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Dress codes: Beyond physical appearance

The image of a woman in a burkini (a swimming costume that hides the entire body) lying on a beach next to a woman in a bikini may be perceived either as incongruous or as a matter of personal preference. The scene also tests our tolerance. Whereas the personal freedoms that Westerners enjoy are all-encompassing, as Easterners our lives are regulated by numerous cultural limitations before ever being controlled by any government rules.    
A bikini can be seen to portray the liberal Western mentality that places women, mentally and physically, on an even footing with men, thus viewing male and female bodies in exactly the same way. This Western attitude is absolutely indigestible for many Eastern men who are not at ease with gender equality and, as a result, treat women as inferior beings.
Eastern men are not only concerned with women’s physical appearance; we tend to work on restricting their opinions, actions, occupational pursuits, practice of sports, intermingling and many other aspects of their lives. “Our religion forbids it,” is the excuse we use, not only to accord Eastern men a status of superiority over women, but also to reinforce masculine dominance by quoting, often out of context, traditional texts in support of men’s arguments.
Meanwhile, many Eastern men who impose the burkini on their spouses tend to visit beaches where most women are in bikinis. If we are truly in harmony with our supposed beliefs, we should keep away from these beaches. But our Eastern macho culture tells us that as long each of us controls his woman, we have no reason to bother with anything else.  

Moral values, which have nothing to do with physical appearance, are what really count.

Mohammed Nosseir

We cannot rightfully claim that a veiled or burkini-clad woman accompanied by a male relative is more religious, or abides more strongly by true moral values, than her unveiled counterpart, or vice versa. Moral values, which have nothing to do with physical appearance, are what really count.
Our manner of dressing often reflects what is, or is not, acceptable in our respective cultures; human values and behaviors are something else entirely. Regardless of how they are dressed, people’s misbehavior is what I find annoying. Perceiving the world from the perspective of attire is an extremely narrow-minded attitude that both West and East would do well to avoid.
Conservative Eastern societies not only place constraints on our choice of clothing, they prevent us even from openly discussing a number of issues (beyond swimsuits) that are considered taboo. Our societies impose many moral and behavioral standards on us that are often difficult to validate.
We used to claim that our cultural traditions protect us against all manner of harm (such as divorce), but today the divorce rate in Eastern and Western societies is almost the same (about 50 percent). The world is becoming increasingly oriented toward individualism, irrespective of how open or closed social systems are.
Although Western culture consistently tries to convince us that we should abide by certain behaviors that it claims are part of universal modernity, altering our beliefs, values and behaviors is much more difficult than adopting the latest manufacturing technology.
Additionally, the West cannot fairly claim that all actions and behaviors undertaken by individual Westerners are manifestations of true modernization that should be emulated by the entire world. We need to avoid being aggressive, and give universal citizens room to consider and determine what is best for them.
True liberals should not be concerned with people’s choice of dress; moral values and positions, as reflected in people’s behavior, are what really matter. We must enforce clear codes of conduct (both in terms of dress and behavior) in public places such as parks and beaches.
Women at the beach should be free to wear whatever suits them (bikinis or burkinis), as long as it is made out of swimwear material. But we must strictly dictate how people may and may not behave in public, according to the nature of the venue and its culture.

Mohammed Nosseir, a liberal politician from Egypt, is a strong advocate of political participation and economic freedom. Twitter: @MohammedNosseir