Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What not to wear, or Choice, Dress and Feminism

This issue of Muslim dress isn’t going away fast. One of the issues that frustrates me so much is the assumption that women who wear the niqab or the burkha or any kind of head dress don’t have a choice in doing so. This touches one of the most sensitive issues in feminist discourse.

Feminism, as with all movements for equality, is primarily about maximising the number of choices people have – to achieve equal opportunities for men and women. This principle has caused much difficulty for the simple reason that we don’t always approve of one another’s choices. Most of the arguments that continue to surface among feminists are very often triggered by an argument that there are some things that women shouldn’t or indeed cannot freely choose to do.

The cannot is far more interesting that the shouldn’t to me because it is nonsense, but such complicated nonsense. And in case you hadn’t noticed, I have a penchant for complicated nonsense.

After all, the degree of choice a person has lies primarily in the perception of the individual. And this perception is influenced by all sorts of things; personal circumstances, and social environment as well as our personalities (and everything that influences their construction).

For example, a person might grow up next to a lake, but never swim in it.
  • This may be because they have never seen anybody else swim and they don’t realise it’s possible.
  • This may be because they have been told in no uncertain terms that it is bad to swim in the lake.
  • This may be because it is against the law to swim in the lake.
In any of these three circumstances, a person’s curiosity might have overcome them, even to the extent of defying the law. However, the barriers of ignorance, social conditioning and most especially the law will have made it much less likely that this person would ever swim compared to a scenario where swimming was an okay and commonplace thing to do.

So to dress. In the West, men experience far greater social restrictions on dress than women do and this has been the case for the last century or two. The primary dress requirement for a man is to make his gender completely and utterly unambiguous, an effect generally achieved by wearing the same thing as all other men, give or take the pattern of a tie. My father is not in a job with a uniform, but if he was to deviate from the norm as much as to omit the tie, he would be considered unsuitably dressed for work.

However, despite the increased potential for variation, women are far more likely to be judged according to our physical appearance in all sorts of circumstances. For example, many cultural sources would lead us to believe that what we look like is the sum total of our sexual attractiveness, and that our sexual attractiveness is the sum total of our value as people. Many books, movies and television dramas, for example, have a sole feminine character who says or does very little but look pretty until the hero falls head over heals for her. And it is deep in our consciousness; a family friend left his wife of thirty years for another woman, and all anyone could say about the new flame was to exclaim in amazement, “But she’s not even as good-looking as the wife is!”

Religious anxiety about feminine modesty supports this as much as the skimpiest modern clothes; the former states my body is a sexual object, it must be covered up and the latter states my body is a sexual object, it must be displayed. In Western society, we get a big messy mixture of these two contrary messages.

Fortunately, this isn’t the sum total of the information available to us. But a woman who absorbs this particular set of messages is likely to feel that what she looks like and thus what she wears is absolutely pivotal to who she is and what she is worth. Most of us probably pick up some of that conditioning and our choices must be diminished as a result.

The same sort of thing happens in most cultures. However, it would be completely misleading to think that one can determine motivation from what an individual is wearing.

I cannot speak for Muslim women in the UK, but there are perhaps two main ways that feminists respond to the cultural baggage of feminine attire. One is straight-forward non-compliance; to metaphorically burn the bra, to dress entirely for comfort and modesty and to forgo beauty rituals like defoliation and make-up. The niqab could arguably seen as an extreme version of this response; I refuse to be judged in this way, so you shan’t judge see anything to judge me by.

Many feminists are reluctant to do this because self-ornamentation can be a big part of human sexuality. Many men and women enjoy the potential for self-expression and sensuality through clothing, jewellery, make-up etc..

So the other response is subversion; to take some or all of the cultural baggage and find ways of turning it on its head. However, the niqab can even be used in this way; wear the niqab, but then demonstrate by action that you are nothing like the silent, submissive, uneducated woman that has been historically associated with that dress.

There isn’t any right or wrong in this. If a woman feels the need to cover up because she considers her body shameful, or because she feels that to do otherwise is to invite unwanted attention or because she feels defined by her sexual relationship to men, then that’s a sad thing.

