Niqab vs Bikini – Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Photo credit Yasindusoruth Photography:
Tahmena Bokhari seen here
speaking at a fundraising dinner
within the Muslim community
Recently in the multicultural mosaic of Canada, the issue of the hijab and niqab has really taken on a life of its own. We argue about security threats, religious freedom, minority rights, accommodations, and so on.   Most of it, frankly, to me has been overblown and Canadians have completely missed the point on this one. I also find it interesting that it is mainly men who are prominent spokespersons when the niqab, hijab, or any form of women’s dress comes up in the media. 
Often in the discussions about the niqab the debate that emerges is over religious freedom. There is actually no consistent view across Muslims on whether the niqab, hijab or any form of headcovering is required. However, there is a larger debate of personal freedom and that is what I want to focus on here.
Part of living in this society is about acceptance and learning of difference, as well as freedom of personal beliefs. We should examine what makes us, (whether we are westerners, white, Muslims, immigrants, men or women) fearful of, or threatened or upset by, the niqab or hijab and even of the bikini and miniskirt. I think we have to take an honest look at our culture here in Canada wherein one hand we have a movement to support diversification of ideologies and norms being a nation of immigrants and on the other, we have a movement to sustain the status quo established by the `founding fathers`. In addition to this, we have to examine what forms of dress signify in a society wherein there has traditionally been an emphasis on individualism until the more recent support for ethnic enclaves and strong focus on community.
If one wants to dress a certain way for whatever personal reason, whether it be religion or simply how they feel that day, why should their personal choice be a matter of public debate in a country like Canada? Many have migrated here because someone elses version of religion will not be enforced onto them and some fled their own countries to come to a place that is more just and humane. However, this comes with responsibility. We have to ask as Muslims why we are so concerned about how others in Canada practice Islam, when there are so many other kinds of faith groups here. It seems we as Muslims are OK living next to Hindus, Sikhs, and even Jews, Christians and athiests, but become oddly intolerant when it comes to living among other Muslims who practice Islam differently than us — whether it is scarcely practiced as some might say or whether it is too strictly practiced as others might say.
No one has, nor should they have, the authority to claim to be more ‘Muslim’ then the next Muslim, and no one holds the ultimate authority to list or delist people from claiming Islam as their religion — atleast in Canada. Not everyone in a group has the same understanding or way of practicing their faith, and that is the beauty of living in a country like Canada, that not everyone has to fit into any kind of box. A person’s education, class, profession, family life, community, background, and so on, all impact how one interprets and practices their faith. We cannot expect that when there are so many other areas of diversity and differences within Muslim communities, and even more importantly among individuals within the same family, that all of them would understand, practice and speak for Islam in an identical manner. 
With regards to the headcovering, there will be some Muslim women who may have never worn the niqab or hijab or even thought about it, some who wore it as long they can remember, some only in their teens, some used to wear it, some will wear it one day, some are against the niqab but not the hijab and some against both, some do not care, and so on. It is not for any one else, Muslim or not, to judge, dictate, assume, prescribe or predict what is “correct” for any particular woman. Each woman is and should be fully capable of making her decisions and also to seek reliable information and support to help inform and truly live out her choices.
The other aspect is that as Canadians we must work on why the niqab poses such problems. What does it mean if a small segment (and it is a small segment) of Muslim women wear the niqab? Will it really pose that much of a problem if in cases of security concerns they are willing to have their face exposed to female officials? Does this necessarily mean that these women are oppressed or forced to wear the niqab or the hijab? Does it necessarily signify oppression and backwardness? What about wearing the bikini? Shorts? Miniskirt? Do those signify objectification? Does the significance change based on who is wearing it? Does the niqab or hijab mean oppression and the miniskirt or shorts mean liberation? Or vice versa? Or perhaps neither? What about both?
Women’s dress must have been an issue of public concern, I think, since the day the human female was put on this earth. Why is this so? We do not seem so concerned about the dress of men, the elderly or of children. Forms of women’s dress have become symbols for cultures and nations around the world. Imagine having any event for the upcoming Canadian Multiculturalism Day without the display of women’s dress? What does a woman’s dress signify or symbolize to a family, to a community, to a culture, to a nation, or to a moral code? And why does it mean what it does? Must it mean this? Should it mean this? What about the notion that we ask the woman directly what her dress means to her?
In the west, women are fighting against being objectified, fighting to have their shapes and sizes accepted in the media, and fighting to prevent women from feeling that they must subscribe to patriarchal views on how a woman should look and dress. Surrounded with the various pressures to be sexy as defined by tight, short, low, revealing and uncomfortable clothing on the iconic female body which is extremely thin in certain areas yet grossly large in others, women in the west are fed up. They want to be comfortable in their dress and in their skin, and more importantly, have full and free choice in what they wear.
In the east, women can be said to be fighting the same culprits, but perhaps in different ways. In societies where every effort has been made to tame or erase female sexuality, there are women for whom liberation would mean being allowed to fully express and experience all of their desires as men are allowed to. In my opinion as a feminist and social worker, in such societies, I have found that, the very aspect of womanhood that men have tried to extinct, ironically, has become the single most defining character of a woman. Having spent time within various Muslim communities and eastern countries, women have said to me that if they could just wear what they are comfortable in, a t-shirt and shorts, or even if they could just go outside without having to wear a head-covering, let`s to the local store on a hot summer’s day, without being stared at or considered to be sending messages of sexual availability, they would consider themselves more liberated.
At the same time, whether in the east or the west, there are women who are more comfortable when they are fully covered for a variety of reasons ranging from not wanting to experience the male gaze to lack of confidence. Really, to me, as someone who has lived in both, the east and the west, the debate over the societal significance of women wearing the niqab or women wearing the bikini are really two sides of the same coin, and the coin has nothing to do with clothing.
I have been a long time advocate of women having free choice in how they dress. By free choice I mean without fear of social, emotional, economical or familial consequences. In a diverse society such as Canada, there will be various forms of dress. Instead of finding them weird or funny; or putting labels on them like oppressive or liberating; or putting the various moral judgments on the person wearing them (and we know all the adjectives with which women have been described), we should be taking responsibility to learn about those forms of dress, or even better, to learn about the person wearing them.
So is it really a matter of religious freedom that we should limit this discussion to, or is it more a matter of personal freedom, and ultimately, how we define women’s liberation? I challenge all of you to consider whether or not the bikini or miniskirt can only be translated as the objectification of women and whether or not the niqab necessarily means oppression? Could they both possibly mean objectification? Could they possibly both mean oppression? Could they possibly at the same time have nothing to do with either? Let`s think of the possibilities. Let’s make this a nation that works for all of its citizens, no matter what they wear. 

