GenderHuman Rights

The Burkini-Bikini False Equivalence and Your Disproportionate Outrage

What if I told you that you can condemn bans on the hijab while still acknowledging the very real and urgent mechanisms of coercion underlying it? FANCY THAT.

In this piece I present a two-part thesis:

I, a woman who was coerced into hijab from prepubescent childhood, for 15 years, wholly and unequivocally condemn the French burkini ban as oppressive and borderline fascist.

I am also disturbed and disheartened by the form that rhetoric condemning the burkini ban is taking in liberal media. It is narrow-sighted, dangerous, and strikes me as especially dissonant.

Prepare for some Big Thoughts. (Y’all know the hijab is kind of my obsessive subject, right?)

I: On the Burkini Ban, and Why It Is Not To Be Condoned

A cursory, non-comprehensive takedown

First, for the sake of steel-manning, let me grant proponents of the ban two assumptions (which I don’t entirely agree with as presented): One, Muslim modesty doctrine is inherently oppressive and restrictive to women. Two, condoning public embodiment of such doctrine is not in line with principles of Laicite.

So. Let’s pretend (lolsob) that I am one of these women directly victimized by the very regressive ideology of modesty being opposed here. I have a bit of freedom being allowed to go to a pool in a burkini by my restrictive and intolerant family and community. And you’re going to ban me from that??? Thereby making it so on top of all my other restrictions I can’t swim too?

Thanks, now I’m more isolated and limited than I was before. ‘Cause you’ve also made sure I can’t go to public school or university in my hijab. Well, I guess I’m confined at home now, because no hijab ban law is going to matter to my family who view hijab as a matter of mortal moral incumbency. So here I am stuck at home, unless my family is able and willing to put me in private schooling. And on top of that more forms of public presence are slowly being restricted from me as well.

But sure, ban me from the public in attempt to champion my rights. That will fix things.

Oh but maybe it’s not about me, for all the protestations that hijab is bad because it oppresses girls and women like me. It’s actually about France, about protecting secular culture and community from the taint of extremist religious ideology.

Well. Is facilitating further isolation and insularity of Muslim communities conducive to that goal? If Muslim communities are expected to shape up and deal critically with their own issues of violence and extremism as a matter of civic responsibility, would restricting them from access to public facilities and tools help that?

Even if people within those communities themselves are open and enthusiastic and passionate about the same goals?

If I had been born into the same exact family but we lived in France, all my willingness and desire and affinity to break out of my conservative community into a mainstream secular culture and/or help guide my community thereto, reduce its insularity and increase awareness and tolerance therein– would they have been enough to overcome such restrictions? If I’m not educated, if I’m confined further to my home by these laws, how do I help make the changes compatible with secular culture in my community? How could I do half of what I do now?

How does a voice like mine join the discourse?

(I’ll spare you my own painful story of being banned from swimming in a pool with my class on a Saudi compound in my burkini, how lasting the humiliation and exclusion I felt before peers I desperately wanted to relate to.)

II: On The Burkini-Bikini False Equivalence, and Why It Is So Terrible

Okay, actually the Hijab-Bikini False Equivalence but I liked the alliteration

For perhaps the hundredth time, I see this (I’m sure well-meaning but terribly infuriating) comic making the rounds:


Original source:

And though I’ve seen it a hundred times (and seen the hijab compared to western beauty standards a thousand times), it still manages to knock the breath out of me with how severe and audacious a false equivalence it is.

In short, this is how thoroughly they are not the same:

When a woman’s community acceptance, respect, dignity, employability, marriagiability, physical safety, enfranchisement, social mobility, access to social institutions, freedom, and autonomy hinge upon her daily, unwavering, public adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.

When a woman cannot leave her home in anything other than a bikini without being deemed immoral and her human worth and family’s honor compromised, then we can make this comparison.

When there are severe legal, social, and extrajudicial forces holding a woman’s safety, wellbeing, and livelihood hostage to her adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.

(It should go without saying that some or all of the above systemic constraints manifest with variance across diverse Muslim communities.)

It’s a slap in the face, so hurtful and insulting a comparison it makes it hard for me to breathe looking at it.

Let me address the most common equivocation regarding the above.

It goes something like, well context is important.  While it is probably not fair to compare these on a global level, women are not made to cover in the West like this, see [insert plethora of counterexamples].

It is honestly a bit confusing to me, this idea that prominent examples of women vocally and visibly defending their adherence to hijab in a certain community can act AS EVIDENCE that hijab is not coerced in that context.

Because pointing to visible examples of positive, willing adherence to the hijab does not and cannot speak to what happens in the case of dissent.

Sanctioned modesty is very, very much a pressing and relevant issue in Muslim communities in the West. Women suffering from this are largely invisible, closeted, and unheard, and unfortunately unless one is immersed in the problem, or has access to safe ex-Muslim or reformist Muslim spaces, one is not liable be exposed to this problem, its mechanics, to understand how deep it runs. The Muslim women who have visibility and whose voices are elevated and endorsed by their communities? They are not the ones dissenting to their community’s norms. Is that not intuitive?

