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.

    Legal rape in Afghanistan?

    Posted in Marriage, Politics, Sexuality by femspotter on April 9, 2009

    April 9, 2009

    When I go to bed at night, I have the luxury of falling asleep. I use the word “luxury” because this option is not always available for some women; and it looks as though married women in Afghanistan may be prohibited by law from falling asleep when their heads hit their pillows in the near future. There will be no “Honey, I have a headache” reprieve for these unlucky ladies, whether they have headaches or just say they do because they lack that special tingling sensation between their legs.

    According to CNN and other news outlets, the Afghan parliament recently passed a bill – with good intentions – that may inadvertently harm the rights of women. “(C)ritics say the latest draft (of the bill) strips Shia women of rights as simple as leaving the house without permission from a male relative and as extreme as allowing a man to have sexual intercourse with his wife even when she says, ‘No.’

    These critics wonder how what amounts to rape in marriage could be passed by parliament and signed into law by President Hamid Karzai.”

    Last weekend, Karzai explained that key elements of the bill have been misinterpreted by western observers stating, “We understand the concerns of our allies and the international community. Those concerns may be due to an inappropriate, not-so-good translation of the law.”

    That begs the question: what is there to misinterpret? Either husbands can rape their wives or they can’t according to law. There’s a clear distinction between the two.

    Karzai also vowed to consider the bill against the nation’s constitution, which allegedly requires equal rights to both sexes. According to the Times Online, “(t)he Afghan Government is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines equality in dignity and rights regardless of religion or sex. Article 22 of the Afghan Constitution also explicitly reiterates the equality of men and women before the law.”

    (Pause for hysterical laughter – the kind that makes you pee a little – and rolling around on the floor.)

    Women do not exercise equal rights with men in this nation. If the Afghan government is even considering such a legal measure, then women are not on equal terms with men.

    Let’s review the evidence, shall we? 

    Under the Taliban regime (1996-2001), women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male escort and girls were not permitted to go to school. While some things may have improved for women since the overthrow of the Taliban, Amnesty International (AI) reported in 2005 that “Afghanistan is in the process of reconstruction after many years of conflict, but hundreds of thousands of women and girls continue to suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, armed individuals, parallel legal systems, and institutions of the state itself such as the police and the justice system. There are reported increases in forced marriages; some women in difficult situations have even killed themselves to escape such a heinous situation whilst others burn themselves to death to draw attention to their plight.” AI, which campaigns for universal human rights, found that violence against women in Afghanistan was widely tolerated by the community and widely practiced by men as recent as four years ago.

    According to the Pajhwok Afghan News, as translated by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, in 2006 “(s)exual abuse, murder and other crimes of different types (we)re increasing in the Northern provinces of Afghanistan” where violence against women has reached levels as high as 80 percent of women being victimized.

    Under the Taliban, women were required to wear blue burqas which covered their bodies from head to toe except for a net-like fabric that covered their eyes permitting them to see the world through a translucent barrier. According to the CNN article, those burqas are still worn today.

    AI – which also proclaims on its Web site that many women’s rights advocates living in Afghanistan have faced death threats, kidnapping attempts, physical attacks and even death, while others have fled their homes – released a statement saying it is opposed to the “rape law” because it will “seriously undermine women’s rights for millions of Afghanistan women.” Reached for a comment, United States President Barack Obama called the law “abhorrent.” (I guess that lame reaction is better than saying the law is “really, really bad.”)

    Considering the other side of this issue means wondering who are these men who would benefit from such a law. What kind of person wants to rape another person? Is it something men are capable of on a large scale? When I think again about my own right to sleep, I think about how the sexuality I’ve experienced has mostly been based upon mutual enjoyment. Do men in Afghanistan enjoy having sex with women who don’t also enjoy the experience?

    In Saudi Arabia, men and women are prohibited from mingling in public. Apparently that hasn’t kept men from trying to interact with burqa-clad women by commingling their dogs. As of July, 2008, the selling of dogs and cats as pets, as well as the walking of such pets in public places, is illegal in the Saudi capital city of Riyadh. In March, a Saudi court ordered the lashing and exile of a 75-year-old woman for mingling inside her home.

    Perhaps, in Islamic countries where men and women are kept entirely segregated or where men cannot even see women, their sexuality has been warped to the point where they consider themselves entitled to sex even when subordinate females do not want it too. I’m just speculating, of course. But we do know that some people in these countries have access to the Internet; and where there’s Internet, there’s the capacity for looking at and downloading pornography, some of which is very degrading to women. Often times, such imagery reduces women to the status of inanimate objects. Sexuality, when it is forbidden, can often become corrupted by pornography-fueled imaginations; imaginations that later create insatiable appetites for sexuality that can be unpleasant for some.

    The bottom line is that Afghanistan is not a happy home for most of its women, especially those who find themselves beaten or burned when they disobey their husbands or fathers. Legalizing spousal rape is only one more step in the direction of the total annihilation of women’s rights in this country.

    If you value your unburned skin, intact bones, revealing clothing or right to a good night sleep, then help the cause to stop violence against women throughout the world. Act locally by volunteering to help at a shelter for homeless or abused women and children, just like my friend M****. Donate food so that they can eat well while they recover. Or – if you’re a busy working woman like me – make a monetary donation to AI by visiting its Web site.

    I just made a $20 contribution. It’s not much but I feel a little better.

    By the way – as I just found out on Feministing – spousal rape only became entirely illegal in the U.S. as of 1993. This issue affects more women than just those in Afghanistan and other Islamic nations.

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