"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The burka and the bikini

Not coincidentally, the theme of this post explains why I've chosen not to display images of those notorious female garments. I had thought about doing so until I realized that, by depicting the sins involved, I'd be encouraging them. And what are those sins?

As Old Oligarch points out (hat tip to Jeff Miller for citing it on his own better-known blog):
The burqa and the bikini are polar extremes of the same fundamental error. Both styles of clothing deny the human dignity of the wearer. Virtue is a mean between the extremes. The modest woman, the woman with self-respect, wears neither the ostentatious bikini nor the humiliating burqa. Both the bikini and the burqa deny our Christian belief in the equal spiritual dignity of man and woman. Both manners of dress encourage onlookers to view the woman as subordinate to men in one way or another.

The burqa denies the Christian belief in the equal spiritual dignity of a woman because it obscures her face, which is the gateway to the heart and to the mind. A woman in a burqa is not permitted to publicly manifest the visible features most proper to her nature as a rational and emotive being -- features which are the most proper to her as a human being. (Aristotle, for example, says that no animal has a prosopon, lit., a countenance, but only a man or a woman.) The bikini likewise denies her equal spiritual dignity because it places primary emphasis on her body, and in such a way that it encourages others to objectify her body as a sexual plaything, not as a temple of Holy Spirit or as a magnificent creature of goodly design.

Yes, I really mean a plaything. How so? Everyone who wants to, gets to enjoy it, regardless of their number, often in public, with no more personal involvement than the private satisfaction of one's own frivolous desire. That's a plaything. Indeed, some playthings are more jealously guarded.

That is not merely a measured moral insight well worth spreading. The fashion facts so sagely lamented symbolize, and reinforce by symbolizing, the two poles in the current war of the West with violent, Wahhabist Islam.

The latter's soldiers despise the loose sexual mores of the secular West, rightly sensing that the libertinism flows inevitably—if not logically—from the secularism. We in the West despise the puritanical intolerance of the Wahhabists, whose worldview motivates most of the "terrorism" against which America claims to be fighting a war. (The war is not so much against terrorism, of course, as against Muslim extremists who are simply using terror as a weapon.) They hate the bikini and enforce the burka when and where they can; we hate the burka and, while not exactly legislating the bikini, thrust it everybody's faces through advertising and the media. (The Western Europeans now seem to regard even that figleaf as purely optional: topless bathing is now the norm at many beaches, and nude bathing is rarely prosecuted even if not actively encouraged.) As indicated above, both sides are precisely wrong about the true nature and dignity of woman. To me, though, what's interesting about that is how it illustrates by contrast the fundamental truth of mere Christianity, which the Wahhabists reject as polytheistic and the secularists reject as fundamentalist.

No sensible account of the true nature and dignity of woman is available except that of Christianity as developed down to our day in Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and those branches of Protestantism that manage to retain most of what the former two traditions retain. If women are the equals of men in worth and dignity—which we in the West rightly take for granted—that is not because they are the same as men. Androgyny, like all spiritual errors, distorts the truth—in this case, the truth that the personhood of women and men is more fundamental any of their differences. But despite the fantasies of the seventies feminists and those nurtured on that ideology, the differences are ineradicable: the sexes together constitute the image of God, inasmuch as the division of the human race into them is a call to life-giving personal intercommunion. That is why the majority of people marry and the majority of the married bear children. The nuptial meaning of the human body, male and female, can be ignored or suppressed only at the cost of doing the same to what our personhood is ultimately for: union with the triune God, who is a communion of persons.

The bikini, and the attitudes it betrays, obscure that by arousing lust, i.e., the desire for sexual union with somebody one is not committed to love and has no intention of marrying. The burka, and the attitudes it betrays, obscure it by treating women as property to be protected, not as persons to interact with. Both objectify women and thus reinforce male domination. That is why women should not wear either one. Of course, in many sectors of Dar al-Islam, a woman may be raped, beaten, disowned, or killed for refusing to wear the burka; whereas no woman is similarly treated in the West for refusing to wear the bikini. We have the freedom to be right.

In this vale of tears, that also entails the freedom to be wrong. The wrongness of Islamic extremism we know about. But not enough of us realize what our problem is: as a society, we are no longer sure there's any objective good to be wrong about. Secular Westerners think the challenge of freedom is to invent rather than discover the values we are to live by. The Wahhabists are a lot nastier than that, to be sure; but they are not quite as wrong as that.
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