My wife returned from an afternoon at the local waterpark. There our kids met some of their best friends. Their father, knowing a bit about what I do, asked my wife why the Muslim women present at the park were bathing fully clothed. My wife simply said that their faith motivated them to not display their body in public. To which, he retorted, “they have nothing to be proud of.” Indeed several of the women were plumper than they may have been as younger women. This story left me shaking my head. Disregarding the logical problem of concluding that only “hotties” should be modest, I was struck by the obvious implications that somehow that by swimming full clothed suggested that they were more oppressed than the women frolicking in bikinis. I am not arguing that there is no gender oppression in Muslim societies, but I will argue that it only takes a different form of the oppression facing Western women. In either Muslim societies or Western societies, the degree to which women are oppressed depends on the specific society and even on the specific women. However, we must ask is whether the Burqa is any more oppressive than Barbie and the Bikini.

The Burqa

The Burqa is properly called Hijab and the Burqa per se, in Afghani not pan-Islamic (but I cannot work out the alliterations on the Western side of the equation). Islamic law requires both men and women to cover their aurat, which can be define as those areas which are provocative to the opposite sex. Jabar Adlan, a Javanese alim argued that the concept of aurat was culturally bound and how the need for women to cover their head is Arabic culture. For men, the aurat is from just above the navel to just below the knees and hence is all that must be covered for prayers. However, it is better to use long sleeved shirts, long pants or a sarong (some would argue a sarong is better because it does not clearly define the form of the legs and buttocks), and a head covering. If one uses these in everyday life it is better still. As for a woman’s aurat, this is in-part culturally defined. Clearly, a woman’s aurat would minimially include the same areas as a mans but would also include her breasts. More than that is open for interpretation, Jabar argued. In practice, the aurat for women generally extends down to the ankle and to the wrists. However, he argued, that because Javanese men are not aroused by hair, necks, or ears, the hijab is not necessary in Java.

Barbie

The constant demand on American women to be perfect and to be “on-display” is just as much gender based oppression as any faced by women in Muslim cultures. And even though Barbie has lost her physically impossible figure, she still portrays a nearly impossible standard of female physical beauty. The angst with which many American women face “swimsuit” seasons speaks to this. It also it speaks to the idea that women can and should display as much of their body as possible. For whose benefit? Why is this desirable? Although there may be swimsuits which hide flaws, the idea of swimming fully clothed is ludicrous for the mainstream American women. This image of female physical perfection drives many multi-billion dollar industries: swimwear, diet, cosmetics, apparel, jewelry (costume and otherwise). A widespread rejection of these values would cause society backlash for no other reason than its economic affect. One might argue that the psychological pressure to physical perfection fails to compare to the oppression faced by Muslim women. I find such an argument empty, but let’s say that we grant that point. What about the physical impact of Barbie and the Bikini — eating disorders which affect between 5 and 10 percent of American women, according to The National Institute of Mental Health.

Conclusion
To see the gender oppression in someone else’s culture while being blissfully blind to it in your own is the worst sort of ethnocentrism. It is not merely judging another culture by the standards of your own, but judging another culture by standards which even your own fails to meet. Barbie, the Bikini, and the Burqa each represent the power of a patriarchal society to control women’s bodies. Is one better or worse than the other? I leave that to philosophers. For me, oppression is oppression.