For Huda Naccache, Israel’s 2011 representative in the Miss Earth beauty pageant, wearing a bikini is important for career advancement.
The 21-year old Christian Arab from Haifa has modeling ambitions, and in order to get noticed, she posed in a bikini for the cover of the Arab Israeli women’s magazine Lilac.
This may not sound like a big deal in a world where everyone from rock stars to child television icons seems to be willing to pose nearly nude for some photo or another. But in Huda’s community, such exposure for women is still taboo.
In fact, this is the first time that Lilac, a ten-year old monthly that bucks tradition and publishes articles for Arab women on fashion, careers and even sex, has ever had a bikini-clad woman on the cover.
The notion of the bikini as liberation for women is tricky. Certainly rules of excessive female body cover – whether in Muslim or Jewish or other religious societies – are oppressive to women and inhibit growth, development and physical movement. Women and girls wearing a burqa or a jean skirt cannot easily ride a bicycle, do gymnastics, or climb a tree. And anyone who’s ever been to one of the natural springs in Israel’s north during the summer has undoubtedly witnessed the frightening sight of heavily clad women of different religions trying to avoid drowning under the weight of wet clothes.
There is a professional cost to women’s excessive body cover as well. It’s hard to be the only one dressed this way in professional settings. Even wearing a straw hat in an office full of bare heads makes some women feel different.
The most glaring limitation, though, is clearly the inability of heavily-covered women to take jobs that require lighter apparel. Forest rangers, aerobics instructors, actresses, lifeguards and choreographers are some of the jobs that are off limits for such women.
But there is also a stultifying persona about being covered. A woman can’t really be covered and loud. Israel has yet to see a Knesset member or mayor dressed in layers and speaking forcefully from the pulpit.
There is a perhaps unspoken expectation that body cover comes with a certain quietness, an unobtrusiveness. Even a train conductor – being the kind of person who has to shout out orders and instructions to bustling crowds – would seem somehow incongruous with all that body cover.
So women willing to buck these conventions in order to pursue their passions, dreams and expressions of freedom are refreshing and inspiring. It takes courage, wisdom and independent-mindedness to unravel all the messages about women’s bodies and personalities and take the decision to live fully. Moreover, for some women in tightly religious communities, it can reflect truly life-risking daring.
Take, for example, former Miss Israel contestant Angelina Duah Fares, the Druze woman who received death threats and had to pull out of the pageant because of the community’s disapproval – and whose sister, Maya was then allegedly murdered by family members.
I cannot even imagine what it must feel like to a woman knowing that the pursuit of body freedom can cost someone’s life. At the same time, I also cannot imagine risking my life for the right to pose in a bikini.
The fashion industry, the modeling profession and the beauty pageant world are not good places for women. These are not cultures that are empowering and liberating. On the contrary, the pressure on young women to be starving-skinny, flawless, and almost completely exposed is as oppressive to their identities as the pressure to completely cover. Indeed, in both cases, the correctness of women’s bodies is dictated by a male view of women as sexual objects. To go from the hijab to the bikini is effectively going from one form of oppression to the other.
That said, I wish Huda all the success in the Miss Earth competition. I hope she wins, I hope she becomes rich and famous, and I hope she finishes her studies in Archeology and Geology at Haifa University and excels in a profession where she is valued for her mind and spirit.