Monday, October 09, 2006

What Not to Wear

People talk about my image
Like I come in two dimensions,
Like lipstick is the sign of my declining mind.
Like what I happen to be wearing
The day that someone takes my picture,
Is my new statement for all of womenkind.

- Ani diFranco, ‘Little Plastic Castles’

(The title was going to be some witty pun on ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, but I couldn't be bothered thinking of one, so count yourselves lucky)

So Jack Straw would prefer Muslim women not to wear a niquab (full veil) when they come to his surgery, because he prefers to speak to them ‘face to face’. Much as I have issues with women being forced to cover up any part of their body normally on public display, I feel that they equally shouldn’t be forced to reveal a part of themselves that they feel compromises their modesty.

Fashion is all too often used as a means with which to control women, whether it’s foot-binding or heels that mean you can only take teeny-tiny girlie footsteps, rather than being able to run like hell if someone’s following you. Given that Islam is a fundamentally patriarchal institution – come on, it’s a dominant religion, of course it is – there is an implicit lack of choice in a religious mandate that states women must cover their faces when with a member of the opposite sex. But given the overwhelming pressure on Western women to conform to a certain dress code, I think we should stop throwing stones for a while and take a look at the foundations of our glass house. Walk into any shoe shop, and take a look at the women’s section. Count how many pairs of shoes have high heels, and how many are flats. Then count how many of the flats you would actually be seen dead in. The lack of consumer choice for those of us who like sensible shoes is depressing – I’d love to add a few extra inches to my height and look devastatingly sexy in either of the two pairs of heels I have, but what really happens is that I totter about like a drunken sailor in drag for a day, and then stagger home and soak my feet, swearing never to do it again.

Last week, I started a new job and got stuck with a delayed bus and an upside down map. If I hadn’t decided to wear my Victorian black button boots with the gorgeous heel that makes me taller than my girlfriend for once, I could have legged it down the street and not been half as late as I was, not to mention wincing every time I got up to file something. I could have even grabbed a coffee beforehand from the Starbucks down the street (I said I was a feminist, not a saint). I could have met my cousin for post-work drinks as promised, and saved a fiver on the cab I got home. But fashion dictates that power-dressed career women must wear spiky heels (all the better to bust your balls with, my dear), and I wasn’t going to buck the trend on my first day.

My point – and just like Ellen DeGeneres, I do have one – is that all patriarchal cultures oppress women by dictating what they should or should not wear. We receive strict messages about what not to wear, and we all get divided into the Madonna/Whore category no matter what our religion. Hey, maybe that's why the Material Girl herself changes her religion as often as she changes her image. We can be a good girl and cover up, or we can let it all hang out. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Alternatively, we can dress up to court male (or female) attention, or dress down to avoid it. God forbid we should actually wear something because we want to, because it makes us feels comfortable – and I’m aware that many women actually do quite like wearing heels. Personally, I don’t feel empowered by not being able to walk more than three steps at a time, before sitting on the pavement and kvetching, but if that’s your bag then carry it with pride, baby.

Our clothes send a message, but the one we want our appearance to put out and the one that gets reads into it are often very different. If I’m not going to call a woman in thigh highs and a micromini a whore, I’m not going to call one in a hijab a passive victim. Who I show certain parts of my body to is my business, and I don’t think that it’s radical to extend that right to all women, regardless of culture or reason.

And now, onto the security risks that the Sun have gleefully exposed on their red-topped front page today. I understand the desire to respect another culture’s wishes, but I also think that a certain measure of safety-consciousness is in order – a brief removal of the veil in the presence of a female security officer shouldn’t be too much to arrange. My main concern about the tabloid ‘investigation’, however, is the fact that the Sun keep going undercover to expose flaws in our nation’s security. Isn’t anyone investigating them? I keep expecting them to run an article where they rob a bank or hold the House of Commons hostage whilst in secretly in league with every international terrorist group in the phone book, and then complain that no-one tried to stop them.

Although it was nice to see a fully-dressed women on the front page, for once, even if she was being defined by what she was wearing.


At 12:08 PM, Anonymous lism. said...

I think this is the first post I've read on this subject (and there have been a lot of them - rather unsurprisingly, the topic left the Comment Is Free bloggers frothing at the mouth) that has brought up the very good point that us so-called cultured Westerners conform to a dress code as much as everybody else. Not that I have ever worn spiky heels while power-dressing. I don't think I even own anyway. IN YR FACE, PATRIARCHY.

At 3:24 PM, Blogger Girl Politico said...

Well said. Although I think Jack Straw's initial point was that women can remove the veil to increase the face-to-face contact, not that they should.

In yr face, The Sun, I made that very same point just flying from Kuwait to Cairo, it didn't require an investigation ;)

At 8:37 PM, Blogger Nic said...

All clothes and shoe shops are designed only to sell stuff that is fashionable. If you don't want to wear it, you're stuffed, basically. Which is very annoying!

And does anyone really take anything The Sun says seriously?

At 8:56 AM, Blogger Erika said...

Hi, love your blog. Can I put a link to it on mine? I belive we have been blogging on the same topic.

At 10:13 PM, Anonymous Sangerin said...

It's really hard to express what I mean, here but... although I've never been in a position to talk to a woman wearing Niqab or Burqa, I can imagine I would find it almost impossible, as I would not be able to see her face properly. I would not be able to see her mouth move when she spoke, and I can imagine that being difficult. I also suspect that I would be less likely to initiate a conversation for that reason *among others*. (Not wanting to intrude or seem threatening, not being able to quite identify anything I have in common with someone whose life is *so* different from mine that they would choose to cover their face in public, etc)

When I was visiting an indigenous community in NE Arnhem Land, I made the concious decision to never wear sunglasses, because blocking out my eyes would be a barrier to communicating with others. (High summer, lots of sun, not wearing sunglasses was not exactly the health-concious option.) I guess that's why I have a fair bit of sympathy for what Straw is reported as saying.

At 5:00 PM, Blogger flora said...

I've only just found your blog again due to lack of laptop use (I had the page bookmarked you see).

The whole veil debate really got me thinking about a lot of things. Firstly when I read about the teacher who was told to remove her veil I thought maybe this was an acceptable request giving the context. But then I thought about choices I make regarding my appearance. I have several facial piercings and if asked to remove them within a teaching position I would likely refuse on the argument that they did not affect my ability to teach (as I have argued in many a job that they do not affect my ability or proficiency). So I would argue that it is more to do with the preconceptions people already hold, rather than it affecting anything.

In the whole veil media blitz, one comment stirred me the most. I think it was in The Guardian and the point of the comment was that it was fair enough to complain about the veil in terms of muslim women's oppression but then where were these liberators when the voting took place regarding going to war in Iraq - giving that the majority of victims/casualties were women and young children. So yes, that made me see a new side of it.

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