Burkini and the Breast: Sisters in Feminism

When I started this blog back in January, I had no idea I’d be writing so much about boobs.  In fact, believe it or not, IRL I don’t given even my own breasts that much thought unless I pop a wire or something, but here we are.  I’ve already written about imposed modesty here and why I think the Free the Nipple movement is important even if you prefer to keep your hooters covered here.  But I am not done.  Ok, today’s blog isn’t really about boobs (sorry), it’s about the Burkini.  Kudos to whomever coined my new favorite term.  The next round of coffee is on me.

If you haven’t actually seen a Burkini, here’s a picture of the beachwear for those women desiring full coverage.  Surprisingly enough they are gaining some popularity among all types of women, not just the Muslims who inspired the style.  You might want one if you are a skin cancer survivor, for example.  Also, they look really comfortable, like they might keep sand out of places you don’t want sand.

burkini

Unless you live in France.  French authorities are actually demanding that women wearing too much clothing on the beach disrobe.  Burkinis are banned.

Let’s first dispense with any pretense that this is about feminism.  Feminism is about women wearing whatever the hell they want.  So if a parade of topless women walks by demanding the right to tan their ta-tas wherever men can go topless, that is feminism.  If most women on Le Sandy Shell Beach cover body parts X, Y, and Z, but a FOREIGNER shows up covering her whole alphabet and you object, that is not feminism.  That is Islamophobia.  See the difference?

If you want to have a conversation about how women all over the world are oppressed or controlled by the societies in which they live, please be my guest.  It’s a great conversation to have, but let’s dig a little deeper than shaming women for what they choose to wear.  Let’s talk about how women in the US only make 79 cents for every dollar men make. Or about how there are so few women in American politics.  Let’s talk about that.

Modesty is not an absolute.  It’s a cultural construct.  You can say it’s about religion if you really think you can separate religion from culture in any useful way. But this means you accept a variation in religious norms. If you really believe that Christian women cover their breasts because God requires modesty, but Muslim women cover their hair only because Muslim men are sexist pigs, then just go ahead and admit to us all that you have no tolerance or understanding for other cultures or religions other than your own.  And yes, I am ashamed of you.  You should work on that.

Let’s try an empathy exercise.  You are a strong independent woman of means, and you decide to expand your horizons by traveling to the planet Stripteaze to gaze upon the rubied shores of the Double D Mountains.  Upon your arrival, you are required to remove all your clothing and walk naked through the streets in front of all the Stripteazians.  If you think this might make you uncomfortable or you wouldn’t want your mother to do it, maybe you can begin to imagine how a woman raised wearing a hijab feels when asked to uncover her head.  Naked.  That’s how she feels.  Naked and exposed.  And none of us should have to feel vulnerable about our bodies.  Whether we wear a Burkini or nothing at all.  That’s feminism.

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Where to Address Xenophobia? The Mailbox

Last night I was getting my mail at the communal mailbox.  I gathered my bills, nodding to a young mother strolling with her baby and talking animatedly on her phone and smiling at a  short woman about my age wearing a Southern Girls Love Jesus t-shirt.

“Do you think I should call 911?” she asks me in a hushed tone, pulling out her Iphone.

“What happened?” I ask, my eyes immediately darting to the pool, dreading the thought of a drowned child.  I know CPR.  I should go over there.

“Her,” she says gesturing to the young mother.

She looks ok to me although her conversation is increasingly animated.  I step closer to make sure the baby isn’t sucking on roach poison or something.  She is snoring softly.

I am still waiting to deal with this emergency situation to the best of my ability.  I’m a life guard.  And a Girl Scout.  But I’m stumped, and Southern Jesus Girl begins to dial.

“Wait,” I say.  “What is it?”

My neighbor looks at me like I have two heads and lowers her voice to a whisper. “She’s one of them. Like the Muslims?”  She says MOOOSlums, and I just stare at her.

I squinted at the blond woman wearing shorts and tevas as she absently rocks the stroller while she talks.   Southern Jesus Girl has lost me. But I’m glad I don’t have to do CPR.  I always worry someone will throw up in my mouth.  Or die.  Or I’ll forget to sing Stayin’ Alive in my head to keep the rhythm and will sing Another One Bites the Dust instead, which is supposed to also be the right rhythm , but that has to be bad juju.

“Lisssten,” she hisses.

“Because she is speaking….?” I say finally.  This is the best guess I have.

“Yes,” she says, pleased with me. “Arabic!” She finally breaks out into actual sentences which go something like “sharia law bombs report suspicious behavior can’t be too careful raghead Allah false prophet bomb.”

“But that’s Russian,” I interrupt.

“Are you sure?  How do you know it’s Russian?”

Because I am not an idiot?  Because I have a master’s degree in linguistics?  Because I watch Orange is the New Black?  Mostly it’s the not an idiot thing. I really have nothing to say at this point, but she looks like she’s going to actually call this time.

“Excuse me,” I say to the Mom.  “Excuse me.”

She looks up from her phone and gives me a cold stare for interrupting her international rate phone call.

“What language are you speaking?”

“Russian,” she says with a perfect Mississippi drawl and a look that almost melts my eyebrows.  She whirls her stroller around, turns her back to me and walks away.

Southern Jesus Girl puts her phone away with relief.  I glare at her and walk away in the footsteps of my Russian neighbor.

I am not at all pleased with how I handled this situation.  Not only did I manage to piss two people off, but I did nothing to address the fact that Southern Jesus Girl thinks that speaking Arabic is a criminal offense.  It is not lost on me that it was not so long ago that Russian speakers probably got the cops called on them for overhead conversations.  Our xenophobia is legendary. And enduring. But this young mother was let off the hook.  Because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, presumably.

While I am confident I would have come to the aid of an Arabic speaker as well, I would have needed to come up with a better tactic than pointing out that the language in question was currently not spoken by our enemies. Which is really not the point.

But I did not.  I did not take the opportunity to try to educate Southern Jesus Girl. I was hot. I was tired.  I was still thinking about the BeeGees.  This actually happens to me more than you might think.  Somebody mentions Barry Gibb, and I’m just gone, for hours sometimes. What were we talking about?

But it was my responsibility to say something because I know better.  It’s as simple as that.  Whether it’s a racist joke, religious persecution, or just plain ignorance that I face at the mail box, I need to speak up.  I need to say out loud that this person you are threatened by is just a person.  She is probably tired, and the baby has cried all day, and now she is talking to her mother about sleep training.  And if she had been speaking Arabic instead of Russian, all these things would still be true.  I need to say that Arabic speakers, that Muslims, are our neighbors.  They are unlikely to be terrorists.  They just want to get their mail.  If I don’t speak up, then who will?

I’m just not that confrontational of a person.  Sometimes I let people be wrong on the internet.  But I am a middle aged white woman with all the privilege and protection that brings.  Maybe I need to practice being uncomfortable.  Enough.  This happens too often for me to claim I was caught off guard. Saying nothing accomplishes nothing. I can’t address my neighbors’ bigotry when they are standing at the voting booth, thinking Trump’s wall is a good idea.  I can’t complain they didn’t know any better when I chose to look the other way instead of taking a stand at the mailbox.

Life’s going nowhere.  Somebody help me.  Somebody help me, yeah.