From Bikinis to Burkas: How to Write Another Clichéd Tell-All Exposé

It’s hard not to judge a book by its cover, or in this case, an article by its headline, when the first words that scream out at you are: From bikinis to burkas: A Yemeni memoir.

If your first thought is, “Not again. Haven’t we been down this cliché-littered road before?” then you’re not alone.

But since Yemen is the latest Muslim-majority country to grace the headlines of nearly every recent newspaper article and television broadcast, it was almost inevitable that the world would soon be privy to an article like the one published in Canada’s daily Globe and Mail newspaper, by Yemen-born, Toronto-based professor and writer Kamal Al-Solaylee.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the formula already. Find a Western-based intellectual who is disillusioned with his or her childhood upbringing in the big bad Muslim country du jour, encourage him or her to write a tell-all exclusive on how backwards and primitive said upbringing was, add a sensational headline pitting the “Western world” against the “Muslim world”, and voila – you’re on your way to a crowd-pleasing piece in which a lucrative book deal can’t be too far behind.

The premise of the article is clear. The writer attempts to explain how his former homeland, once “secular and cosmopolitan” lost the war with extremism and “turned its back on social progress and intellectual freedom” – a premise he tries to articulate by describing how the same phenomenon happened to his family.

Al-Solaylee laments the Yemen of old when his “secular” family could live in peace and security under the British, Yemen’s former colonizers. But soon that “security was rocked by guerrilla uprisings in the mid-1960s,” which led the writer’s family into exile in Lebanon and Egypt.

Despite the turmoil, Al-Solaylee recalls with fondness his days of frolicking on the beach with his sisters, helping them pick out bikinis – all evidence somehow of how “enlightened” and “progressive” they were.

But when the family moves back to Yemen 15 years later, it is a place the author says he can barely recognize and prompts him to leave for the U.K. to pursue his studies before eventually migrating to Canada.

It is on his periodic return trips to Yemen to visit his family that he begins to see how “dramatically” they have changed and how they have “embraced hard-line interpretations of Islam.” What Al-Solaylee fails to make clear is his evidence for how his family’s changes equate to “losing the war against extremism.”

He says, “Returning again in the summer of 2001 – my first visit since I had moved to Canada in 1996 – I encountered a family that was a lot closer to the stereotype of regressive Muslim culture than I had ever known.”

But to back up such a claim, he describes three incidents:

“The veils were in full view. Everybody prayed five times a day. My brothers were unapologetically sexist in their dealings with their wives.”

The latter example has nothing to do with Islam, and it is unfortunate that the writer chooses to link his brothers’ sexist views to their religion. But even more disheartening is his equation of praying and wearing a scarf to extremism.

He says women in Yemen are also now expected to cover their heads and wear the burqa in public.

Al-Solaylee goes on to say: “The rare times I look at them, I see only a family that has betrayed its secular, intellectual history and has either chosen or been forced to accept intolerance instead.”

What connection do prayer and wearing a veil have with intolerance? What is his definition of extremism? Does increased religiosity necessarily mean extremist views? Al-Solaylee misses a chance to expound upon those questions, and instead chooses to hand the reader the trite equation of “bikini equals good, veil equals bad.”

The one example that might have helped corroborate Al-Solaylee’s premise was the anecdote about a brother who suggested that his eldest daughter need not go to college because an education wouldn’t help her as a housewife. But even that was simply glossed over without a mention of any possible nuances to his brother’s suggestion – especially in a family where some of the other women attended university.

Also absent was any mention of an attempt by the writer to engage his family and try to understand why they seemed to have moved away from their secular values. If they were once intellectual, forward-thinking people, what turned them into religious drones, as the author would have us believe?

It’s feasible to imagine that a woman might wear a burqa outdoors if everyone else is doing so, and the prevailing society demands it. But who prays five times a day in the privacy of their own homes if they don’t really want to?

If in the end, all Al-Solaylee can see is “a family that has betrayed its secular, intellectual history”, then it makes sense that he fails to respect or attempt to understand the purpose behind their behavior. It’s just too bad that the general public has to be subjected to another clichéd article in the meantime.

  • Safiya Outlines

    Salaam Alaikum,

    It’s so depressing how often the secular = more intelligent trope is used.

    Also, the way these articles are, you would think that no other men in the world were sexist, it’s just a Muslim thing.

  • Salma

    It is extremely sad and I am so tired of it. The books are enough, the “tell-alls”, I am not even sure where to start.

    I always wonder what these individuals were doing before the opportunity came for them to tell their story. Do they simply write a book and sit and wait for their turn?

    Al-Solaylee’s points to diverse situations but only comes to one conclusion and seems to be trying to persuade readers to do the same. A lot of men are “unapologetic sexists” regardless of religion. Thankfully there are people who have more wisdom and common sense.

  • anon

    Good job!

  • PakistaniMD

    Great Analysis, once again! The Globe/Mail had an online chat on this article recently… you should have posed those question to him. Oh, well….

  • Kaitlyn

    The title makes me sad – he’s a man, he’s never worn a burka or a bikini (I’m guessing) – and yet that is the title he or the powers that be decided to go with?

    Of course, he focuses on the bikini/burka aspect himself – I would be interested in a book of this title – “I went from wearing a bikini (all the time, of course, I’m in a bikini right now) to the beach sometimes, to wearing a burka (all the time) sometimes and I’m really happy!”

    Bikini – burka – someone loves alliteration.

    And how creepy is it that he helped his sisters pick out bikinis? Or maybe it’s not, maybe I’m not secular enough or, more likely, I don’t have a brother, so maybe it’s not.

