Between Burkini and Bikini, I Don’t Know What to Wear

Within the social boundaries that tell women what clothing is permitted, how free are we to really choose?

Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
A woman wears Islamic dress on the beach in Marseille, France, August 4, 2016.
A woman wears Islamic dress on the beach in Marseille, France, August 4, 2016. Credit: AP
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

Obsession. This would not be an over-the-top definition for the constant, stubborn and ridiculous preoccupation with women’s dress that besets men, societies, authorities, states and lord knows who else. While the burkini wars rage with full force in France, in Ashdod the incident of the female singer who appeared in an event on the beach in brief clothing brought the Ministry of Culture to announce that it will be publishing guidelines for behavior and clothing at events it funds.

Stripping down or dressing, what is certain is that the woman herself, ostensibly an individual, doesn’t have much space for decisions about what she will or will not wear – according to everyone else. You wear a head covering? No doubt you suffer from oppression. Are you wearing a décolleté mini-dress? Slut.

The arguments have already worn thin. Does a prohibition on wearing a burkini save Muslim women from oppression by Muslim men, as many in the West see it – or is it the Western perspective that is arrogant, deciding for Muslim women what is right for them and eradicating them and their own wishes? Is shock at a singer in a bikini on the beach the start of a process whereby all of us, Israeli women, will ultimately have to cover our hair, not sing in mixed company and in general keep our mouths shut (as is the fondest dream of some of my faithful readers) – or is there scope for a dress code on stage in a public space?

Coven of witches

It is, of course, absurd that what should be obvious – every women can decide for herself, get off our case – really isn’t obvious at all. But supposing we did achieve that, a question arises that isn’t very comfortable: What if after all the sisterhood, the comparisons, the expectations and the demands (to cover or to reveal, it doesn’t really matter), we each and every one of us don’t really know what we want? I don’t mean, of course, that there is someone else who does know, but rather I’m wondering to what extent it is at all possible to be attuned to yourself and your real, “authentic” wishes (if there is any such thing) after years of patriarchal brainwashing.

To try to clarify this question, I turned to a select coven of witches.

Yael Braudo-Bahat, who is studying for her doctorate in jurisprudence, says: “I know what I like to wear, I have pretty defined taste and also know how to suit my clothes to the context. I have dresses and shirts with deep V-necks and when I wear them to work I will wear a tank top under them, but when I go out for a social evening I won’t do that. All this isn’t out of considerations of modesty but rather of dignity and context.

“I know on my own how to make my clothing appropriate and wouldn’t want anyone else to decide for me how long my sleeves must be when I go to the university to study. Incidentally, in my own mind I sometimes criticize other women and men whose clothing seems to me to be too revealing for the context (or just not dignified enough, even if it isn’t revealing), but usually I won’t say anything to them because my opinion doesn’t need to interest them.

“There is no doubt that my taste is influenced by cultural constructs, by fashion, by expectations and so on. None of us live in an empty space and influences are inevitable, just as they are with respect to many other choices in our lives. But there is a huge difference between these influences and violent dictates about what to wear and what not to wear, as happened in both Nice and Ashdod.”

Dana Regev, a journalist who currently lives in Germany (“The burkini is a hot topic here,”), says: “I don’t think it is really possible to get free of this, I just think it doesn’t matter, or it’s not relevant. Even after my ‘liberation’ I have a certain preferences. I personally am not prepared to wear a tank top or low necklines out of fear, and it’s clear to me that this isn’t a ‘free’ decision that I’d also make on a desert island.

“Today I am bound by this and hesitate to expose body parts – for all kinds of reasons – but still I want people to accept this and not judge me or preach to me. Everyone is invited not to scare me with their presence and then maybe I won’t be afraid anymore. But until then, at least leave me to grapple with the horror in my own way and don’t meddle with me about this as well.”

By way of contrast, feminist activist Efrat Latman says she “totally knows. I like to expose, because I’m in love with the feeling of the wind on my body. And no crazy man is going to take this away from me.”

Rivka Olstein relates: “It has always angered me that when I was religious they would preach to me about head coverings, ‘You’re collaborating with oppression,’ and so on. And now too, when I have laser treatments for hair removal: ‘How does depilation line up with feminism?’ My answer is always, ‘A feminist does whatever she wants with her body.’ So I’ve been influenced, by society and more. But it’s still mine.”

Lior Gal Cohen believes that “we’re all patriarchal, men and women alike, some of us in detox. So yes, we – I, at least – are influenced by social preferences around us. The ‘detox’ says that it questions these preferences and sometimes succeeds.”

Avigail Horovitz notes the complexity: “Body hair, for example, looks completely fine to me. I don’t see it as ugly and there are things like red nail polish and bright red lipstick that I love precisely because of the social dictates. The message this transmits is part of what is beautiful, in my view. It seems to me that I know what I like but it’s hard to know with absolute certainty – what I like is also culture-dependent.”

And another feminist friend admits: “I really don’t know where the social constructs on me and my head end and ‘I’ begin.”

According to designer and lecturer on fashion Sophia Trotoush Argaman, “One of the reasons it’s hard for me to design clothes for women is that it’s hard for me to bear the body image nearly all of them have – the self-loathing. The purpose of clothing as far as they are concerned is always to conceal, to narrow, to blur, to make smaller. For me, clothes are for fun. There are also a lot of mental, or structural fixations like the thing about stripes or black that all kinds of things women parrot like a slogan without ever asking themselves if they are really true. There are lots of issues of age, of what is ‘allowed’ and what is ‘impermissible’ for women to wear above a certain age. The media, of course, encourages this: Not long ago I saw a report about [the model] Vik. She said with utter seriousness that she won’t be seen in shorts any more because a woman over the age of 35 can’t show her legs.

“There’s a lot of fear about attracting attention by means of clothing. There’s a lot of gray even among secular women, gold is almost completely beyond the pale and altogether bling-bling is reserved for the real troopers, women with a lot of ‘daring’ – and even they for the most part are policed by other women. I personally, for example, get a lot of ‘What fun for you!’ about clothes that I ‘dare’ to wear.”

Most women, in her opinion, are totally out of touch with themselves when it comes to clothes. “Women are always a bit angry at themselves, belittling themselves. Buying clothes catches them at their most sensitive. These are love-hate relationships. They do believe that a garment can change or at least steer their fate, but they don’t dare. There’s a designers’ joke that we design clothing in colors only so the clients can feel that they have chosen the black or the gray. Look at how the mothers didn’t go out with their daughters on the pants protest. Most mothers’ reacted: ‘Fine, so they shouldn’t dress like bimbos.’ And this hurt me more than anything, that another policed generation was born.”

This isn’t about a question of fashion – which is interesting in and of itself – but rather of the unimaginable extent to which our bodies are taken away from us, in so many and varied ways. Some of us were teenagers who swathed ourselves in as much cloth as possible, some of us got a social message to the effect that our value resides in the exposure of our bodies. Some of us had our skirts measured with a ruler and some of us were expected to wear the shortest and hottest miniskirt possible. Maybe when the clothing a woman chooses stops being the whole world’s business, we, each of us, will be free to figure out for herself what truly suits her.

And in the meantime, the bikini-burkini problem does in fact have a solution: The singer from Ashdod, Hannah Gur, will perform on the beach in Nice and the French Muslims in the burkinis will go swimming at the beach in Ashdod. I’m not sure that our government ministers are going to be thrilled to death by this, but solving that problem is beyond me.

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