What liberated women wear


A while back, I was out shopping for underwear. As I deliberated over my usual modest choices, five women in burqas came into the store. Chatting and laughing, they headed over to a selection of lacy g-strings, holding up the garments for all to see as they checked sizes and made loud comments about each pair of panties.

Years before, I had tried on a burqa in an Afghani rug shop. I had been shocked at how it had obscured my vision, and at how heavily it hung. But when I heard these joyful, sexy, belly-laughing women, invisible behind their veils, it occurred to me that there may be levels of choice and layers of meaning behind the concept of modesty and how it is expressed.

Extroverted women in burqas shopping for fancy lingerie may not be the oppressed victims often portrayed in the media; more to the point, women in burqas in Australia may not embody the same meaning as women in burqas in Afghanistan or anywhere else that forces women to wear it by law.

Then again, perhaps they too are oppressed. But if we are to discuss the burqa in Australia, as we have since the recent decision by a Perth judge that a witness cannot wear a burqa in court, then let's have a proper conversation. Let's avoid inflammatory language and gross generalisations; and let's be honest, too, about the masks we 'liberated' women wear.

Regarding my own masks, I am considered low maintenance. I get my hair cropped short four or five times a year. I wax only when the weather warms up. But I don't get my hair cut by just anyone; I have it carefully trimmed in a salon. I don't wax at home, but shell out to have some other woman smear hot wax on my legs and rip it, and the hairs, off.

I'm getting flak as my sides go salty — most of my friends dye their hair. I don't wear make-up, but many women won't leave the house without lipstick and a swipe of eyeliner. Many wax their bikini lines or more. And I can't tell you the number of times people have suggested I have my eyebrows shaped — they aren't heavy, but one is slightly crooked.

A shockingly high number of women I know have had plastic surgery of one kind or another — ears pinned, breasts reduced, breasts inflated, tummies tucked, forehead lines filled in.

Women will say that they do these things according to their own choice. And they are right; no one is threatening to stone them if they leave the house without a touch of lippy.

And yet when I ask friends why they wax, the most common response is 'I feel dirty'; they wear make-up because otherwise they 'look like death'. Ironically, it is often mothers and sisters who are the worst offenders when it comes to pressuring a woman to shave her legs, lose some weight, and look attractive; in other words, to submit to the male gaze.

In this enlightened society of ours, I have been 'flashed' half a dozen times; the first time, I was eight. Years later, out for an evening stroll with my father, money was thrown at me from a moving car as the occupants hollered 'slut!'. I can still feel the sting of coins hitting my cheek.

In this same liberated society, many women use cosmetics and clothing to conceal bruising; the majority of sexual assaults are against children under the age of 14; I can't leaf through a newspaper without seeing airbrushed bodies and lingerie ads; a major department store sells 'bras' for three-year-olds; and younger and younger women are refusing to eat in their attempts to be desirably thin.

So much of a woman's experience tells her that without a certain level of grooming she is grotty and, worse, unattractive. So much suggests that she is being watched by predatory eyes. No wonder we all wear masks.

I am by no means comfortable with the burqa, but I can understand the desire to wear a veil in one form or another. Any public conversation about the decision to wear a burqa — and in Australia it is often a decision — must be respectful. It must hear from women who wear the garment if it is to be any more than paternalism.

And any critique would be far more credible if we also talked about the ways Western women protectively mask themselves, with cosmetics and hair dye and fashionable clothes, and why they do so. I am not particularly familiar with the teachings of the Prophet, but as another famous prophet once said, 'If you want to remove the splinter from another's eye, first remove the plank from your own.'

Or perhaps just take off the mascara.

Alison SampsonAlison Sampson is the mother of three girls. She studied theology at Whitley College, is a regular contributor to Zadok, and blogs at www.theideaofhome.blogspot.com.

