A photograph of a beach volleyball game, taken by Lucy Nicholson of Reuters, was widely circulated on social media recently – some called it a culture “clash”, while others termed it the true spirit of the Olympics. The photograph, in which a hijab and leggings clad Egyptian player is up against a bikini clad German at the net, stirred two polar opposite reactions in Olympics viewers – while some saw it as an indicator of how far the Olympic games had come to truly represent different cultures while respecting those differences, others pointed out at the “repression” that still continued to haunt women in some cultures. The latter ignored the fact that she was a spirited, determined player, that there she was, representing her country at the most prestigious sporting event in the world, that she played on par with her opponents. The latter chose to see only what she wore – that she had covered her hair, her legs, arms and torso, unlike her opponents. As though that was the most important matter of discussion…
The debate about the repressiveness represented by the hijab or the headscarf worn by Muslim women, and their conservative choice of clothing has been long drawn out and has taken various levels of significance in the past and continues to do so more recently. From Donald Trump’s comments about a Muslim woman who was “forbidden to speak” at her son’s memorial service to comments on Nicholson’s photographs, one might wonder how the world became so obsessed with women who choose to cover up (almost as much as the obsession with women who choose to bare all, I dare say). Historian Merinissi points out that it was during the colonial times that women’s rights violations in Islam took to the forefront, when any other culture was considered inferior to European culture. The idea that “other men, men in colonised societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilised west, oppressed women, was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonised peoples”.
How this idea has survived and evolved over the years is anybody’s guess, but how people remain ignorant about its origins or choose to stick to their worldview in the face of information available is baffling. Growing up in Oman and during my visits to the United Arab Emirates, I see and meet many Muslim women. While the words “beautiful”, “dignified”, “elegant”, “make-up” and “perfume”, cross my mind on many occasions, “repressed” never does. Having spent most of my life in India, I have seen repressed, and trust me, a headscarf is not an indicator of any repression. On my recent visit to the UAE, my daughters asked me why there was a “women’s waiting room” and my absent-minded, yet completely honest response to them was, “Because here, they respect women and treat them like queens and princesses.” An interview with a British woman who had married an Emirati and settled in the region confirmed my impression. The lady spoke about how she felt completely at ease as a woman in the UAE, while in England, she felt threatened and insecure. She spoke about how the robe (abhaya) and headscarf (hijab) worn by Muslim women had become a “fashion statement” rather than an imposition, and how women adorned them with pride.
In the Muslim world, much importance is given to dressing modestly – both for men and for women – to ward off any kind of unnecessary attention or flattery from strangers. During an ethnographic experiment that I conducted dressed in an abhaya and a hijab, I experienced the difference firsthand. While in my conservative clothing, I felt invisible and unnoticed, in my regular clothing afterward, I saw the entitlement with which men seemed to look at different parts of my body. According to Muslim women, they choose to cover themselves entirely so that their beauty is only for their husbands to enjoy, keeping other prying, lustful eyes at bay. The “burkini” is another example of how women in the region maintain their modesty while enjoying a swim. Watching how they conducted themselves without much ado and with a lot of dignity, while scantily clad women had lustful eyes feasting on them all along, the relativism was striking to me.
A professor and intercultural communications expert recently gave my class in Lugano a great strategy to approach any situation (intercultural or otherwise) – D.I.E. (Describe, Interpret, Evaluate). As human beings, we are often too quick to interpret and evaluate, without gaining enough information to objectively describe. And that premature interpretation and evaluation can lead to several misguided beliefs that seem to have taken over the world by storm. As intercultural practitioners and international professionals, we all have a responsibility to keep some of those misconceptions in check. So the next time we are faced with an “unfamiliar” situation, let’s take the time to describe it objectively. Which means replacing “How repressed that society which does not allow her to wear a bikini at a beach volleyball game!” with “Wow! That woman plays exceptionally well. She’s Egyptian and chooses to wear leggings and a headscarf at a beach volleyball game!”
Written by Divya Susan Varkey, Intercultural Communications Trainer and Practitioner