Does the Tunisian Nude Help Liberate Women?

From the arguments that rage over the Islamic veil and the bikini, a battle between the conservatives and liberal secular forces, you would think it can be summed up as: nudity is liberation and covering up is oppression from the secular faction . A Tunisian woman took the bait, and from the birth place of the Arab-Spring she displayed her breasts, with “My body is mine, not somebody’s honour” written across it, clearly aimed at the conservative faction of society. This is supposed to contribute towards the advancement for women’s rights, because the argument goes, it shows that she has control over her body, nobody (men in particular) is forcing her to cover up. One would assume the protest in a different form would take place, if the women were forced to walk around topless in Tunisia in the first place.

On that note, women who chose to wear the Hijab (head scarf) under the previous regime were treated awfully, and in countries like Turkey the HIjab was banned in public life. The same argument of women having control over their bodies and having the ability to exercise their choice is applicable here, but it did not lead to the feminists screaming; hence, why the selectivity? Ironically, it seems the feminists are pandering to the male urges through the back door, as they are only intervening when women want to strip!

In any case, the argument that women are empowered by giving them a choice to strip because it shows they have control over their bodies is fundamentally flawed. In any society, no individual, man or woman, has absolute right and choice over their body. Otherwise suicide, various forms of self-harm, abortion and public nudity would be legal across the board. In fact, women and men in all societies are forced to cover up to some extent, as public nudity is illegal in almost all the societies in the world. Then, why does it mark progression for one to appear as nude as possible?

Historically, for centuries European colonisers have criticised the natives in Africa, Central and Latin America and elsewhere for not adequately covering their bodies, driven by Christian values and missionaries; today bearing all seems to be a mark of progress and civilisation. This reflects the transition to a secular liberal society from a conservative Christian society. It is not just the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that upholds the values of dressing modestly to help maintain decency and harmony between the genders; most societies across the world have similar values, even in the godless Communist societies, men and women do not walk around nude or topless in general.

Therefore, it is not the dictates of religion but a basic human trait that tells us to cover up our bodies, hence it is so widespread. A trait that distinguishes us from the animals; we understand the notion of shame, privacy and draw distinction between public and private life; accordingly we are intimate with our spouses in private. I am told even most animals to some extent exhibit this trait with the exception of the Pig. Of course, secular forces to some extent work against these conservative values, as secularism often defines itself in this way.

For sure, displaying ones private parts will not result in furthering women’s rights – it is a primitive expression like that exhibited by animals and does not elevate anyone; it simply sends the punk like message that I am a rebel and not conforming to the social and legal conventions. The Tunisian woman is at a loss, and such acts will only reinforce the conservative notion that we need to maintain modesty which contributes towards keeping harmony between the genders.

Rather, women’s rights should be viewed in the context of how they are treated by law with respect to the opposite gender in the same level, meaning compare brother and sister, mother and father. For example, equal pay, equal access to certain facilities, and protection from domestic violence. There are deeper theological issues that are connected with the differences between the genders, which often get ignored during the discourse on gender equality and rights. Hence, there are many areas differential treatments are required. Even in the West, it is recognised that a man walking around topless is not the same as a woman. A woman with child should be given preferential treatment. You hear women say they would like to be treated like a woman or a lady, meaning not like your best male pal. These conventions display the inherent gender differences and how they are treated is partially subjective as different societies have different social conventions and its only arrogance that lead some of us to look down on the social conventions in other societies.

In addition, the gender relationship is complex with many levels. A male can be a child and the female can be a grandmother or an aunty or a cousin or an elder sister or a spouse. Often this complexity also gets overlooked, partly due to the breakdown of the traditional family unit, and the focus is always on the adult woman in relation to her opposite peer.

Yamin Zakaria (, #yaminzakaria)
Published on 1/04/2013
London, UK