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Burkhas, Bikinis, and Other Lies

“You’re in deep doo-doo now,” was my 6th grade math teacher’s favorite expression, the one that signaled a mini-Apocalypse in the form of a D grade, or a detention, or a shrill call to the parents demanding an explanation of one’s behavior. I never got along with my math teacher, but the phrase has stuck to me somehow, and I remembered it recently while doing research on Islamic bloggers for this article.

Only the words “doo-doo,” despite the horrific memories of my awful math class, seemed a bit too gentle for the mess I encountered.

WE ARE F*CKED is more like it. I blamed God at first, like I always do when I feel particularly helpless, but then I changed my mind.

The first sign of impeding doom and disaster were the dichotomies that cropped up like spots on a pubescent butt:

The Good, Modest, Chaste Muslim Chick vs. The Bad, Immodest, Loose Western WHORE.

The Oppressed, Backward, Uneducated Muslim SLAVE-Woman vs. The Liberated, Progressive, Powerful Western Chick.

The Good, Traditional, Moral Muslim Dude who Prays and Fasts vs. The Bad, Immoral Western Dude who Sleeps with Prostitutes and Gorges on Alcohol, Smack, and Pork.

The Evil, Bearded TERRRORIST vs. The Open-Minded, Clean-Shaven SECULAR HUMANIST.

The Bastard Zionist vs. The Righteous, Innocent, Cuddly Palestinian.

The Murderous Racist Palestinian Suicide-Bomber vs. The Helpless Oppressed Morally-Superior Israeli.

The Brave American Freedom-Fightin’ Soldier vs. The Towel-Headed Iraqi Evil-Doer.

The Courageous Muslim Iraqi Liberators vs. Any Evil Bastard from Another Country

The Dirty Monstrous Russian vs. The Brave Chechen Freedom-Fighter.

The Asshole Child-Killin’ Chechen vs. The Saintly Motherland-Savin’ Russian

And more, and more, and more. The more I read, the more I realized that this will not be over for a long, long time. We are all cogs in the machine that propels us toward a fearsome future in which our great-grandchildren will still be picking up the pieces, following a war that 9/11 only helped bring to the surface for those of us in a state of lazy complacency. Crap. Suddenly, having children doesn’t seem at all attractive anymore (and that’s besides the stretch-marks, hardy har har). What’s the bleeding point? A life in a world of constant pigeonholing, finger-pointing and general ignorance if they’re lucky, and a life among broken limbs, falling bombs, rape and genocide if they’re not? Well, screw that. I’m sticking to keeping hamsters. The worst they can do is eating their young, and anyway, at the rates at which they mate, the unfortunate young get replaced soon enough.

For the sake of keeping focus, I would like to center my monologue on the existing dichotomies that rage in the debate around women’s rights. In my exploration of the Muslim blogosphere, as well as the non-Muslim reactions posted on those sites, I could barely find a single coherent viewpoint. The mud-slinging on both sides reminded me of playground religious debates I sometimes witness growing up in a fairly multicultural neighborhood in Ukraine : “My God can beat up your God! Nyah!” The only difference was that the playground debates were settled amicably as various gods were eventually forgotten in the face of a massive distraction, like a dead dog, or a call for ice cream. Not so in some of today’s Internet communities, where women are used as pawns to advocate everything from the war in Iraq, to the Taliban regime. Riiight.

The very nature of the Burkha vs. Bikini debate is telling of how shallow, paternalistic, and counter-productive the current discourse on women’s rights really is. These are clothes, for fuck’s sake, this is SHIT we WEAR. They do not, cannot, address who we are on the inside, whether we’re educated, whether we’re treated fairly in the workplace or in the home, what food we like, what books we read, who we love, what we cry for at night when we think nobody listens, and so on. It will never cease to amaze me that any religious discourse regarding women immediately zeroes in on appearance and makes a big flipping deal about what to make of a short skirt or a hijab. Right, is this religion, or is this commentary on a Parisian runway, lifted out of Vogue and twisted to fit the author’s prejudices? How profound! Woman as mannequin, viewed and judged exclusively based on her garb. I am weeping tears of holy rapture at the amazing theological/ideological heights we scale in this debate about PIECES OF FABRIC. Rock on.

The other popular topic that runs parallel to burkhas and bikinis was, of course, the whole VIRGIN and WHORE dichotomy. This is where things got truly interesting. You’ll be surprised to know, for example, that hardcore Russian Orthodox Christians and hardcore Russian Muslims are often able to put all their differences regarding the conflict in Chechnya aside to agree that women ought to wear potato sacks and be publicly flogged for having lovers. Ah, such unity. Such brotherhood! A debate I observed on a Russian Orthodox Forum went something like this:

Russian Nationalist:: F*CKING CHECHEN BASTAD PIECES OF SHIT!

Muslim Fundamentalist: Ha! Well at least OUR women sit at home and wipe our babies’ behinds, instead of being WHORES! Ha!

