Hijab Vs Bikini — Understanding Cultures And Ideologies


Pic­ture Source: http://attackthesystem.com

We, the west, are very quick to cri­tique a woman dressed up of Middle East­ern stand­ards- i.e. hijab, or burka- without fully under­stand­ing their cul­tures and ideo­lo­gies. We label them as ‘oppress­ive’ or ‘objects’ for cov­er­ing up, and have a tend­ency to ignore the basic truths of our west­ern tra­di­tions of cloth­ing. This thus begs the ques­tion of what is truly free in this world of beauty stand­ards- or if there even is any free­dom.

This dis­cus­sion was brought to light in my PHd assess­ment at uni­ver­sity, where we would ana­lyze the con­trast­ing ways that the west­ern and Middle East­ern media address cer­tain top­ics.  My tutor first began address­ing what coun­tries con­sti­tute as the ‘Middle East’- this is import­ant if we are to under­stand their cul­ture and why there is such a clash between the west and east.


Firstly, the coun­tries that make up the Middle East, are con­stantly chan­ging. Some maps tend to include more North Afric­an coun­tries, while oth­ers focus on the area around Saudi Ara­bia and Egypt.  A gen­er­al acronym to go with this area is known as ‘MENA: Middle East and North Africa’. Yes. The Middle East also con­sists of north Afric­an coun­tries. Not just coun­tries that attract mass media atten­tion such as Syr­i­an Yemen etc. Plus MENA itself has a huge pop­u­la­tion, ran­ging close to 380 mil­lion people- so it would be a mis­take to incor­rectly assume that the Middle East is this small, plot of ter­ror­ized land.

And it is with­in these coun­tries, that dif­fer­ent reli­gions, tribes and social con­struc­tion impact the way people- namely women- dress. The major­ity of these coun­tries are Arab speak­ing, where the major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion fol­lows Islam. This is not always the case, as there can be Chris­ti­an and Jew­ish Arabs, as well as Muslim. Where Arab is a nation­al­ity, and Arab­ic being a pre­dom­in­ant lan­guage, Muslims can have a nat­ive tongue of any lan­guage in the world. These two are fre­quently inter­linked with­in MENA coun­tries because the Arab world is centered on the holy place of Jer­u­s­alem, and oth­er his­tor­ic­ally import­ant places.


Thus, dis­tinc­tions with­in MENA enable us to now under­stand cloth­ing tra­di­tions of Middle East­ern people and dis­pel some of the gen­er­al mis­con­cep­tions of cloth­ing of Middle East­ern women, namely begin­ning to under­stand what we mean by hijab.

But let’s travel back to 1400 years ago, when women in the city of Med­ina, Saudi Ara­bia, were being attacked dur­ing the night when they needed to relieve them­selves. These women would have to leave the city, and travel to the out­skirts of the wood­land for pri­vacy- how­ever more and more men knew of women’s nightly routes and stayed hid­den in the night to attack and molest these women. But it was what these women wore that pre­ven­ted any form of assault. If a woman wore a JILBAB (a gar­ment such as a coat) it showed that the woman was free and had the pro­tec­tion of her clan, so was to be left alone.

The term JILBAB is also used in the Qu’ran, by the Proph­et to address people and stop these assaults from hap­pen­ing- how­ever, what is most inter­est­ing is that the word does not spe­cify wear exactly a woman must cov­er up. Out of the 6000 verses with­in the Qu’ran, only 3 emphas­ize what a woman must wear, but none spe­cify what body part they must keep hid­den; giv­ing them free­dom, that we in the west do not believe women have when they chose to wear a Hijab. It is argued by Muslim schol­ars that these 3 verses are left inten­tion­ally vague, so as to let the women decide them­selves how to dress.

