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Burkhas and Bikinis: What Women's Bodies Reveal About Cultures

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On Facebook, a photo of four Afghan women in Burkhas appears, followed by another picture of four American women, Victoria Secret models, in underwear that amounts to nothing more than the skimpiest of bikinis. Both images are startling, as is what follows: a post about two Afghan women found hanged, naked, neither their names nor their "crime" revealed.

The striking juxtaposition of these posts calls for understanding their meaning, for exploring their cultural relevance, for some kind of articulation about what they reveal regarding the status of women, for outrage and correction. And for knowing why, in response to my "comment" that both pictures made feel sick, this message appeared from an unknown reader: "Do we really need your vomit?"

My reaction to all this is visceral. I mull the pictures over in my mind for several days, trying to process the outrage I felt on seeing both photos, reading about the executions, receiving that hideous message.  

The first and probably most important thing I think about in working out how these things are connected is that women's bodies are what really matters about them according to the power base, irrespective of the culture in which they reside.

  In Afghanistan, according to the Taliban and other ultra-conservatives, women must be covered completely, often to the point of near suffocation and immobility, in order that they not tempt males sexually.   For the sake of protecting one half of the population from itself, the other half of the population must be rendered invisible, faceless, body-less, without identity, voice, power.   When women reclaim some of that power in whatever innocuous or overt way, as those two Afghani women likely did, they are hung, naked, like animal carcasses, exposed so that the world can look upon their shame. They can no longer tempt. Now they are held in contempt. It's the ultimate female dichotomy.

In many western cultures, especially our own, it is the uncovering of women that gives them value; in their ability to titillate and tempt lies what little power we afford them.   This sexualization of females -- their path to legitimization - happens almost from birth. If you doubt this claim, take a look at baby and toddler T-shirts and what is imprinted on them; notice how kids in elementary and junior high school dress; ask yourself why Miley Cyrus gets so much attention.   Or why the War on Women has heated up politically now that women are gaining ever more freedom and equality in the academy, the marketplace, the community as they exercise more autonomy over their own bodies.

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Much has been written about the cultural contexts of emphasizing women's bodies and women's sexuality (either by rendering their bodies invisible or totally exposed).   The relationship of those cultural contexts to rape and other violence against women, to eating disorders and depression, and to other psycho-social phenomena has been well articulated.   

But all this attention still begs the question: Why do the male of the species -- the ones who continue to hold most of the power in most cultures -- fail to care about the pain they are causing the women they purport to love - their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, friends?   Why do so many women buy into their lead?   And why is it so difficult to move cultures beyond women's oppression, largely associated with repressed or flaunted sexuality, to cultural environments in which simple justice, human rights, and kindness prevail?

Some answers to these largely rhetorical questions have been articulated, for better or worse:   Institutionalized and sanctioned misogyny, the almighty buck, testosterone and more.   But none has provided sufficient clarity or effected sustained change.

And none has been able to answer these questions in a meaningful way:   Why, really, were two nameless women hung, naked, in Afghanistan?   Why are some women in the 21st century walking around in virtual body bags while others wear little more than a loincloth? Why is a woman's voice expressing a feeling of outrage when women are objectified met with male vitriol?     What do any of these things say about the cultures in which we live?   What are we going to do to make those cultures more humane for fully half of their populations?

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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)

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I've also mulled these issues for a long time. I t... by Amy Fried, Ph.D. on Saturday, Dec 14, 2013 at 6:45:17 PM
exactly. And then when a woman dresses like stripp... by Bill Johnson on Sunday, Dec 15, 2013 at 8:37:26 AM
Wow. You don't define "reacts" & "daring to be... by Amy Fried, Ph.D. on Sunday, Dec 15, 2013 at 10:45:16 AM
I'm with Amy here, Bill.  You're falling into... by Elayne Clift on Sunday, Dec 15, 2013 at 3:19:26 PM
Apparently my point was completely missed. It is w... by Bill Johnson on Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 at 9:41:15 AM
"There is a double standard at work here."There su... by J. Edward Tremlett on Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 at 11:56:51 AM
The double standard is that women want to tell men... by Bill Johnson on Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 at 9:24:42 PM
"The double standard is that women want to tell me... by J. Edward Tremlett on Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 at 10:20:37 PM
Bill,Please ask yourself WHY women dress like that... by Elayne Clift on Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 at 2:26:26 PM
Yes I am afraid you are missing the point. So plea... by Bill Johnson on Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 at 9:31:29 PM
I agree, Amy - both being made to cover up or to r... by Elayne Clift on Sunday, Dec 15, 2013 at 3:11:13 PM
Personally, I think the burkha was invented by wom... by molly cruz on Sunday, Dec 15, 2013 at 12:37:05 PM
Forgive me but this trivialization is disturbing.&... by Elayne Clift on Sunday, Dec 15, 2013 at 3:21:39 PM
Both of these cultural norms in their respective c... by Archie on Sunday, Dec 15, 2013 at 7:27:12 PM
Great article and comments.Of course, we can quote... by BFalcon on Sunday, Dec 15, 2013 at 8:53:20 PM
I view this is an extremely sexist comment. I woul... by Bill Johnson on Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 at 9:34:01 PM
I think that you completely misunderstood.... by BFalcon on Wednesday, Dec 18, 2013 at 1:20:14 AM
Imagine what it would be like if women were typica... by Jim Arnold on Monday, Dec 16, 2013 at 5:19:27 AM
Thanks Jim and BFalcon. Appreciate your comments.... by Elayne Clift on Monday, Dec 16, 2013 at 9:29:19 AM
Good questions, Elayne. The story of the Afghani w... by E. J. N. on Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 at 11:09:50 AM
I should add that my thinking reflects what is exp... by E. J. N. on Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 at 1:28:06 PM
Thanks for these thoughtful and informative posts!... by Elayne Clift on Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 at 2:31:22 PM
Who wants to step up and explain the role of dress... by Pat Hoekstra on Tuesday, Dec 17, 2013 at 3:29:34 PM