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The Beauty Myth versus the Veil: A Feminist Perspective

The male gaze is evil oppression…the veil is liberating.

A few years ago, I wrote several posts in which I offered critiques of feminism (see here, here, and here). I return to this topic in today's post by turning my attention to Naomi Wolf, perhaps one of the best-known contemporary feminists. In 1991, Ms. Wolf's The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women was published and went on to become a bestseller. In my 2007 book The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption, I included the following quote from her book, as a means of succinctly capturing its central premise (pp. 10-11):

"We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women's advancement: the beauty myth. It is the modern version of a social reflex that has been in force since the Industrial Revolution. As women released themselves from the feminine mystique of domesticity, the beauty myth took over its lost ground, expanding as it waned to carry on its work of social control.
The contemporary backlash is so violent because the ideology of beauty is the last one remaining of the old feminine ideologies that still has the power to control those women whom second wave feminism would have otherwise made relatively uncontrollable: It has grown stronger to take over the work of social coercion that myths about motherhood, domesticity, chastity, and passivity, no longer can manage. It is seeking right now to undo psychologically and covertly all the good things that feminism did for women materially and overtly."

This is an extraordinary claim that deserves to be read on multiple occasions. Apparently, the premium that men place on female beauty is part and parcel of a coordinated political and patriarchal form of oppression. One has to assume that the beauty premium as evidenced in the Bible (e.g., the story of King David and Bathsheba) or in Ancient Greek mythology, is a manifestation of the same nefarious forces.

Let's fast-forward to a 2008 article that Ms. Wolf wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald titled "Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality." She writes:

"Indeed, many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualising Western gaze."

"I experienced it myself. I put on a shalwar kameez and a headscarf in Morocco for a trip to the bazaar. Yes, some of the warmth I encountered was probably from the novelty of seeing a Westerner so clothed; but, as I moved about the market - the curve of my breasts covered, the shape of my legs obscured, my long hair not flying about me - I felt a novel sense of calm and serenity. I felt, yes, in certain ways, free."

Not to be outdone by Ms. Wolf, in 2009 the Australian writer Helen Razer wrote an article in the same journal titled "At least women in burqas are not judged on their looks." How liberating! In a recent speech, the famed feminist Germaine Greer displayed greater ire for the bikini than for the burqa (see here).

Wolf, Razer, and Greer are hardly the only Western women to have hailed veils (and related accoutrements) as being "liberating." A central mantra of feminism is that the so-called male gaze constitutes a form of assault. Accordingly, any dress code that negates such "patriarchal oppression" can be liberating. Western media images (and more generally the capitalist patriarchal system) are apparently key peddlers in the sexist subjugation of women. On the other hand, veils can at times be construed as liberating since some women freely choose to wear these. Wow.

I will leave it to the readers to decide whether the great majority of women who live in countries where such "liberating" dress codes are ubiquitous, do so by choice or by coercion (e.g., Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen). I will also leave it to the readers to determine whether the plight (including personal freedoms) of women originating from such societies is generally better than that of women in the West. For readers who might be unsure, the 2010 Gender Gap report (see page 8 and 9 for the country rankings) commissioned by the World Economic Forum might prove helpful.

Cultural relativism coupled with cultural self-loathing lead to a broken moral compass. Individuals who are truly committed to the betterment of women's lives recognize the differential subjugation of women that is implicit in various clothing accoutrements. In a world of limited time and resources, the so-called beauty myth (and bikinis) is not where Western feminists should be spending their efforts.

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