I don’t know what people mean or understand by “coercion,” but positive adherence to modesty doctrine does not negate the presence of constraint.

Further to that, positive adherence to modesty doctrine in the presence of social sanction and encouragement is only to be expected.  Conforming to an extant social norm and feeling free and empowered to do so is not only entirely possible in the presence of systemic constraint, but encouraged and enabled by it. Especially if it is adherence within a fold that has no truck with outsiders (eg particularly insular communities).

Because while those who choose to conform are visible, those who are not free to dissent are not.

Looking at the woman who insists she wasn’t made to conform tells you nothing about the woman who didn’t want to conform, and hasn’t anything resembling the visibility to say so.

III: On the Injustice of Disproportionate Outrage to the Burkini Ban

Or,  climbing on the backs of millions of Muslim women in service of anti-racism

Source: Khartoon! By Khalid Albaih

This is a bit tricky for me. I generally dislike social epistemic norms like “you can’t talk about x without also talking about y”.

For instance: “you can’t talk about the oppression of Muslim women without talking about Western imperialism [spoiler alert: yes you can, and, indeed, you must- I’ma blog about this soon]” or “you can’t talk about child abuse and misogyny in PoC communities without talking about poverty and racism.”

I think ‘you can’t talk about x without talking about y’ is a bad epistemic heuristic because it largely carries an always-already assumption that the factors of the latter are necessarily relevant to discussion of the former, and/or an assumption that discussion of the latter will not damage or obscure or take away from discussion of the former, but rather enhance it.

Or even an assumption that the latter is the more pressing problem (eg the misconception that anti-Muslim bigotry–not misogyny, not FGM, not honor violence, not homophobiia– is the only or most pressing problem of oppression plaguing Muslim communities in the West today).

These are assumptions that do not always actually play out.

In this case however…

When I see disproportionate outrage about a minority of women from Muslim communities in France subjected to clothing policing in certain contexts vs equivocation (with a background soundtrack of crickets) about the millions of women subjected to clothing policing globally in the general public in Muslim majority countries and communities,

and when I see rhetoric about the former being used to obscure and deny and minimize mechanics of oppression regarding the latter,

I’m kind of feeling favorably about this sentiment, that it’s unjust to talk about the former without acknowledging the latter.

Because liberal discourse has tended to uncritically sanitize the hijab by effectively stripping it of its social and cultural context.

To take it even further, I find even juxtapositions giving fair measure to both hijab coercion and hijab bans to be insufficient (like the above cartoon by Khalid Albaih depicting two converse horrific human rights violations, in France and Iran respectively).

Look at these two examples, side by side. Look at them. Think about what each represents, the urgency, scale, and credence given to it.

We should feel so lucky that they’re given “equal” consideration, representation side by side.

On the right we have represented the  grand collective of millions of women across dozens of countries and ethnicities whose modesty is policed in incredibly complex and diverse ways (legislative social extrajudicial institutional familial capitalistic sectarian political) that extends to all forms of public presence (as hijab is largely permanent public garb) and that affects matters of basic living (physical safety, education, emotional damage, enfranchisement, mobility, dignity, standing, marriagiability, employability).

And on the left? We have represented one of the few (but unequivocally wrong) instances of converse oppression, manifesting with one type of enforcement (legal) that extends to some forms of public presence (the beach, public educational institutions, civil employment) and largely affects emotional damage and access to public education, government employment, and the beach.

Yet even that one-to-one acknowledgment seems beyond progressive discourse today.

IV: The Awful Marriage of Burkini False Equivalences and Condemnations of the Burkini Ban

Or, trivializing the harm of modesty doctrine in attempt to defend those who adhere to it.

(If your thoughts right now are along the line of it’s not a competition! and there’s no hierarchy of oppression!, this section is for you :))

By Michael Leunig:


The burkini ban is ridiculous and bad. This I agree on, unequivocally. My reasoning for this boils down to it defeats its own purpose by only isolating a marginalized group further, and policing the clothing of others is bad On Principle because it violates bodily autonomy. 

The former argument may or may not be ideologically convincing (it assumes one holds a principle such as things that isolate marginalized groups should not be legally sanctioned or the burkini ban was conceived at least in part in service of oppressed Muslim women). The latter though? The latter should be a sufficient argument per force in condemnation of a ban as oppressive. Policing bodily conduct is oppressive (how I believe this is never justified pertaining to the hijab in particular is explicated here); therefore the burkini ban is oppressive.

And yet, liberal rhetoric condemning the ban seems to find it necessary to sanitize and defend hijab itself in order to oppose banning it.

Rhetoric that paints the notion that hijab can be oppressive to be some kind of unhinged, laughable racism, that again makes facile comparisons to forms of Western dress, implying that the notion of oppressive hijab is either as trivial or as hyperbolic as that of oppressive business suits or bikinis.