  • Southern Masala

    Kaitlyn- I think its creepy that he picked out bikinis for his sisters too, and I would have thought so in my bikini wearing days as well.

    I feel sad for his narrow world view that religiosity = unintelligent extremism. I feel angry that because he’s a so called “insider” his word on this issues is going to be taken as gospel by many readers of his book.

    And the bikini/burka alliteration trope is getting to be almost as old the whole “behind the veil” trope as well.

    It’s so bizarre to me that bikinis are being used as a symbol of women’s freedom from oppression in the West when Western feminists have long since decried them as exploitative and used to reduce women to pieces of meat.

    Don’t force me into a bikini or a burka, let me wear what I want to wear in keeping with my beliefs. I support a woman’s right to control her own body, however she chooses to do so!

  • dina b.

    “Al-Solaylee misses a chance to expound upon those questions, and instead chooses to hand the reader the trite equation of “bikini equals good, veil equals bad.””

    I love your above quote… so true. The whole article expressed what I’ve been feeling everytime I hear about a new “tell-all.” But I have to disagree about something: the incident where he ties in Islam with the family’s sexist dealings with their wives. You say it has nothing to do with Islam, but I would argue it does.

    What is Islam? A set of guidlines to help people construct their personal lives and society, thereby enforcing justice? So, justice = Islam? Do the practices of Muslims and what is socially acceptable to them = Islam?

    In any of the cases, the roots of these (social justice) issues are found in the interpretation of Islamic texts, social norms of Muslims, and popular scholarly opinion. In the case of sexist views towards women, unfortunately all three of these factors have and continue to contribute to the malpractice of Islam – which means it has everything to do with Islam beginning from interpretation, and all the way through practice.

    For a long time, I would try to disassociate Islam from the behaviors of Muslims until I realized I was idealizing Islam (seeing it as this perfect untouchable thing we could never attain) instead of humanizing it (seeing it as the real application of guidance that is bound to have holes in it since we’re talking about humans). Sorry if this sounds confusing, these are just some of my jumbled thoughts you triggered. You go on head witcha bad self for triggering people to THINK! =)


  • diya

    I think it has become a very common mindset in the West and also with many muslims who no longer adhere to their religion that “they” are being oppressed, are too “stupid” to realize it, and need to be saved by us intellectuals who can think and who have a functioning brain. Excuse me but that is extremely insulting. I make my own decisions and I can think critically as well as the next person, perhaps better. So, I don’t understand this mentality of wanting to free the poor oppressed people.

    Also, I’m not sure I find this guy’s account completely believable. I mean, what kind of guy likes to help his sisters pick clothing? especially bikinis? I have 2 brothers and I would never take their advice on fashion!!

  • Nikia

    This was a nice critique of an article that while claiming the intellectually enlightened upper hand, displayed none of that.

    To the degree that there are problems amongst adherents of Islam, many of them are attributable to a lack of critical thinking. How ironic then that when it comes to the topic of Islam and its adherents, western news sources abandon the need for critical thinking as well in favor of rehashing tried and true stereotypes.

  • Faatima

    Well done Malika. and very well put, Nikia.

  • lauren

    Great article Malika! It`s so disturbing; I guess we should brace ourselves for all the new “enlightened, secular” Yemeni writers. The US media is so sad and predictable…

  • YH

    I love the way you write, Malika. Though I rather reserve my comments, being a Muslim male and not really having to go through the burka v. bikini conflict and not really confusing secularism as something anti-Islam, I feel that you bring out a lot of good points.

    I do want to add though that like the whole “what is good v. evil debate” that has raged on since time immemorial and will continue on for a good millennium or two, both sides have a right to their own opinion and even a face-face will not resolve this issue.

    So as long as they spew out hate, I’m glad that we have a few to pick it up and throw it back at them. Go, M!

  • Pingback: Finding Bibi » Monday Morning Roundup()

  • OM

    I agree with much of the criticism, and many of the comments. But I think we have to be careful about criticizing works where the “West” and “Islam” are seen as diametrically opposed with statements that seem to reinforce that. Why are people Islamophobic? Not because of some sort of “time immemorial tribal hatreds” but because they don’t personally know any Muslims and they eat up what the media presents. This is why anyone anywhere is prejudiced – lack of exposure and ignorance. Everyone is subject to their political systems, and I think you’d find Muslims, non-Muslims, Americans, Indians, Yemenis, Ethiopians etc – hold inappropriate stereotypes, similar within the same country/culture, colored by fear of the unknown. I’ve met plenty of individuals who, with greater exposure/understanding, drop their stereotypes. Everyone needs to have more faith in people.

    I also don’t think it’s fair or appropriate to say that “veils/burkas” = necessarily more religious. Not everyone practices Islam that way (even if there’s limited openness on discussing this point).

    The truth is, while sexism is everywhere (and I mean EVERYWHERE), people DO use Islam to substantiate, support, and further sexism. (And not all Muslims, obviously. “People” implies “some”). Is that an appropriate use of the religion/its texts? I would say no. But, there needs to be a more open conversation about this. It does need to be addressed. Instead of responding to this problem with “But the religion doesn’t support sexism” and “Other cultures/religious persuasions are sexist” – it should be acknowledged that some people do use Islam to support sexist views (and acknowledging this doesn’t mean agreement with “the ‘west’ is guiltless of sexism” argument). Why do people do this, and how do we change it? Those are the important questions that need to be brought into the open.

  • Alejandro


    Excellent analysis – it pierced through the typical veil (pardon the unintended pun) of superficiality that dominates discussions on Muslims, especially our beloved sisters. Keep up the great work…