Muslim woman's five-piece bathing suit sparks debate

From Echidne of the Snakes:

The clothes women wear are political in this world. They are not only about convenience, comfort and individual ideas of beauty; they are also about sexuality and the control of the society in general. And about religion.

An odd juxtaposition took place quite recently in my mind. It started with a piece of news from the United Kingdom about an American Muslim woman, Manal Omar, whose five-piece Muslim bathing costume caused difficulties at a pool in Oxford. Another swimmer complained about "inappropriate attire" and an altercation ensued. Omar was allowed to continue swimming in her costume, but the whole thing was written up in the press and an Internet debate began. Omar writes about it:

Needless to say, I was shocked to find out a week later that my swimming habits had caused not only a "row", but a huge online debate. Perhaps the most daunting part of the experience was the strong reactions from those who read the article. It was the website's "most viewed article" even two weeks after the incident. The comments ranged from attacks on me (from both Muslims and non-Muslims) to full xenophobic attacks on all immigrants in Europe. At no point did any of the readers question Caldwell's version of events; nor did the majority of readers question his motivation for highlighting the issue. There was a blind acceptance that some random Muslim woman had done something, as one commentator described it, "a bit stupid". British Muslims piped up in apologetic tones, and everyone else openly attacked.

My routine visit to the gym had suddenly sparked a crisis: it was all about immigration, asylum! As one person commented, "This multicultural society is now becoming a multidirectional mess." Another commentator went as far as to write, "All the time people seem to be burying their heads in the sand and allowing our once great country to be taken over by others. I hope you one day will wake up when all our beautiful churches are being demolished and mosques built in their place." A tad drastic for a woman taking a swim, don't you think? (Mind you, it's all relative. I had one email from a woman in Sweden saying she found it disgusting that people in Britain went swimming wearing any clothing at all.)

Although Omar's point about the exaggerated response to her choice of a swimming costume is correct, it is also true that women's clothes are seen in that wider way: as messages about the society, about religion and about sexuality. Something to be controlled and not necessarily by the woman herself.

An example of this, and the second part in the odd juxtaposition comes from Iran, where the usual spring-time tightening of the dress code is in operation:

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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