When French engineer Louis Réard introduced the bikini to his fellow countrywomen in 1946, little did he know that his swimwear, or a fusion of his swimwear, would be the center of political and social debate around the world seventy years later. In July of 2016, the “burkini,” a fusion between the bikini and a traditional dress worn by Muslim women called the burqa, was banned on over thirty beaches across France in an attempt to take a stand against “radical Islam.” Even though France’s highest administrative court overturned the ban a couple weeks after its enactment, this controversy prompted many people, including me, to question the nature of feminism in the West and its omission of the voices of Muslim women.
As a Muslim-American girl growing up in post-9/11 America, I was socially conditioned into thinking that my religion was something to be ashamed of. For nine years, my peers knew me as “Fair-uh,” like the actress Farrah Fawcett, instead of “Far-uh,” the Arabic translation for joy. When the Christmas season came around, I told my classmates that I, too, had received gifts for the holiday, but these “gifts” were really just items I had saved in my closet for the festive occasion.
It wasn’t until I found out about the burkini ban that I realized that the voices and values of Muslim women like me were not being included in the larger discussion of feminism. Many of us know of Beyoncé’s and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s contribution to this dynamic movement, but not many people hear of Muslim women like Noor Tagouri, who dreams of becoming the first anchor to wear a hijab on American commercial television.
We feminists in the West have a huge problem on our hands; we’ve been pulling along some women, but not all. The feminist movement in the West has been silent in regards to acknowledging a large demographic of women who possess a different set of values, especially in regards to sexual liberation. “Free the Nipple” and other popular movements perpetuate the belief that sexual liberation is the ability to show off your body and be open with your sexual activity. This belief, which was further enforced by the burkini ban, expresses that dressing modestly, wearing traditional dresses like the burqa or the hijab, and practicing abstinence are forms of oppression. I know all too well how deeply rooted this definition of sexual liberation is, as I have encountered several instances in which even my best friends have asked me why I don’t wear shorter skirts, or why I haven’t dated anyone during my teen years.
France’s burkini crisis and the conversations I engaged in online with ultra-feminist peers showed me how I and many others could make feminism more inclusive of the voices of Muslim women. The first step many of us can take is to recognize our privileges. Even though I am a Muslim-American woman, not wearing the hijab has liberated me from discrimination associated with Islamophobia. This grants me a level of immunity that I can utilize to carry out the next step. The second step is to promote more diversity on various media platforms, including social media, to highlight the stories of Muslim women and to break down cultural barriers.
Intersectional feminism is a feminism that takes into account the different identifiers like race, gender, sexuality, and religion with the intent of securing equal rights for both men and women. It’s more than just recognizing that women need to break a glass ceiling. It’s recognizing that I, a Muslim woman, my best friend, a Filipina woman, and my Pilates instructor, a white woman, all bring different backgrounds to the table, and that we have to pull all of us up in order to truly secure justice, freedom, and equality for all.