Topic tags: Alison Sampson, burqas, g-strings, islam, muslim



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Existing comments

Nuns are the deafening silence in this debate, all the more so in a Catholic forum. Moslem feminists and religious studies commentators (they do exist) make a good case for it as a strategic choice for some Moslem women. Unhappily not for all. We need to become familiar with their position if the projected private members bill led by some of the current opposition gets any steam behind it.
Frances | 16 September 2010

You are spot on Alison. Every time I see a woman struggling to stay upright in high heels I can't help but see restriction and oppression. Spring inevitably brings billboards and bus shed adverts for bikinis and undies - basically naked women's bodies constantly in our faces. Women everywhere objectified. How is this liberated? What is this doing to our kids to be growing up with this in their faces?
Jane | 16 September 2010

I worked in Catholic schools as nuns became freer and freer in their clothing. I would have liked to be a nun so I needn’t worry about clothes any more (not a good reason, I’ll admit) and I was shocked to hear my friends discussing cardigans and other finery! But they were so happy.
But this article makes a major point. Never perhaps have Western women been so enslaved to expensive make-overs of their appearance. It is money-driven by those who profit.

(And in Saudi Arabia the rich women under the burkas outside the home can be just like the Western women inside.) The Church and sensible people should campaign for people to be able to be themselves, face, hair and all, instead of wasting their money being what they think others would prefer to see.
valerie yule | 16 September 2010

Ms Sampson, if you would like to become more familiar with the teachings of Mohammed, it is easy. There is a great deal available on the internet.

Many of his teachings about women can be found in the hadiths, his recorded deeds and sayings. These are second to only the Koran in their authority for Muslim. Try the following.

Bukhari Volume 2, Book 24, Number 541:

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri
On 'Id ul Fitr or 'Id ul Adha Allah's Apostle (p.b.u.h) went out to the Musalla. After finishing the prayer, he delivered the sermon and ordered the people to give alms. He said, "O people! Give alms." Then he went towards the women and said. "O women! Give alms, for I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-Fire were you (women)." The women asked, "O Allah's Apostle! What is the reason for it?" He replied, "O women! You curse frequently, and are ungrateful to your husbands. I have not seen anyone more deficient in intelligence and religion than you. O women, some of you can lead a cautious wise man astray."

So according to Mohammed, women were condemned to hell because they had not pleased their husbands, and they are deficient in intelligence and religion.

I do not understand how a woman could say that Islam leads her to liberation with teachings like this.
Joseph Lanigan | 16 September 2010

You are what you are cosmetically liberated to be. This could be a 21st century mantra for insecure females.
Very good article and comments. One could hardly expect leadership comment from Bishops who wear funny clothes.
oldtimer | 16 September 2010

Alison Sampson writes: " But when I heard these joyful, sexy, belly-laughing women, invisible behind their veils, it occurred to me that there may be levels of choice and layers of meaning behind the concept of modesty and how it is expressed."

Comment: Joyful, sexy, belly laughing women! You'd better believe it Ms Sampson!

Alison Sampson further writes: "Extroverted women in burqas shopping for fancy lingerie may not be the oppressed victims often portrayed in the media... "

Comment: Since when have you believed the western media M. Sampson? Especially when it (the media) refers to Muslims & Islam!

PS: I have spent a couple of months in zionazi territory [the territories of Palestine occupied by the racist state of Israeel] this year, and speaking as a chronologically very mature adult Australian male, I find nothing more exciting - in every way - than " joyful, sexy, belly-laughing women, invisible behind their veils", and little more visually & aesthetically distasteful & a bigger sexual turn-off than our average "let it all hang out" Western woman!

But then there's no accounting for tastes eh ?
DAVID MELBOURNE HICKS | 16 September 2010

Immodesty is immodesty any way you want to shape it. Men and women should always dress in a modest way. The sins of the flesh are overcoming all, especially our youth. Our Lady of Fatima said many fashions of the future would be offensive to Her and to God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Read Cardinal Siri's article on immodest dress.

