No Country for Old Breasts

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June 17 2010 3:30 PM

No Country for Old Breasts

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As the global spotlight shines on South Africa for the continent’s first World Cup, another African nation has been stealing some of the press. Not for uplifting stories of underdog triumph, but for good old-fashioned religious violence. According to the New York Times , "a Somali insurgent group, Hizbul Islam, detained dozens of fans for watching the tournament in recent days. ... Hizbul Islam had already outlawed playing soccer games, bras and forms of entertainment like watching soccer games and movies."

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That’s right-bras. Hizbul Islam, along with the powerful Islamic insurgent group Al Shabab, which currently rules a sizeable chunk of the country, instituted a ban on brassieres as part of its own brand of strict Sharia law. News of the proscription first went public back in October, after extremists began whipping women caught red-breasted, clad in the outlawed undergarment. The shakedown goes something like this: An officer spies a woman with a preternaturally perky bosom and orders her to hop up and down .

From the resultant chest motion, the militants are reportedly able to isolate those wearing bra. … The immediate thing is to strip them of the offending bra. These are then burnt in public as an example-setting warning to like-minded bra lovers.

Beyond the question of how these men can actually discern the requisite flopping of flesh under those thick khimars , the logic behind this policy remains a mystery. Aren’t bras-at least the non-push-up kind-designed to make your breasts less conspicuous? While it’s true that bras-pointy and round alike-have long served to lift, separate, and generally beautify the bustline, they also keep the chest hemmed in to prevent the distractingly pornographic look of unsupported breasts. In Western tabloids, going braless is universally perceived as a marker of promiscuity or drug-addled dissolution. For religious zealots who otherwise go to great lengths to enforce sartorial "modesty," it seems counterintuitive to let the girls roam free. One would think that the Shabab would want their women’s assets cosseted in flattening corsets before they were coated in layers of shapeless burlap. Have Islamic fundamentalists taken a page from the playbook of the women’s liberation movement in condemning the artificial sexualization of our mammary glands?

Probably not. According to reports, Al-Shabab and other insurgent groups have deemed wearing bras a form of deception forbidden by the Quran. Somali women with small or saggy breasts are parading around Mogadishu with firm breasts, presenting a false appearance to potential suitors, and the men who rule the country are none too pleased about it. That’s one downside of enforcing strict premarital gender separation. You can’t inspect the goods before purchase. The extremists-who seem to lack a basic understanding of Newtonian physics as applied to larger chests-have mandated that "breasts should be firm naturally, or just flat." Women’s bodies should remain in their natural unadorned state so that men can appraise them as they would any other piece of property. The Independent noted the analogy to commercial fraud:

The idea here is that a woman who accentuates her breasts by using a bra gives a false impression of the goods (her body), which is seen as fraud and deception of the buyer (the man) who might buy (marry) her for her ample breasts and later discover that they were ample because of the bra and not by nature. It would be fair to remember that treating women's bodies as commodities is not something found only in extremist ideologies but often happens in Western societies too.

In addition to the women-as-chattel idea, there are likely other factors at play here. The Taliban terrorizes girls who attend school, because education is the path to economic self-sufficiency and intellectual liberation. Similarly, Somalia’s enforced bralessness hinders women from participating in public and professional activities and keeps them under constant threat of humiliation and violence. Despite other Muslim countries ’ intimate fondness for outlandish lingerie, Somalia’s bra ban may also reflect the same generic anti-Western sentiment that pervades much of the Muslim world. If Western women wear bras, they must be evil.

Photograph of Somali women by Roberto Schmidt/AFP.

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