Many people in the West are blithely unaware that feminism and women’s rights are not foreign exports. There are indigenous feminist movements everywhere, including, vibrantly, in the Middle East, where that very idea—the conflation of feminism with the colonialist, imperialist West—has done tremendous harm.

Two weeks ago, for example, millions of people shared a photograph of two women, one from Egypt and one from Germany, playing volleyball at the Olympics.

The woman on the left, Egyptian Olympian Doaa Elghobashy, chose to wear a hijab as well as full body spandex. Others on her team, given similar flexibility, did not. The athlete on the right, Kira Walkenhorst, is wearing her German uniform of a bikini.

“Which vision for women do you want?” asked a man in a tweet that was shared hundreds of times. “One where women are empowered or suppressed. East versus West. Choose correctly.” His entire equation, unconsciously predicated on the notion of the male gaze, ignores what the women themselves might want. This perspective is both sexually objectifying and dehumanizing.

Put another way, Quartz’s Annalisa Merelli noted that “on its face, the image seems less illustrative of a massive divide than of a strong commonality. For different reasons, both hijab and a bikini tend to provoke problematic stereotypes of women—an assumption of religious imposition on one side, and one of willing sexual objectification on the other. In this picture, however, these very misconceptions make the garments strong symbols of empowerment.”

In the early 20th century, morality police patrolled US beaches, enforcing skirt lengths and removing women rebellious enough to show a little clavicle or thigh. Then, as now, women were told the regulations were for their own good, to protect their virtue and the virtue of those around them. But despite the topical similarities, the forced unveiling of Muslim women is not the same. As Mahroh Jahangiri wrote for Feministing: “These comparisons miss a very significant point: the unveiling of Muslim women has been part and parcel of broader imperial efforts to destroy Muslim communities. This isn’t just about patriarchy, people—this is also about racism and imperialism. Neither of which white girls in tiny bikinis have ever had to face.”

The cultural issues that we face today, in the wake of centuries of colonialism, racism, religious fundamentalism and globalization, are complex. But no matter what you believe, two armed policemen demanding a woman publicly strip is neither liberating nor conducive to public safety. The truth is that women will only be able to wear what they want when we change the fundamental relationships binding the fates of women to the fate of the state.

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