We must strive to be pure in dress, manner,speech and thoughts if we wish to save our souls. Immodesty in dress, words, actions and thoughts is just a tool of the Devil to bring souls to depravity and ultimately Hell where most souls will end up. "Many are called, but few are chosen"
Trent | 16 September 2010

Thanks Alison. I'm 78 so laceys etc really no longer can interest me..but I like the way you write. Maybe you needed to say that perhaps what offends so much of the Western world is that the burqa seems to be unable to be chosen {as you did} but imposed upon many. I do know other western women who care little for the west's coverings and reject these..you are free to take them or leave 'em.
Murray Anderson | 16 September 2010

OMG it's so good to be in my 70s and to choose for myself how I will look
I don't need to chase my youth or be bothered about what others think
My partner loves me and I am content in my independence

Funnily enough it my eyes that other men love and comment on .....not the wrinkles and droopping chin

lets forget the superficial and enjoy the reality of age
GAJ | 16 September 2010

Hey David Melbourne Hicks, looks like the Zionists are not the only Nazis in the the Occupied Territories.

According to the report below the women of Gaza do not get to enjoy the sexy lingerie they can enjoy here in the West.

"It began with a rash of unusually assertive police patrols. Armed Hamas officers stopped men from sitting shirtless on the beach, broke up groups of unmarried men and women, and ordered shopkeepers not to display lingerie on mannequins in their windows." Guardian Sunday 18 October 2009.

You would be able to enjoy the modesty of the local ladies. It seems that they are also able to enjoy wearing what they are told they can wear.
Patrick James | 16 September 2010

"What matters isn't your outward appearance...but your inner disposition. Cultivate inner beauty, the gentle, gracious kind that God delights in." - 1 Peter 3:3-4
Ashleigh | 17 September 2010

Good points all. High heels (I hope) will come to be seen as bizarre in the way bound feet are seen. G-strings are liberating? I don't think so.

But what bothers me about the burqa is that men's desires are posited to be beyond their own control, and it's women's responsibility to control trough covering themselves up. Hence the default position in many Muslim countries is that sexual assault is to be blamed on the woman.
Maxine | 17 September 2010

Please Alison would you mind adding me to your list of friends who receive your thoughtful and beautifully worded thoughts and articles. You have a special way of looking at life abd articulating it. Wonderful. Thanks. Helen. x
Helen Sandy (Ruth's Mum) | 17 September 2010

i like the women in their cultural dress including the burqa and i think we need to be more tolerant of them in public.
we all have our own style, some people wear studs or earings all over their face, ears, lips etc.

we need to maintain our individuality and that includes accepting the way others choose to dress.
rhonda | 17 September 2010

Fair comment Maxine. We are responsible for our own actions, There ought not be a need for anyone to dress in any particular way. Modesty is in the eye of the beholder.

However, symbolism is important. When I see a woman wearing the burka, I immediately associate that with the oppression of women, It ought not be so - but so many women who wear the burka are oppressed by social conventions and, as with so many injustices, a religious view that is used to validate that convention and oppression. It seems the central message of love and kindness to the other, which most religions espouse, is suborned by the need to be the first among unequals.
John | 18 September 2010

Hi Alison

Thank you for your writing that always manages to get to the heart of issues.

Paul Gahan | 22 September 2010

Excellent article. In response to Mr. Lanigan: One should be mindful abt interpreting a text without the proper understanding and basing an opinion upon it. Esp when its not in it's original language and may have suffered in translation.

The text never mentions displeasing ones husband, but rather being "ungrateful." Ingratitude to anyone (husband or otherwise)is considered ingratitude to God, as Muslims believe that you must thank the one who has done you some kindness, in order to be grateful to God for their kindness. Other ahadith elaborate upon this point as does the Quran. One should refer to supporting texts and explanations of scholars when attempting to "interpret" the meaning as you have here. Although, some very simple and basic research would have allowed you to come to the proper understanding.