But then what do we mean by hijab? The ori­gin­al writ­ings of the Qu’ran only use the term when describ­ing a bar­ri­er or dis­tance between some­thing i.e. the dis­tance between the divine and human­ity, or the bar­ri­er between the athe­ists and the­ists. Con­tem­por­ar­ily the term is not asso­ci­ated dir­ectly with a woman’s veil- but has been labeled to women of Islam, by more mod­ern schol­ars that have adap­ted the teach­ings and edited it, to suit a more miso­gyn­ist­ic life­style.

Nowadays, the term is fairly asso­ci­ated with mod­est attire, and has expan­ded to be inclus­ive of dif­fer­ent types of women’s veils i.e. shay­la, niqab, khi­mar etc. This also var­ies where you are in the Middle East; in North Africa the kaf­tan and gan­dora are pop­u­lar, while in Libya the Haik are worn by Liby­an Ber­ber women. These gar­ments too are worn by men with the Taqiya act­ing as a head­scarf, or a Cha­chia used fre­quently by men in Tun­sin­ia.

The main point here is that their cloth­ing is a way of life, and a social norm, in the same way that you are wear­ing jeans, a hood­ie, or a skirt. They do not see these clothes as oppress­ive, but a way to express one­self.


We thus should not be so hasty as to make quick judg­ments on how a woman should dress. When have we taken the time to step back, and ana­lyse the basic truths of our clothes, and the ‘free­dom’ we asso­ci­ate with it?

My phD tutor dur­ing this les­son, asked us a ques­tion- ‘what are two threes?’. We answered the most logic­al sound­ing answers there were, such as ‘6’ or ‘33’ or ‘9’. But she was not sat­is­fied with any of the answers. It was only after that she told us that there was no defin­it­ive answer; only infin­ite cor­rect ones that could be open to inter­pret­a­tion. Free­dom is like this. It is sub­ject­ive, and what it is to one per­son may not be the same to anoth­er and hence­forth.

So it is not sur­pris­ing that we are con­flic­ted with oth­er cul­tures terms of free­dom, and how they chose to express it.  But we should not dis­reg­ard and label an entire cul­ture as oppress­ive, because it does not seem to coin­cide well with our life­style- this festers ignor­ance, and allows hate crimes against a minor­ity to rise.

We can also ques­tion the lim­its to our free­dom in the West- why is it that men are allowed to parade top­less in pub­lic, while women would most likely be arres­ted for doing the same? Why is it that there is a unreal­ist­ic stand­ard of beauty both men and women feel the incent­ive to attain?  It could be inter­preted- and is so- that the west­ern stand­ards of beauty, that women fol­low are miso­gyn­ist­ic, as it seems that women must show skin to appeal to the pat­ri­arch­al soci­ety they live in.

West­ern cul­tures also seem to be revolved around the idea- mainly for woman- that we must be skinny, while still main­tain fat in the ‘cor­rect’ areas (butt, breasts); that we must show skin, but not too much or we would be labeled as ‘whore’; that our faces be made up of fea­tures of dif­fer­ent eth­ni­cit­ies while still hav­ing a fair and light pig­ment i.e. full lips on white skin. It seem harsh as well on men, where they must main­tain muscle, to embody strength and should not be afraid to dis­play it; they are lim­ited to shorts and trousers, but a stigma is attrib­uted to those who wear dresses and skirts.

Both cul­tures are in no place there­fore to make any assump­tions on the cor­rect way to dress, and what is truly free­dom in terms of cloth­ing. Cloth­ing can be an expres­sion of one, or could rep­res­ent a person’s reli­gious iden­tity. What we should do instead is learn to respect ones dif­fer­ences, and edu­cate ourselves, in a soci­ety that dis­reg­ards a minority’s cul­tur­al back­ground with labels.


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Hey! My name is Chun­ek­shi. I am cur­rently study­ing A‑Levels at Clare­mont High School, and I love writ­ing about cul­ture and iden­tity.

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About Chunekshi

Hey! My name is Chunekshi. I am currently studying A-Levels at Claremont High School, and I love writing about culture and identity.