women (of which I am one) may not really understand Muslim dress and its relationship to beauty. Wolf seems to think of the veil as a nice respite from a critical, catcalling world. But as Ibrahim's words show, veiled women aren't necessarily immune to body criticism. Ibrahim clearly doesn't speak for all Muslim women, but her comments show that bikini rhetoric is spreading to affect even those who don't wear bikinis.

As Latoya noted last week, there are many reasons Muslim women choose to cover. For many, it's a religious decision. I'm speculating here, but I'd imagine that for these women, not having to look good in a swimsuit is an ancillary, rather than a central benefit. And while Wolf may enjoy the fact that modest dress takes the attention off her body, many women in Europe and America find that the veil actually draws attention to them. But they wear it anyway.

Wolf seems to want to show how different Muslim women are from non-Muslims, how much freer and even sexier life is when lived in modest dress. But really, women face many of the same pressures, veiled or not. As much as Westerners like to talk about the oppressive Middle East, much of the same sexism is visible here. And as much as Wolf trumpets the freedom of modesty, restrictive beauty standards may affect Muslim women too. Rather than romanticizing the veil, as Wolf does, or banning it, as France threatens, we should be campaigning to keep women from being judged on how they look — just one of many issues that affect all of us.

Fitness Tailored To A Hijab [NYT]
The Chador And Feminism Don't Always Fit [LA Times]

Earlier: Is There Feminist Discourse Beyond The Veil?