Wednesday, April 2, 2008


So this probably won't be very long, but it's been on my mind a lot lately. Several posts (xJane's comment #8 over at Mind on Fire, G's post at Figuring It Out, and Chanson's mention of a Carnival of Sexual Freedom) have had me thinking about women's bodies and sexuality. I figure that which ever way we look at it, we're pretty much doomed to be making a choice that someone else will see as blatant submission to the patriarchy. For example (and shukr, I hope I don't say anything that will offend you) we sometimes criticize Muslim women for wearing a hijab, or a head scarf (and I'm making an assumption here that they are two different things--I'll edit me if I find out later that I'm wrong). We accuse them of being an accessory to men's ideas about not being able to control themselves at the sight of an attractive woman. However, we also criticize women who wear revealing clothing. We accuse them of objectifying themselves and giving men an excuse to not control themselves at the sight of an attractive woman. Either way, it's all too easy to hurl accusations of submission to the patriarchy. Either way women come out reduced to objects of sexual desire. Supposing I dress "modestly" one day and "immodestly" the next, different people are going to respect or despise my decisions depending on how they look at the issue. I just wanted to put that out there. Because really, I don't believe that the way we dress ultimately matters one way or another. Maybe I'd even go so far as to say, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." Then, where ever I am, I'll fit in. I'm beginning to think that fashion shouldn't have to be a moral decision (even though I've been making it one for myself lately). Indeed, I'll go ahead and say it and then stop torturing myself and others about it. Fashion shouldn't be a moral decision. You know you. Dress in the way that makes you like you. To hell with everyone else (can an agnostic say that?:).


G said...

well said, lessie.

p.s. did you happen to catch deborah's 'modesty fashion show' post over at the exponent?

C. L. Hanson said...

regarding the hijab or a head scarf, it's important to distinguish the case where the person is actually being forced to wear it from the case where it is voluntary. There are many countries today where women are forced to cover their heads and can be arrested, imprisoned, raped, killed if they refuse. This is a completely different situation from the situation of the Muslim ladies who choose to cover their heads in places such as the neighborhood where I used to live in Bordeaux, France.

In Bordeaux, it was clear that the ladies who wear Muslim head-covering could choose not to if they felt it was a priority. Even if they feared abuse from disapproving husbands/fathers, the law would protect them. One thing I observed was that some of the moms of other kids at my sons' school wore head-scarves, but it was a minority of the Arabic-speaking ladies, and it wasn't as though the ones who were the most modestly dressed were congregating and shunning the ladies who didn't cover their heads. It was not at all uncommon to see two women walking down the street together, one in a hread-scarf and baggy Muslim-style fashions and one in entirely western-style dress. So my conclusion would be that these ladies have their reasons -- probably complex cultural reasons -- for covering their heads, so I'm not going to sit around second-guessing them, or pitying them for being unenlightened or something.

OTOH, if your goal really is not avoid having men look at you lustfully, then encouraging all women of your culture to cover up is counterproductive. Allowing women to cover or not (according to how they'd like to be viewed) is far more effective, as I discussed in the latter half of my post from the carnival you mentioned above.

Lessie said...

C.L.Hanson, you're definitely right about the countries where women are forced to wear the hijab (and in more sever cases the burqa). I didn't even address that issue in my post and perhaps I should have. Shukr (to whom I refer in my post) is a Muslim woman who lives in Britain. I don't know whether she wears the head scarf or not, but I was trying to say that in countries where it's a choice, I don't blame women either way for wearing or not wearing any type of clothing. I guess what I was trying to say is that I agree with you--I'm no longer going to second guess a woman's clothing choices. You're absolutely right that there are complex cultural reasons for those choices.

"OTOH, if your goal really is not avoid having men look at you lustfully, then encouraging all women of your culture to cover up is counterproductive."

I think I know what you're trying to say here, but I'm not entirely sure. So if you could clarify, that'd be great.

As for your post, I enjoyed that one. I was trying to say something similar here, but also point out that one needs to grow a thick skin about one's clothing choices because they are going to be judged derisively no matter what you do. Just because I no longer make value judgments about women's clothing doesn't mean that everyone else no longer does (that's the ideal, but we're a long way away from that).

C. L. Hanson said...

Glad you enjoyed my post!

What I mean is the following:

Suppose your goal is to be able to go out in public and interact with men on a daily basis without having men typically react to your presence by immediately feeling sexually aroused. In modern society we've essentially acheived this. Dropping off my kids and going to work in the morning, I take a tram, a bus, and a train, and I cross hundreds (thousands?) of unfamiliar men every day, and then I work with male colleagues. I do all of this without fear of getting a bunch of unwanted sexual attention.

Western society didn't acheive this by locking away all the women, and having the few women who venture out in public be sheathed, cloaked, and hidden. It came about by doing just the opposite.