Deficiency in Religion is directly connected to intellect, as Islam insists that signs are given, etc for those who "understand." Intellect is an understanding of your religion, deficiency in religion can be both in understanding and neglect to observe and practice it.

The hadith says, not that all women will go to hell for these reasons, rather, that the number of female inhabitants exceeds that of male, often for the prevalence of these behaviors amongst women in particular...

Lana H. | 05 October 2010

(Cont.)...Finally, the Prophet encourages the women to simply give charity to expiate for the sin, quite simple. He doesn't say, its hopeless and you're all damned to hell. He says, this behavior is common so save yourselves from it and seek forgiveness and favor thru charity. Let's keep in mind that he warned the men first, indicating that they are equally guilty of sin, exhorting them to give charity, reasonably, as an expiation as well.

Islam elevates, honors and liberates women and I could provide you hours of evidence for that, but some simple research would allow you to come to the conclusion for yourself.

You see how when you read it carefully, you can come to more accurate conclusions? And the conclusions I've come to have volumes of authentic texts and explanations to support. Its not just me reading a translation and coming to a conclusion based on nothing more than my skewed opinion. Do the proper research if you truly wish to be just.

Let your agenda be honest education and understanding, rather than support for an already negative POV. Good luck to you! Take care.
Lana H. | 05 October 2010

Great article, Alison.

Couldn't agree more with all of your points. As an American Muslim, I've been on both sides of the coin. Growing up, I was not into the religion as much, and was part of the whole fashion trend rat race. Its sickening, really, what people do to be accepted.
Now, as an adult, I have chosen to cover up, and I do wear an abaya or sometimes a dress with a cardigan. My husband has absolutely nothing to do with it; he never asked me to, never forced me, and certainly does not oppress me. If anything, I'm the one living a much easier life than him. He works, I shop and attend coffee mornings(we're expats so I can't work in my current location.)

Anyways, the American public really needs to take all they hear on mainstream media with a grain of salt. Not all covered women are oppressed. Only in a few countries (Afghanistan and Iran) is it by force that they are made to cover. And, really, are we to take these 2 countries as examples of great governments with a great system? They are both war-torn, and not exactly an ideal situation.
We are currently posted in Saudi Arabia with the husband's company, and I like to observe the women here. I talk to some of the natives and ask them questions. What I hear the most is that wearing the veil is their culture. Its not really an oppressive or surprisingly, even religious thing. Around the age of puberty, all girls just wear it. When I go to the malls (there's nothing else to do here), I see tons of Saudi women, fully covered, shopping at stores that I only dream of purchasing handbags from. They take their time while their poor husbands wait on a bench outside or some follow dutifully behind. I have thought of taking a picture, but Saudis do not like to be photographed and I do not want to cause a scene.

Besides, when did walking around half (or more) nude become liberating? Women are not objects, and succumbing to the wants of men by dressing like that is actually very oppressive.
Unfortunately, its becoming worse and worse, with shows like "Jersey Shore" and other trash on TV.
Anyways, that's just my 2 cents and random ramble. :D
TXNGal | 05 October 2010

i do share with the purdah women..
wanyusoff wanlokman | 06 October 2010

hi, just have to say i found this article very refrshing. As a muslim woman i really appreciate when people think about these issues. I find most who just jump on the ''lets ban something for a minority'' group bandwagon don't actually think bout what it is all about and are highly judgmental. Like someone said: muslim women just cover up outside, but in the home we dress up and get fancy. And we are well groomed, but it is for our husbands only.

Also to Frances, it is ''muslim'' not ''moslem'', you'd only say moslem if you wanna be derogetory and insult some ''muslims''.