But we can’t say, just by looking at a person, that this is the case. Nor can we really say that any of our personal choices are made in complete independance from sexist conditioning, but you'll be pleased to know that nobody can say otherwise either. From a feminist perspective, mere consciousness of these issues is half the battle.

Incidentally, religion, as set apart from culture, can’t really come into an argument about diminised choice. Logically, if a religious practice is not a choice, then no God is going to reward its obedience or punish its defiance. It is also impossible for a society to treat religious practices as particularly special, because one could declare that almost any behaviour to be excused on the grounds of religion. What we can do however, is to give one another as much freedom and respect as possible and only interfere with practices which pose an actual problem. The circumstances under which the niqab or burkha may be a problem is really another issue.


Anonymous said...

This is one of the best posts I've ever read on this issue. The whole concept of choice and coercion in display and dress is tricky and I think you handled it really well here.

Anonymous said...

The problem I have with the niqab and the burqa is simply this: it is not a requirement of the religion. So they are wearing it from choice. Now this is the dress which in certain areas of the world is not a matter of choice - it's a matter or life or death. And in some of those countries, the teacher and the lawyer at the centre of the present controversy wouldn't be a teacher or a lawyer. They wouldn't be allowed to learn to read in the first place.

So to me, choosing to wear clothing which to thousands of other people is a badge of oppression, in order to make some kind of personal statement, is just lethally frivolous.

It was recorded in some of the Occupied Countries under the Nazis, that when told that Jewish citizens would henceforth have to wear a Star of David armband, the Royal Family of Belgium and of Denmark came out wearing those armbands. And many gentile citizens followed suit.

If the British ladies were risking their lives making that kind of a point, I'd have some sympathy with them. As it is, it reminds me of all the "long hair rebels" of my youth. I have a strong feeling, that if every woman wore a head covering, these ladies wouldn't bother.

Mary said...

Okay, maybe it is just me, but before I go anywhere, I think (and sometimes say out loud), what shall I wear? and I consider myself to have a pretty free rein.

However, my choice is influenced by a combination of all sorts of things, including but not limited to: dress codes, the nature of the occasion, the people who are going to be there (and if I feel I need to impress any of them, and if so in what way), the weather, any special role I have been asked to take, and so on.

To continue your metaphor - it isn't just about whether you swim in the lake or don't swim in the lake. You might swim in the pool but not in the lake. You might only dangle your legs in the water. You might swim only in the summer. You might swim only when there is someone to watch you. You might not feel like swimming on a given day. You might be sick of swimming and want to join the chess club instead. You might wish to identify as part of "the group who swim" or you might want to distance yourself from them. You might only swim in secret... oh you get the idea. Spectrum, not yes/no.

I've cocked up the point I was trying to make - it's there, I think, but not as clear as I hoped - so I'll post this anyway and you can feel free to delete it if you like. Sorry for the waffle.

The Goldfish said...

Andrea, thank you. :-)

Charles, I have some sympathy with your attitude towards these garments, although personally I think it is quite irrelevant whether it is a religious obligation or not (apart from the fact that very much of Christianity, as is exercised in 2006, is not in the original manual). Although religion and culture can be entirely different to the individual with one mattering infinitely more, I can't see a sensible way in which moral principles can differentiate - without favouring one person's faith over another.

Mary, yes, you're spot on of course. It is extremely complicated. But I do think that ultimately you can split that entire decision down into lots of simpler decisions. There are also a collection of fairly basic principles behind any choice made in this way - some practical, some to do with a quite specific role (e.g within a employer's dress code) but many to do with what you are trying to communicate with your appearance and, perhaps most importantly, how much it matters.

marmiteboy said...

I heard a programme a while ago, long before recent events, where a Muslim woman who wore niqab said that she felt freer wearing covering her body completely than she would if she dressed less modestly.

She went on to explain that because she was covered she was treated as a person and therefore wasn't judged on how she looked. Before that interview I had believed that Muslim woman were all oppressed and men made them cover up. I hadn'tc understood why someone would want to cover their face and body in such a way. The whole thing changed my view point, which is why the current debate has got me so whipped up.

Surely the freedom of choice MUST extend to how people dress. If they choose to wear niqab who are we to say they a person cannot? The government and press have tried to say that they are protecting us from terrorism and welcome the debate on the issue. Hmm.

