The Fem Spot

What to wear

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays, Sexuality by femspotter on July 2, 2010

July 2, 2010

The other day, I was perusing the bargains in baby clothes at the Disney Store outlet – of course, I stick to Bambi and Dumbo and Pooh because I think surrounding my daughter with only princesses sends quite the wrong message about what to value in women (wealth and beauty rather than strength and intelligence – that’s the short of it) – when I came face to face with a woman shrouded entirely in black. Only her forehead and eyes were visible. There she stood, a statue wrapped in ominous cloth, amid pink and purple frills: princesses and their gender-based wiles that seemed to say, “Look at me; look at how pretty I am,” making feminists like me ask the knee-jerk question, “Who are you really?”

hijab - the headscarf worn by Muslim women, sometimes including a veil that covers the face except for the eyes

How much can you tell about somebody from their clothes? I’ll admit, I stole sideways glances at the woman and wondered if she were an oppressed person. I pondered, “Does she wear the hijab because she’s forced to do so; is she afraid of western men and their assumed inherent violence; or is this a religious choice?” Her garments looked uncomfortable to me, though I’ve never worn such things off stage. Perhaps cloaking herself in blackness makes her feel safe or strong or hidden, allowing her to observe without herself being observed by others. Perhaps she hides a secret physical ugliness. Whatever the case, unlike her adjacent counterparts, she seemed to be saying, “Don’t look at me; don’t look at how pretty I am.” She, owing to her precise geography, was one of the most incongruous sights I have ever beheld.

I didn’t draw any resolute conclusions about this woman in black; I had no basis for judgment. I had no knowledge of her beyond what I could tell by her appearance. But I thought about the baby in my belly and how one day she would certainly want to know what makes a woman dress this way and how I would want to be able to give honest, unprejudiced answers to questions like these. It’s important for mothers to educate their children, isn’t it: to be enlightened and to enlighten?

The New York Times ran an enlightening piece about Muslim American women and their attire on June 13. Perfect! I needed to learn. I had been preparing the basic egalitarian answer of “Every woman should be able to choose what she wants to wear and wear it without condemnation,” but really that’s a useless statement after the age of 5 and I had come up with several holes. For instance, once Ellie gets to school age, she’ll wear a uniform like every other kid in the county. I’m behind this measure because – even though jewelry and shoes will tell tales – uniforms neutralize socioeconomic backgrounds when kids are prone to making assumptions based upon appearances. All the children, wealthy or poor, will be the same in one sense: public school learners.

But Ellie will ask me, “If every woman should get to wear what she wants, why do I have to wear a uniform to school?” (Incidentally, I know she’ll ask this question because she’ll be my daughter and I would ask this question; and so would her father. I have never been able to stop viewing the world in terms of fairness: it’s not fair that we get this and they get that, that the world is so unbalanced a place that many are starving and unhappy while others are engorged with comforts. And I realized the other day that I am entirely devoid of the ability to kiss ass: a survival and advancement instinct that many possess. I can’t do it, for that is the definition of unfairness to me: that somebody should deserve more praise for less work than another because of status. And I like this about myself. It’s my best quality. And I sleep well at night without inherent duplicity.)

The Times article presents two Muslim American women from Tennessee and their experiences wearing Islamic attire in the United States.  Apparently, they’ve been shouted out of stores for being “terrorists,” kicked off planes by nervous flight attendants, and continually subjected to public scrutiny because of their clothes: “a loose outer garment called a jilbab; a khimar, a head covering that drapes to the fingertips; and a niqab, a scarf that covers most of the face.”

Women can’t win, it seems. If we wear too much clothing, as with the Islamic tradition, we’re cultish or dangerous because we may be hiding too much. If we show off our flesh – in outfits with bare midriffs, short skirts, revealing tops or even nothing at all, we may be hiding too little. A woman who shows too much cleavage is a slut or a whore, right? Isn’t she asking to get raped? And a woman in a hijab or other religious covering is asking to be harassed for displaying her personal views and traditions, isn’t she?

We’re doing so little to correct these ideas. We have that idiot Sarah Palin making Facebook statements such as, “We have a President, perhaps for the very first time since the founding of our republic, who doesn’t appear to believe that America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has ever known.” It’s this kind of U.S.-centrism that allows people to go into stores like Wal-Mart and scream bloody terrorism at perfectly harmless men, women and children. It is misplaced faith in conservative capitalism to think that there is any way to calculate what may indeed be “the greatest earthly force for good.” Even good forces like love and compassion have yan to their yin.

Then there’s the awful world of Hollywood cinema, which churns out utter garbage like Sex and the City 2. What can be said about this train wreck other than, “I’m sorry it was ever made.” If it’s not making fun of homosexuals and their assumed signature indulgences, it’s pretending to tout women’s liberation through the argument that scantily- and ridiculously-clad American women visiting the Middle East are some how better off than heavily shrouded women who freakishly sneak French fries under their veils. It turns Muslim women and their lives into punchlines; and like Sarah Palin’s blathering, it’s dangerous propaganda for ignorance.

