Monthly Archives: December 2013

Burkhas and Bikinis: What Women’s Bodies Reveal About Cultures

On Facebook, a photo of four Afghan women in Burkhas appears, followed by another picture of four American women, Victoria Secret models, in underwear that amounts to nothing more than the skimpiest of bikinis. Both images are startling, as is what follows: a post about two Afghan women found hanged, naked, neither their names nor their “crime” revealed.

The striking juxtaposition of these posts calls for understanding their meaning, for exploring their cultural relevance, for some kind of articulation about what they reveal regarding the status of women, for outrage and correction. And for knowing why, in response to my “comment” that both pictures made feel sick, this message appeared from an unknown reader: “Do we really need your vomit?”

My reaction to all this is visceral. I mull the pictures over in my mind for several days, trying to process the outrage I felt on seeing both photos, reading about the executions, receiving that hideous message.

The first and probably most important thing I think about in working out how these things are connected is that women’s bodies are what really matters about them according to the power base, irrespective of the culture in which they reside.

In Afghanistan, according to the Taliban and other ultra-conservatives, women must be covered completely, often to the point of near suffocation and immobility, in order that they not tempt males sexually. For the sake of protecting one half of the population from itself, the other half of the population must be rendered invisible, faceless, body-less, without identity, voice, power. When women reclaim some of that power in whatever innocuous or overt way, as those two Afghani women likely did, they are hung, naked, like animal carcasses, exposed so that the world can look upon their shame. They can no longer tempt. Now they are held in contempt. It’s the ultimate female dichotomy.

In many western cultures, especially our own, it is the uncovering of women that gives them value; in their ability to titillate and tempt lies what little power we afford them. This sexualization of females – their path to legitimization – happens almost from birth. If you doubt this claim, take a look at baby and toddler T-shirts and what is imprinted on them; notice how kids in elementary and junior high school dress; ask yourself why Miley Cyrus gets so much attention. Or why the War on Women has heated up politically now that women are gaining ever more freedom and equality in the academy, the marketplace, the community as they exercise more autonomy over their own bodies.

Seen enough?

Much has been written about the cultural contexts of emphasizing women’s bodies and women’s sexuality (either by rendering their bodies invisible or totally exposed). The relationship of those cultural contexts to rape and other violence against women, to eating disorders and depression, and to other psycho-social phenomena has been well articulated.

But all this attention still begs the question: Why do the male of the species – the ones who continue to hold most of the power in most cultures – fail to care about the pain they are causing the women they purport to love – their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, friends? Why do so many women buy into their lead? And why is it so difficult to move cultures beyond women’s oppression, largely associated with repressed or flaunted sexuality, to cultural environments in which simple justice, human rights, and kindness prevail?

Some answers to these largely rhetorical questions have been articulated, for better or worse: Institutionalized and sanctioned misogyny, the almighty buck, testosterone and more. But none has provided sufficient clarity or effected sustained change.

And none has been able to answer these questions in a meaningful way: Why, really, were two nameless women hung, naked, in Afghanistan? Why are some women in the 21st century walking around in virtual body bags while others wear little more than a loincloth? Why is a woman’s voice expressing a feeling of outrage when women are objectified met with male vitriol? What do any of these things say about the cultures in which we live? What are we going to do to make those cultures more humane for fully half of their populations?