Russian Nationalist: What a good point you make, my dear Islamic scum. Perhaps we should lay our grenade-launchers aside for a while and concentrate on the WHORES. Stupid bitches, climbing the corporate ladder and trying to establish themselves in their communities, why they should be PROCREATING, considering it’s the only thing they’re good for.

Muslim Fundamentalist: Right on!

Indeed.

Having read disturbing statements that praise the Taliban regime for raising a generation of “good virgins” as well as cries for deporting all women who dare to wear the hijab out on the street in Western countries, I have reaffirmed by belief that the idiots are fruitful, and are multiplying on both sides of this so-called debate with alarming speed.

The truth is, the issue has as many sides as it has participants. Too bad the majority of the participants are moral cowards, sticking to a particular mantra handed down to them by those who profit greatly for the current upheavals in the world. Nobody, for example, attempted to address the complexity of the image of the Afghani woman under Taliban rule, slinking quietly against the wall in her burkha, or kneeling down as a rifle is levelled at her head and the power-drunk crowds of men cheer on. Nobody cared to recall that the image of this woman was only addressed after Septmeber 11th, 2001, when suddenly the Taliban became a priority to the U.S. Government, and the image of the downtrodden Afghani woman became a means to an end. Nobody wondered what the image of this woman might mean for those Muslims who see the Western female as corrupt. Nobody worried about her fate in the wake of America ‘s virtual abandonment of Afghanistan . The silence is ringing in my ears, it won’t let me sleep at night.

Or consider the case of the Slavic whore. Consider the lavish Vanity Fair article on St. Tropez, which briefly mentions the influx of Russian prostitutes as if describing some sort of fashion trend, as if wanting to say: “Jelly-bags are out, Russian hookers are in!” Swaying her dreamy hips, the Slavic prostitute has entered the imaginations of the horny and the self-righteous alike, she is “Russia’s greatest export, after caviar and vodka” (as one of my less savoury former friends once told me, in an attempt at being romantic, I guess), she is ammunition for religious fundamentalists of all faiths, she is a joke, and she is a curse. The economic meltdown of the Former Soviet Union and the mob-controlled power structures, are realities that are rarely addressed in discourse that centers on Slavic sex-workers. Does she do it because she likes it? Some probably do. Does she do it because her gangster boyfriend sold her into sexual slavery? Another likely scenario. Does she do it because current gender norms in the Former Soviet Union compel her to do it, even as they vilify her and tie her to the stake? Sure. But the explanation given by the righteous mujahideen fighting for an Islamic Republic of Russia, by the bloated, excited British sex-tourists I meet in Kiev ‘s Internet cafes, by the wisecracking Western journalists, is that, hey, she’s Russian. Russians are whores. What more do you want? Following the same line of logic, the bigots that populate the so-called intellectual landscape in Russia explain this phenomenon away by saying: hey, she’s a woman, women are whores. What more do you want? And so it goes, and so it goes. Obscured by the variety of political, religous, social, and sexual agendas, the Slavic slutopens her mouth, but no words come out, just the dick of whoever it is that takes advantage of her situation today comes in. Splendid.

And while we’re visiting this part of the world, what about the Chechen woman? The cold-blooded sniper bitch. The illiterate peasant woman in the that great cultural marker, the hijab. The fleshy oven from which future terrorists spring, one by one. Maybe she waves her arms, or cries out against such generalizations, but the only answer is a rain of bullets. And when it rains, it pours. We don’t really see this woman, all we see are her remains splattered across the television screen, splattered across our hands. And we, the Lady Macbeths of this world, we continue to scrub our fingers dementedly.

On my trip into the Islamic cyberspace, I saw young women, too busy defending their right to wear hijab to oppose the gender apartheid inflicted upon their Muslim sisters, those without access to the Internet, those stranded on undiscovered islands, those dying in droves for a nebulous concept of “family honour” while the likes of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front throws a tantrum over a man’s divine right to slit the throat of his sheep, his goat, his daughter, his wife. I saw other young women, too busy hating and fearing the bad bearded man to cry out against someone’s desire to squeeze them into certain sizes and squeeze out their souls while their at it, drop by drop. I saw young women in danger of being blown to bits. I saw young women wanting to blow up to bits themselves, preferably in a crowded bar. And for a second there, the invisible hand became visible, I watch the muscles strain as it arranged and rearranged this peculiar mosaic, the fingers occasionally twitching with pleasure at the sheer power to cross out human lives. Guess who the hand belonged to?

At the end of my little odyssey into the Other Cyberspace, the only emotion left was one of supreme disdain. For all of you. And for all of myself. It was an equal-opportunity dislike that I felt. It reached across religious divides, gender norms, skin colours, and financial gaps. And it was funny, because I didn’t dislike God anymore, we’d patched things up all of a sudden after all, go figure, and it was God’s various fan-clubs that I wanted to run screaming from. The only problem was, I was in such deep doo-doo, that I could no longer move.

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Natalia Antonova

Natalia is a writer and journalist. She's the associate editor of openDemocracy Russia and the co-founder of the Anti-Nihilist Institute.