Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why Nudity and the Burka Don't Empower Women

Venus
Photo: Pinterest
The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides four definitions for the word empowerment: To give official authority or legal power to; to enable; to promote self-actualization or influence, and to give power to someone. And in the current debate surrounding the female body, empowerment has taken on another meaning: nudity, an association popularized by celebrities keen to strip down for a magazine spread.

In a Vanity Fair spread last year, Demi Lovato, who battled eating disorders in the past, admitted:  “[The nude photoshoot is] empowering and it shows other women you can get to a place where you can overcome obstacles of body image issues.”

Judging by the issues Demi has had with her body, it’s easy to see why a nude photoshoot was a courageous venture. But having to do so in a magazine to prove that she’s now at peace with her body reeks more of capitalism and narcissism than empowerment. Posting to her a personal website or on social media (if nudity is permitted) would have sufficed to share her message with fans, but of course that wouldn’t pay because nude photoshoots per se aren’t empowering. What is is the cold, hard cash magazines pay—cash that will be enable one purchase wants and indulge desires. Money in this case is the key that empowers.

Another celebrity who has made the association between nudity and empowerment is Kim Kardashian. On International Women’s Day, she shared a nude photo on her app along with a message peppered with ‘empowerment’. In it she says, “I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my own skin. I am empowered by showing the world my flaws and not being afraid of what anyone is going to say about me.” She goes on to add, “[I hope] I can encourage the same empowerment for girls and women all over the world.”

Again, this an example of narcissism and capitalism dressed up as empowerment. Kim has made tremendous amount of money bearing her skin, so it’s now wonder she feels ‘empowered’ by her body. But like Demi, can she claim to be empowered if sex, or rather pandering to the male gaze, didn’t sell? And in any case, how does she suppose her nude photos will impact girls and women to realize they’re just as capable and deserving of the things men are afforded in all spheres of life? Unless she’s advocating that women use their bodies to attain financial freedom, and thus, empower themselves, her nude photos and empowerment speech ring hollow.

If bearing skin is the symbol of the empowered woman, then the opposite—covering up entirely—is that of the disempowered woman. Or so is the thinking in some quarters.

Recently, Laurence Rossignol, France's minister for the family, children and women’s rights, railed against designers and clothing stores like M&S and H&M offering products catered to Muslim women who cover their faces, heads and extremities. In her mind, they are irresponsible for “promoting the confinement of women’s bodies”. “What’s at stake,” she added, “is social control over women’s bodies.” 
Burkini
Photo: Marks and Spencer

Already, in 2010, France banned the niqab, the full face veil, a move some criticized for encroaching on women’s rights.


Yet, what BergĂ© failed to consider or, in Rossignol’s case, to accept is that Muslim women’s sartorial tastes vary. And that just as YSL has the right to run fashion campaigns with scantily-clad women, so is it a Muslim woman’s prerogative to cover up as she pleases. Claiming that a fully-covered woman isn’t beautiful or that she’s confined because she wears a hijab or a burkini is to dismiss cultural and personal differences.

It may be hard to believe, but the idea of bearing skin doesn’t excite every woman. Just ask All Saints, a famous British pop girl band of the late 90s. In a recent BBC interview, they recounted being told to take off their tops for a performance so as to give the impression of nudity, a move that contrasted with the group’s cargo-pants-combat-boots style. When they balked, an ultimatum was issued: Lose the tops or forgo the performance. In the end, they compromised by lowering their tops to their armpits. Not exactly a liberating or ‘beautiful’ experience.

To be sure, there are Muslim women for whom the hijab is a symbol of patriarchy and repression. Still, while these women’s views must be respected, they’re are not representative of all Muslim women.

Burqas and nude photos are not a measure of empowerment or the lack thereof, as neither bestow legal authority or lead to self-actualization. Education. Access to finance. Wealth. Abortion rights. Day care centers for working mothers. These are factors that contribute to the true empowerment of girls and women. Girls who are educated are more likely to use birth control and plan their family size accordingly. Access to finance and day care centers free her from the shackles of poverty, a largely sexist phenomenon, and allow her realize her dreams respectively. Having more women in positions of authority will lead to a balanced world where sexist laws such as the pink tax will be repealed and more favorable ones like equal pay implemented.

In essence, if women were truly empowered, debates about whether they’re being bullied into veiling or exposing their skin will not exist, because then the choice will be truly theirs.