Pierre Berge, influential fashion pioneer and co-founder of the Yves Saint Lauren designer firm, (I’d never heard of him either), caused an outcry last week when he boldly condemned the fashion industry’s growing embrace of Sharia-compliant clothing. Addressing the concept of the ‘burkini’ – a piece of swimwear designed to cover the body and head of the wearer, Berge remarked that “Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship (Islam) which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life…These creators who are taking part in the enslavement of women should ask themselves some questions.”
Since the remarks were made, numerous comment pieces have been published, both for and against. In the ever-reliable Guardian newspaper, columnist Remona Ali stated frank disagreement with Berge’s sentiment. “A burkini to cater for wider audiences?” she wrote “How dare they! Stop them! In the name of freedom, don’t let women wear what they want! Seriously, though, it’s time to grow up…I really don’t get the urge to disempower Muslim women over and over again. The only person who should have ownership over a woman’s body is her. If I want to buy a burkini from M&S, I bloody well will. If anyone else wants to buy a bikini, well guess what, that’s available in stores too. Bergé bangs on about freedom, yet taking freedom of choice away is where enslavement begins. But I think the irony is lost on him…”
Voices sympathetic to Berge’s sentiment were largely confined to the secular and international press. Atheists inevitably lined up to agree that burkinis (as well as other cultural compromises with Sharia) are a step too far, that they oppress women and represent a capitulation of modernity to the forces of regression.
You’ll be able to guess my own standpoint. I think the burkini (since it has no relation to the Burkha, it should really be called the ‘Hijabi’) is an insult to the women unfortunate enough to be expected to wear it. We in the West should be encouraging Muslim women to break their chains, not decorating those chains with a veneer of elegance and choice. In the 21st Century West, women should be free to dress in whatever way they please. No-one has the right, nor should anyone have the inclination, to judge a free human being ‘virtuous’ or ‘dishonourable’ by their clothing alone. It is barbarism. It is primitivism. It belongs in the primitive world.
Despite the heat she has subsequently taken for it, the French minister who compared Sharia-compliant women to the ‘negroes who supported slavery in America’ hit the issue wonderfully on the mark. Just as abolitionists rightly ignored the opinions of negro ‘uncle toms’ who were hopelessly devoted to the whims of their ‘Master’, so can we feel comfortable in ignoring the bleatings of women who are so institutionalized by Islam, so broken by it, that they have come to support their own imprisonment. These poor women are warped. They have been brainwashed by time and cruelty.
And how dare we excuse their condition? We, who have all the blessings of freedom and individuality, who think it entirely pedestrian to go for a drink with someone of the opposite sex, who never have to worry about morality police or ‘honour’ killings; how dare we intimate that this is appropriate for other human beings to endure.
I have always been particularly enraged by those airhead liberals who excuse the mistreatment of women under sharia by saying ‘it’s their tradition’, or ‘it’s their culture’. It is not ‘culture’ at all! It is anti-culture – the resistance of pre-civilization to civilization. Culture is exactly what is being denied these poor souls.
While it’s probably not possible for a man, let alone a man in the free west, to imagine what life is like for a Muslimah in the Muslim world. we can at least ponder the question. How can it feel to walk around in a Niqab? How does it feel to know that if you are raped, you may be raped as a punishment for being raped? How does it feel to read a holy book that describes you as biologically, socially and intellectually ‘inferior’ to half of humankind? It must be a condition of misery. I will accept no other answer.
We should care about this, not just for moral reasons, but because Muslim women are vitally important to any effort to diminish or destroy Political Islam. As the iconoclastic commentator (and devout atheist) Johann Hari noted “One of the central tenets of this ideology (Jihadism) is the inherent inferiority and weakness of women… If you haven’t spoken to (Jihadis), it is hard to explain just how obsessed with sexual apartheid they are. At least two of the London bombers (on 7/7) refused to make eye contact with women outside their families. Image the sheer effort and repression that required…The best way to undermine the confidence and beliefs of jihadists is to trigger a rebellion of Muslim women, their mothers and sisters and daughters.” (Italics added).
Hari is surely correct here. Islamic women are (if you’ll excuse the implied misogyny) the soft underbelly of the Islamic religion. They are ‘soft’, not because they are weak, but because they are more rationally inclined to apostasy when presented with the opportunity that Islamic men are. Muslim women are also more important to Islam’s future prospects than men. Should we succeed in triggering the rebellion Hari suggests, we would halve both the present problem and the problem’s next generation. Muslim women are viewed as little more than talking wombs by their partners. They are weapons factories, producing a constant supply fight-ready believers to replenish the ranks diminished by infidel technology. Remove the women and you disrupt the supply of Jihadis. This is surely the last thing the Islamists want, and the thing they fear the most.
How might we go about triggering this rebellion? Hari suggested two things in his article: a boycott of oil, and a Western programme to lend capital to Muslim women who wish to start their own businesses. I’m afraid I find both of these suggestions quite unsatisfactory. These measures might well improve the lot of individual women, but neither has the potential to topple the patriarchy (and for once this word is merited) ruling Islamic society. This patriarchy itself must be toppled before women can be empowered. They cannot be empowered before that point.
A better strategy would involve reaching out to Muslim women directly and encouraging them to quit Islam. This can be very safely and easily done online – by making videos for YouTube, setting up groups on Facebook, sending personal messages and tweets, and so on. Make it a movement; a large-scale, organised campaign. Muslim women currently resident in the West have very few places to turn if they wish to be liberated from Islam. Existing apostate groups like the well-meaning CEM (Council of Ex-Muslims) do not presently offer the kind of protection necessary to make female apostasy a desirable prospect. To rectify this, organisations – preferably citizen-based – should be set up with the specific purpose of providing safe shelter and funding for those women who wish to leave the religion of peace. Though the number of women using this kind of service would be small at first, this would quickly change as successful escape stories fill up the international and religious press. We have to do something. It would be scandalous to carry on pretending there isn’t a problem to be solved.
The burkini row is not nearly as funny or light-hearted as some commentators seem to have decided. It represents at its base a life-or-death struggle between slavery and freedom for half of the world population. Chains should not be decorated. They should not be beautiful. They should be as ugly as the purpose for which they exist.