About the author: Tahmena Bokhari is a professor, social worker, writer and speaker on community issues.


  1. Thank you Ms. Bokhari. Very indepth article that makes you really think. I agree with everything you say. I do not wear the niqab nor do I agree with others wearing it, but banning it is wrong and against the very values we love Canada for. Once you tamper with the value of personal freedom like the author says, banning one thing a woman wears can lead us down a very ugly path for all women and communities.

  2. This one really makes you think. Like what is about both the bikini and the niqab that bother us so much? I think it really is part of the same reason.
    And depending our own personal way of dress I think Muslims are very judgmental of other Muslims.

  3. Really like this one. I personally do not like the niqab or hijaab, I would never wear either, but that is my personal thing…and that is not a reason to ban it. Society is not just made up of people like me. She is also making us question why we Pakistanis are so threatened by the bikini, it is a woman’s personal freedom we have to accept in Canada. However, we all know the reactions to wearing shorts, bathing suts and bikinis that exist in Pakistai community more when other Pakistani women break mold and wear it. I think Pakistanis are ok with white women wearing it but not Pakitanis even though they both have same rights in Canada. This article is very deep… See More and provocative, it makes you really question the labels we put on things. I think what Tahmena is saying is that women need to have choice based on how they feel not on how others feel. I agree. It has been far too long that women are told what to wear.

  4. We have it all wrong, we need to be concerned about anger in our commuinty that leads to violence, which in case of Aqsa Pevez led to death. Yet we help reinforce that anger when we criticise women who wear skirts and shorts. We reinforce the shame her father felt — yes here in canada.

  5. Good article. I have never really connected the bikini and niqab before but I can see how it is very much connecetd now. I am not Muslim but I am sure every father at some point would wish their daughter wear a burqa. Especially when they hit teenage years and boys start to notice them, it is a time fathers think do not look forward too. At the same time I would want to raise my daughter so she knows we love her no matter what and raise her so she can take care of herself, is strong and confcomment_IDent, and handle herself around all kinds of people she will have to face in life. This more than the burqa would help me sleep better at night.

  6. I like all of her articles. I think immigrants may not always realize is that when you migrate to Canada, yes you get a lot of privileges, but there are a lot of responsibilities too. Part of those is accepting all the other people that live with you in Canada, making friends who are different than you, not criticising others and so on. You must participate in the same culture that is so open to you coming here. That means people will have different dress and beliefs and you must accept it. You have to give back to this country what this country gave you.

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