@Jospeh: if you want to act like a scholar please go learn all the islamic sciences and arabic indepth first before you pass judgment on something from the texts of Islam. Sunnah (hadeeth) is on the same level of Qur'an actually as the actions and saying of the Prophet as akso wahy (revelation) from Allah. If you could master some respect and thoughtfulness then we can discuss the religion of the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth.

We all have something we do not like in society, but that doesn't mean we run around banning everything. I think Bernardi and Niles need to take their personal opinions out of politics and start doing their job that they were voted in for. This burqa debate is a welcomed distraction for the government i'm sure as we focus on this non-issue instead of their lack of ability to do their job!
nova | 06 October 2010

I have to comment again after reading more comments and it seems like the article was lost on most of you. You are all still commenting on what you think the burqa means. Alison clearly showed, in the case of aussie muslim women burqa is more a choice then anything and they are just like you, ie they have lives and personalities!

And the whole western oppression of women through immodesty and being a slave to men's desires by beautifying ourselves has been lost on most of you too. You are all focused on ''but muslim women must be oppressed!'' when the article was about oppression is not just covering but on fact uncovering. Alison was trying to make you rethink was oppression actually is and how it can be implenented in different ways.

You'll need to break free and stop believing in western propaganda against Islam--which is due to this war on Islam, and we all know about war propaganda, remember the way the japs, russians, germans, italians, french, spanish etc have been portrayed when at war with England or USA in wars in the past century and ones before.

You are made to think the enemy are horrible to women, men are barbarians who r just bloodthirsty thugs, and they have nothing going for them in culture and societal structure. Well think again! Time for the masses to break free and stop being the puppets of politicians and elites and start living a true democracy (cause you aint living in one now).
Nova (again) | 06 October 2010

I love this article. I am an American Muslim, and my mom is a revert Muslim, my dad is Palestinian. I choose to wear the scarf at age 12, while continuing to wear pants and shirts. When I was 19 I slowly made the transition to the jilbab/abaya (dress-like outfits that are loose). I made the decision to do it, as my faith increased I felt it was helping me to fulfill my faith even better. I did wear the face veil for a while but was not able to continue as it is hard, but I did gain a great respect for the women that choose it.

I have to say that every time I hear someone say that the way Muslim women cover is oppressive, I get upset. They are basically saying that the only way to live is the Western way, which is basically flaunting it all. And look at the unhealthy consequence of that: eating disorders, online places where girls encourage each other not to eat, low self-esteem and body image because of how impossible it is for us to look like the air-brushed models we are bombarded with everyday.
Selina | 07 October 2010

Also, I wanted to say that in Islam, modesty is not just the responsibility of the women, it is also on the men. They have restrictions on their dress code as well. And in the Qur'an they are told in very clear language to lower their gaze, meaning not to stare at women, and it is explained further in the hadith of the Prophet.

I firmly believe though that Western "fashion" is controlled by men and it encourages women to flaunt everything so that they get their eye candy. And then when men do look at what is being so obviously flaunted, women get upset. Well I am sorry, but if you don't want the men looking and commenting then don't dress that way. As women we naturally want to look and feel good, and there are many ways to do that without becoming eye candy for men.
Selina | 07 October 2010

Sigh, you could have picked this quote instead Joseph. I would advise anyone reading this post to go and look up the opinions of Muslim women, rather than angry non-Muslim men, to get a grasp of their situation.

"A man asked the Prophet: 'Whom should I honor most?' The Prophet replied: 'Your mother'. 'And who comes next?' asked the man. The Prophet replied: 'Your mother'. 'And who comes next?' asked the man. The Prophet replied: 'Your mother!'. 'And who comes next?' asked the man. The Prophet replied: 'Your father'"

Same source.

Better source: Qur'an 16:97 "To whoever, male or female, does good deeds and has faith, we shall give a good life and reward them according to the best of their actions."

"He is the most perfect Muslim whose disposition is best; and the best of you are they who behave best to their wives."

Etc, etc, etc.
Omar | 09 October 2010


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