Men here interact with so many different women on a daily basis that they just can't be aroused by every single one of them. It takes a lot more than the mere presence of a female (with, say, her hair uncovered) to cue a sexual response. And part of the reason why it takes more to arouse them is because they've seen a lot more. Men who have seen women dressed in less (say, on the beach or other social situations where revealing clothing is appropriate) won't typically be aroused by the sight of an ordinary woman dressed for her own comfort (in clothing that is neither deliberately revealing nor deliberately "modest" but rather is comfortable to the wearer).

shukr said...

nothing offensive from you Lessie .)

i have been both sides of the 'dressing room', if that can be said, and i have far, far, far less attention the way i dress now, ( mainly loose western clothes with a scarf on my head) than before. i literally used to get car horns beep me as i walked down the street . roll eyes.

however, i've seen many women dress extremely provocatively whilst covering all their hair and skin, so it's not simply an issue of cover/ not cover imo, but how a woman moves, how the clothes are worn to hang and so on, and just how a woman chooses to behave.

i also know it *is* generally easier to move and behave in a less flirtatious and sexually aware way with more covering rather than less. i know i get different responses now because my sexuality is not enhanced the way it used to be.

i'm afraid i disagree totally with c l hanson that men no longer can afford to be aroused by women because there are too many walking around them on a daily basis to get 'stirred up' so to speak.

i think that is very naieve. even before i changed my dressing habits i was aware of how i could turn heads for my 'cute' factor. and i'd always pick a man to negotiate with because they are more easily softened up with sweet words.

and btw, i certainly was not a 'tart' nor a loose woman. just aware of my sexuality. that hasn't disappeared, but it is chanelled in a new and, in my opinion, more appropriate way thesedays ,)

i absolutely agreee lessie that we have to be thick skinned to dress in many diff ways thesedays in both our countries. i have a friend in saudi who loves it because she finally gets to wear her everyday dress without getting stick for it.

also, all of this discussion is kind of abstract without discussing the advertising/ porn industry and what they promote. THAT is the context in which dress code becomes more significant.


Lessie said...

"however, i've seen many women dress extremely provocatively whilst covering all their hair and skin, so it's not simply an issue of cover/ not cover imo, but how a woman moves, how the clothes are worn to hang and so on, and just how a woman chooses to behave."

Indeed. Attitude has a lot to do with how one's dress is perceived. And it's something I didn't get to in my post. Thanks for mentioning it. The other thing you mentioned that I didn't get into was consumerism. You are absolutely right that the markets in which we move greatly shape the way we perceive our bodies, our clothes, our tastes even. It's always a struggle for me to decide whether I really like a certain style or whether I like it because popular culture insists that I do. It's a question I haven't answered for myself yet.

The problem I have right now is that previously, I let my religious leaders dictate to me what was appropriate and what wasn't. I didn't question or examine the basis for their assertions. Now I realize that I'm in danger of letting the fashion industry do the same thing, but in the mean time, I do feel the need to explore both sides of the issue to make sure that no one is dictating my tastes for me--I'm developing them on my own.

One other thing, I suppose that in a lot of ways, I was taught to fear my body as a child and adolescent. The way that "modesty" was presented to me was that if I didn't dress correctly, I would fall prey to all kinds of dangers. So showing my shoulders has been liberating for me. It's been a way to come to terms with my sexuality, not be afraid of it, learn different ways to wield it, and be comfortable with my body regardless of how well it fits with what popular culture dictates as "perfect".

Just A Middle Eastern Resident said...

Hi. This was found via a googlesearch on another topic...

I know this is old but...

//There are many countries today where women are forced to cover their heads and can be arrested, imprisoned, raped, killed if they refuse.//

You know, you can't say this without backing it up. What are these "many countries?" Where can women be arrested and imprisoned for not wearing hijab? Saudi Arabia (not a law)? Iran? OK. That's two. Where else are these "many countries?" Because I live in a deeply conservative region of the Middle East, and none of the awful, shocking things you mention happen here, nor do they happen in our bordering countries. Don't conflate the war of thugs in Basra (Iraq) with choice or no choice. No one there is free to choose anything the thugs don't like -- clothes is just one part of it.

Please, don't make it sound like we are only gifted with choice in the West, which is exactly what you did. Source your statements or scale back on the exaggeration.

Lessie said...

Just a middle eastern resident--first of all, chill. Second, you found me on a google search? Cool. Third, you definitely have a point. I just participated in a discussion about how blindsided American media is and how much we don't hear over here because our media conglomerate focuses only on the alienating stuff. So my apologies. I would like for this to be a safe place for different faiths to interact and I regret that I didn't provide that for you.

While I understand your frustration with that sentence, the overall post was aimed at saying I do recognize women's choice regardless of where they are. And I try not to judge, victimize, or stigmatize women who wear different things. So how about where you're from? What's behind the choices you make? Do you think that clothing is indicative of someone's inside workings, or something rather superfluous? I'd genuinely like to know.

I hope you come back. Welcome.