So what have I learned? The better answer for Ellie’s inevitable question of why that woman in the Disney Store was covered in black is, “Every woman has her own reasons.” The Times subject began wearing Islamic attire out of spite, because she was angry that American Muslim women who had once chosen the niqab out of piety were now going without owing to their fear of harassment. Her choice then evolved into something philosophical, for this is not a thoughtless person.  “HEBAH AHMED (her first name is pronounced HIB-ah) was born in Chattanooga, raised in Nashville and Houston, and speaks with a slight drawl. She played basketball for her Catholic high school, earned a master’s in mechanical engineering and once worked in the Gulf of Mexico oilfields.” She’s accomplished and liberated from the constraints of the feminine ideal, and chooses to wear Islamic dress “because I want to be closer to God, I want to please him and I want to live a modest lifestyle…I want to be tested in that way. The niqab is a constant reminder to do the right thing. It’s God-consciousness in my face.”

It just goes to show you that you can never tell all about people by their clothes.

According to Islam for Today, a Web site dedicated to educating westerners, wearing the hijab may be a liberating act for some Muslim American and Canadian women:

Sumayya Syed, 16, says that what parents or men want have nothing to do with it. In fact, she astounds people who ask by saying that every woman should have this form of liberation. Syed maintains that when a woman is covered, men cannot judge her by her appearance but are forced to evaluate her by her personality, character, and morals. ‘I tell them that the hijab is not a responsibility, it’s a right given to me by my Creator who knows us best. It’s a benefit to me, so why not? It’s something every woman should strive to get and should want.’

…Some people may think that the more a woman covers, the less freedom she has. But, according to Muslim tradition, it is actually the opposite. The less she wears, the more she is degraded and the more she is put in the line of fire of male criticism.

All of this is not to say that Islamic dress doesn’t spell O-P-P-R-E-S-S-I-O-N for some women. According to the National Organization for Women (NOW), the piety and integrity that many women believe Islamic dress grants them as outlined in the Koran can be twisted into something that’s brutally enforced rather than respectfully encouraged. Ergo, the burqa, worn in Taliban territory, means  incarceration rather than liberation.

Before the Taliban’s takeover, Afghan women were:

  • 70% of school teachers
  • 50% of civilians in the government workforce
  • 60% of teachers at Kabul University
  • 50% of students at Kabul University
  • 40% of doctors in Kabul
  • But when the Taliban took over the capital city of Kabul in September 1996, it issued an edict that stripped women and girls of their rights, holding the Afghan people hostage under a brutal system of gender apartheid. The edict forbade women and girls from working or going to school. It effectively placed all women under house arrest, prohibiting them from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. Women who had lost all of their male relatives in the war were literally trapped in their homes.

    Women were prohibited from being seen or heard. The windows of their homes were painted, and they could not appear in public unless wearing the full-body covering, the burqa. Women were beaten for showing a bit of ankle or wearing noisy shoes. They could not speak in public or to men who were not relatives. They were beaten, even killed, for minor violations of these rules.

    Women accused of prostitution or infidelity were hung in public squares or stoned to death, and persons accused of homosexuality were put in a pit near a wall, which was then toppled, burying them alive. Ironically, brothels proliferated under Taliban rule, employing educated women who had no other way to survive. The Taliban alternated between frequenting and raiding the brothels.

    For women living under the rule of the Taliban, dress is just a symbol of their socially recognized inferiority: a tool used to segregate them and justify doing them harm. It’s important to tell Ellie these things when she is old enough to understand that this and any kind of hatred is wrong. And as for the Muslim women we encounter in our locale, it’s important to accept that their clothing choices may be their own for many different reasons; and, even though they are not being forced to wear the hijab by our U.S. government, a male relative should not be allowed to violently enforce such a dress code either. We believe that women should call the shots in our own lives without harm from men. (“Say that with me, Ellie: women should call the shots in our own lives without harm from men. Shout it.”)

    Oh, back to that pesky uniform question: “Ellie, there are many children who don’t have nice homes to live in and pretty clothes to wear to school. And some people aren’t always kind to people who don’t have lots of money to spend on those things. Wouldn’t you feel very sad if you went to school one day and saw your friends picking on another friend who didn’t wear expensive clothes? You would feel very sad, and probably angry too. I know you would. It’s not fair to judge people by what they wear, or by what they have. It’s our differences that color this planet and make it a wonderful place to live. You kids will wear the uniform so that everybody can see and appreciate the wonderful differences in your characters and your personalities, rather than the differences in your clothes. Express your individuality through words and deeds. And later in life, when you’ve all learned that clothes are just for the eyes, you can wear what you like.”

    Phew! I mean, she’s not even born yet…so I have time to perfect that speech.

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