The implication that, again, the notion of hijab as oppressive is a terrible myth, driven by un-self-conscious double standards between how Western cultural artifacts like bikinis and ties are viewed and how hijabs and niqabs are viewed (there are un-self-conscious double standards at play here– but, sheer irony, they are basically the inverse of these).

So the above comic. Look at it properly, the ‘Business Burka.’ It’s not even about gendered expectations that objectify anymore– it’s even a more feeble and faulty false equivalence than the bikini, and for what? to make a terribly specious point (it’s ridiculous to be afraid of women in burkinis) that erases the dynamics of oppression inherent in normative modesty doctrine?
I do not deserve this. We do not deserve this.  There is no necessity, no, tradeoff, here. Because:

DID YOU KNOW THAT you can condemn a ban on a mode of dress while SIMULTANEOUSLY acknowledging the presence of systemic constraints enforcing that dress, with their full gravity and ideological context?

DID YOU KNOW THAT you can acknowledge mechanics of oppression surrounding how a mode of dress is sanctioned and enforced while CONSISTENTLY condemning a ban on that mode of dress?

I’m gonna turn this damn favorite analogy of everybody’s around.

Oh, women are pressured/socialized to adhere to feminine beauty standards in the West! Or–men have to wear ties and collars to make it in the workplace in the West! And wearing hijab is no different, just the normalized presentation of a different culture!

Okay… let’s assume they’re actually comparable for half a second.

If somebody wanted to ban bikinis tomorrow, could you not BOTH condemn such a ban as borderline fascist and oppressive WITHOUT DISCOUNTING the ways women are limited and pressured about the beauty standards embodied in The Bikini?

Like, do those just fly out the window? Nah, they don’t. You know they don’t.

And the thing is, those pressures and expectations, they’re NOTHING compared to the severity and extent of institutionalized constraint surrounding Muslim modesty doctrines globally.

I mean, setting aside mechanisms of enforcement (legislative, social, extrajudicial etc), the very nature of modesty doctrine as 1) extending to all forms of public presence, 2) as morally normative, and 3) as placed in honor cultures (communal societies where family honor, which hinges absolutely upon female modesty, is the most basic social currency), puts it in a rather different ballpark than ‘expectations and pressures.’

And you know, for all progressive discourse appeals to concepts such as ‘there is no hierarchy of oppression! women having it WORSE elsewhere does not make our commentary on beauty standards invalid!’,

for all they do that and make noise about anyone objecting to a Comprehensive Feminism that talks about everything down to the limited range of makeup and hosiery available for Women of Color as a Legitimate Intersectional Feminist Issue,

it strikes me as especially dissonant that every shade of particularity re gendered Western cultural artifacts Legit Deserves Its Own Thinkpiece,

while there needs to be a battle for representation over the very QUESTION of whether there are mechanics of oppression underlying the hijab, which is SO MUCH MORE PRESSING an issue than that of like, makeup brands or whether it’s appropriative to belly dance if you’re white (seriously?!).

Sometimes I feel like ‘there is no hierarchy of oppression’ is a principle that serves only those whose oppression does not lack relative focus to begin with.

In fact, it sounds suspiciously like All Lives Matter to me. Not in theory, but in application.

‘Cause while there is no hierarchy of oppression and valid issues are valid no matter how relatively ‘small,’ there sure as hell is an extant hierarchy of representation.

Perhaps this is a pat and bitter metaphor, but the discourse allocates space to stuff like appropriating clothing and the harm of beauty standards and gendered workplace expectations the way makeup stores allocate space to foundation and hosiery in various shades of ‘nude’. And millions of women whose physical safety and agency and livelihood and mobility and freedom is on the line get the tiny corner with more ‘exotic’ shades.

‘There is no hierarchy of oppression’ is only truly applicable in a utopia of resources.

And seriously? I’m over it. Fuck the idea that there is endless space to talk about things and everything deserves its own focus.

We do not have fucking unlimited resources, and if you think there’s PLENTY of space in the discourse to go around, maybe it’s because you’ve always found it for your white western feminist issues or anti-racist issues or whatever, oblivious to how there ISN’T space for other things that, frankly, yes, are more pressing. The space you take up, and what it pushes out is definitely invisible to you– this is why I am trying to highlight it.

But is it also immaterial to you?

We live in a real world and we cannot pretend like we must not practically prioritize because it is not justified to ideologically prioritize.

And frankly, if you have been very concerned with championing the rights of Muslim women in France but do not also talk about the rights of Muslim women regarding modesty doctrine, FGM, honor crime, arranged marriages, etc etc, then you do no service to women from Muslim backgrounds.

If you care about the hijabi who is publicly attacked or restricted for her hijab in the West but not about the hijabi in the West who is beaten by her father who caught her texting a boy in her class, then you do no service to women from Muslim backgrounds.

Your anti-racism fails in its purpose, and I and women like me are hard put to forgive you for the collateral damage, invisible to you perhaps, but falling heavy on our shoulders, the shoulders of the most silenced and marginalized in the Muslim world.

– Hiba

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