Many are quick to condemn female clothing restrictions in Saudi Arabia and rightfully so for dictating a woman’s choice of clothing is an oppressive, archaic tradition. A tradition that does not escape Western society, as the recent burkini bans in France have evidenced. Too many have joined the burkini debate in favor of the ban, hypocritically rationalizing it as oppressive all whilst stripping women of their right to choose to wear it. Even some opposing the ban maintain a position that the burkini is an antiquated tradition, the remnants of a backwards way of life, as Juliet Samuel of The Telegraph writes “It harks back to an age, still dominant in much of the world, when a woman’s worth was measured by her modesty.”
We have forgotten that the expression of freedom lies in the choice, not the clothing of choice.
This reasoning stems from the idealization that we have created an environment of liberalism because a woman, today, can dress in revealing clothing without judgement (to some degree, and I say this generously) when there was a time that she couldn’t. But what the burkini ban suggests is that rather than a woman’s worth being “measured by her modesty” it is today measured by her nakedness. We have forgotten that the expression of freedom lies in the choice, not the clothing of choice. It is not the burkini or the burka that is archaic but the definition that limits a woman’s value and expression of freedom to her clothing or lack thereof. It is the thought process that allows a singular standard of dress for women to be considered “acceptable”. It is the way in which the choice of those who don’t adhere to this standard is diminished; the way in which Muslim women and all women who choose to dress modestly are shamed, ostracized and painted as submissive and weak.
How have we progressed by creating an expectation for women to conform to a non-conservative dress code despite their desire to dress conservatively? We have yet to create an environment where a woman’s choice to dress as she pleases is respected and nurtured, whether that be a bikini or burkini. Instead, we have managed only to create a despotic body image of a free woman.
We need to revisit our history books and examine the objective in the battles fought for women’s equality. We cannot continue to preach liberalism and imagine ourselves world leaders in women’s rights while stripping them from a select minority. There are many fundamental aspects to a woman’s expression of freedom, equal in significance to clothing, and what is common between them is her choice.