Bikinis and hijab are not mutually exclusive. The so-called Judeo-Christian tradition has demonized the former and encouraged the latter.
For Americans, as in most of the West, the meaning of the Arabic word “hijab” is as opaque as the term “bikinis” is clear. But the ancient misogynistic traditions that spawned both are still very much alive in the United States as elsewhere where Christianity still reigns.
The recent movement to ban abortion in the U.S. is just another reflection of the historical view of women embraced in the canon of the three main Abrahamic religions, for whom the Bible is a seminal text: Christianity first, then Islam, and, to a lesser extent, Judaism.
It’s a prejudicial view—it stems from the biblical story of “Adam and Eve”—holding that women are seductively dangerous to men’s salvation in the next world and thus to societies in here-and-now if their bodies are not aggressively and resolutely controlled by authorities.
Allowing abortion—granting women full agency over their own bodies, in other words—is anathema to patriarchal Judeo-Christian and Islamic theocratic traditions.
What is hijab?
In devout Islamic societies, for instance, hair coverings (hijab) and sometimes facial veils (niqab) are required for women in public, under threat of arrest—as the recent incarceration (and death) in Iran underscores. While American women today aren’t required to cover their heads or faces in public, until just a few years ago they were culturally obligated to modestly cover their bodies in public.
The reason for all this oppression is that the stipulated allure of women’s self-actualized bodies is considered by men to threaten social order.
Swimsuits are illustrative of this.
Keep in mind that swimsuits weren’t really a thing until after the first modernized Olympic Games in 1896, when swimming as a sport—and, therefore, “to be taken seriously”—ushered in a breakneck evolution in women’s swimwear. Indeed, most Christians before that considered “going swimming” in any fashion to be immoral.
History of the swimsuit
But after the 1896 Olympics, swimming “costumes” for females progressed at startling speed from blousy, asexual mounds of dense fabric that had long hidden swimming women’s curves and legs, to the once-shocking “one-piece” in 1918 (which came to the knee and was only to be uncovered upon entering the water), to leg-exposing one-piece designs popularized in the 1920s and 1930s, and finally, in 1946, to the nuclear option: the bikini, ironically named for the South Pacific atoll where the U.S. military first conducted H-bomb tests after World War II.
The bikini when it debuted was viewed by much of the West as alarmingly akin to two pasties and a g-string. Its French designer, Louis Réard, hoped his “itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie” invention would land like a nuclear bomb on the fashion industry, but in a profitable way.
But long before the bikini changed everything waterwise, women who wanted to take a dip at the seashore had to assiduously prepare, for the sole purpose of avoiding any male gaze. In the 1800s, for example, they had to enter a so-called “bathing machine” (England’s Queen Victoria had a particularly fancy one), tastefully described in W.C. Oulton’s The Traveller’s Guide Or, English Itinerary Volume 2 (1805):
[F]our-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.
The machines were often pulled by horses to the shoreline before modest ladies were allowed to disembark. Note that throughout the evolution of swimwear, early-adapting women were continually arrested and shamed—if not killed, as alleged in Iran—for boldly trying out each new shocking advancement.
Traditional modesty and war
It’s also worth noting that it wasn’t until World War II and rationing of everything, including clothing fabric, that society allowed women to wear skirts shortened to the knee or to wear pants. An article in the National Archives’ “Pieces of History” website explained that during the war:
To conserve fabric, dressmakers and manufacturers began designing shorter skirts and slimmer silhouettes. Nylon was only available for civilian use in restricted quantities, so stockings soon disappeared and women went barelegged.
But such cultural shifts during the war, while many men were away fighting, became the camel’s nose in the tent of American female modesty.
Blaming Eve for mankind’s fall
The Abrahamic tradition of blaming Eve’s seduction of Adam in the Garden of Eden for the fall of mankind (and, thus, condemning all women thereafter) is to blame for the starkly oppressive prudishness over millennia that much of the world’s women have been continuously forced to endure.
So we Americans shouldn’t be too smug when tsk-tsking the recent death of a 22-year-old Iranian woman in custody after her arrest for “allegedly violating a law requiring women to cover their hair with a hijab, or headscarf,” according to a BBC report.
The recent young Iranian victim of this tradition, Mahsa Amini, a member of Iran’s ethnic Kurdish minority, was detained by “morality police” on September 3 in Tehran. She died in a hospital three days later from what her captors unconvincingly described as a “heart attack.”
Orthodox Islamic states like Iran view the covering of women’s bodies, heads and/or faces as a moral necessity, to maintain social harmony by shielding men from constant and socially destabilizing sexual arousal.
Eroticizing hair and even voices
When I worked for several decades in Saudi Arabia, a fundamentalist Islamic state with its own morality police (the Mutawa, officially known as the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Preservation of Virtue), I was surprised to learn that the obligatory head-covering hijab was deemed necessary due to tradition and to the idea that women’s hair is considered enormously erotic. And that publicly broadcast readings of the holy Koran by women were never heard because female voices are considered too seductive for such a sacrosanct activity.
So, once again, we return to Abrahamic religions and the fraught place of women and sexuality within them.
When Mahsa Amini’s death was reported, thousands of girls and young women exploded into Iran’s streets in multiple cities over several weeks. They were protesting what has been unjustly happening to women for centuries if not millennia, stealing their agency as human beings. More than 150 people have been killed in the protests, including protesters and police.
They instinctively know they are not responsible for what a fictional woman allegedly did to an imagined man in a religious fantasy written by fallible, unidentified, mortal men millennia ago.
A vote for abortion is a vote against Bible tyranny
When American women go to the polls in the U.S. midterm elections next month, where surveys show the issue of abortion restrictions is high on the list of voter concerns, they should keep in mind that it’s a problem born of religion, not reason.
And whereas Iranian girls and young women have recently been protesting government-mandated hijab requirements, elsewhere in the world, devout Muslim females are protesting proposed government edicts against the hijab, as in Denmark.
Danish commission takes on ‘social control’ of women
The Danish Commission for the Forgotten Women’s Struggle, a government entity created by the ruling Social Democratic Party, has recommended a national ban on hijab for elementary school students.
Danish Muslim parents say that their daughters don hijab with “joy and happiness,” and that the traditional head scarves are not, as the commission contends, a tool for “honor-related social control” of girls and women. But do these girls and women really know the ancient, prejudicial reason hijab originally came into being?
As with female modesty requirements in Western Christian nations, the hijab in Islamic countries evolved from patriarchal impulses to control women’s sexuality, in part, by blunting their physical appeal—at least partly stemming from interpretations of biblical canon. Although Islam has its own holy book, the faith originally sprang in the 7th century from the Judaic tradition, which manifests in the first five books of the Christian Bible’s Old Testament. Muslims view Christians and Jews as fellow “people of the book,” meaning of the biblical tradition.
That is why what supposedly happened in Eden still affects “people of the book” in actuality today. Most particularly, women.
Secular democracies are trying to change that, whether by accepting increasingly skimpy (or absent) female swimwear or rejecting religious practices that aim to disempower women by controlling what they wear in public.