Recently there has been uproar in the press about the British Airways worker not being allowed to wear her cross at work and show her religious allegiance.

Even as a confirmed non-believer I would never be as disrespectful as to restrict someone from showing the world how they feel about their God and even suport the right wing press in their campaigns to reinstate the woman (I did have to lie down for a bit when I realised I suported the Daily Mail though).

Why then is the same argument not put forward for women wearing niquab? It is exactly the same thing. Both are displaying their religion. Oh and by the way the woman at the centre of the BA argument is Eygptian and therefore an Arab. Maybe its because she is one of our Arabs and not one of 'theirs' that she is supported and Muslim women not.

I've said it before and I'l keep on saying it. This is to do with anti-Muslim feeling boardering on racism. And it should stop now before it is too late.

Anonymous said...

If only it were purely a matter of personal taste.

Then they could wear what they like (within public order limits) and no-one would give a toss.

However, if you choose to dress in a particular way which you know will push buttons then I think you have to accept the consequences.

If a woman enters a Christian Church in some parts of the world with head and upper arms uncovered, she will cause a near riot and be promptly expelled. Same thing.

This applies to anybody of any race or religion IMHO.

The Goldfish said...

This issue of pushing buttons is a valid point but really needs a lot of qualification.

If someone has "f*ck off" tattooed to their forehead, then they can expect a certain response and very few of us would have sympathy with that person. I also imagine there is some indecency law that could be applied to such behaviour.

And personally, even though I reject the premises which mark my body out as being particularly dangerous, I would always attempt to respect other people's sensitivities when in their place of worship, in their home etc..

However, some people regard the sight of two men walking down the street as pushing buttons. Or being openly gay in any context, or perhaps being seen out and about in a "mixed-race" romantic couple. Just a short time ago in our history, this would have been considered outrageous behaviour. But I hope you and I can agree that such outrage was largely to do with prejudice, that whilst it is still foolish for a gay or mixed-race couple to walk down certain streets in this country, but the law and society should do everything it can to protect their right to do so.

Outrage by association? A swastika (so innocent before the twentieth century) is a symbol which, though not illegal in the UK, would surely upset a lot of people because of the association - I would be extremely worried if anyone I knew took to wearing it.

But I am uncertain about this particular piece of cloth. It isn't the swastika - it doesn't have that kind of associative baggage in most people's consciousness. It is a very visible symbol of difference. It is also very much a choice.

Perhaps it is a fundamentally silly thing to do. In fact, from my personal point of view, I think it is (along with a lot of other religious and cultural practices which are not my own). However, is it something that we need to be morally anxious about? Is it something that we need to think about controlling, as the article linked to at the top of this post suggests because is 'a badge of oppression' rather than for practical or security concerns (which is a different argument entirely)?

Hmm, not sure if I am disagreeing with anyone. I do think that this issue is important though, touching as it does on many wider questions to do with all sorts of social behaviour.

Mary said...

Marmiteboy: "She went on to explain that because she was covered she was treated as a person and therefore wasn't judged on how she looked."

That would be the case if she was in a town where ALL women were covered in a similar manner. She would be nothing unusual. She would have no distinguishing or distracting features. I understand that.

However, here, it is an exception rather than the norm. She is still judged on how she looks, or more accurately, on what she is wearing. She's put a bloody great big "distinguishing feature" on herself in the form of her clothing. She looks like "a person wearing a niqab" and people she encounters will think of her as "the woman in the niqab". She looks different. She stands out in the crowd. Everyone notices her - or more to the point, everyone notices what she is wearing.

While I'm certainly not saying it's "wrong" to stand out in a crowd, you can't then be surprised when people treat you differently.

Everything is contextual. If I tried to wander around a place of worship wearing hotpants and a bikini top and giggling and shouting to my friends, I would attract funny looks and an authority figure would ask me to leave. But if I was at the beach wearing hotpants and a bikini top and giggling and shouting to my friends, no one would look twice. Context. What is freeing in one place can be restrictive in others.

marmiteboy said...

Mary, the lady in question lived in Iran so it was quite normal for her to be dressed like she was.

My main problem with all of this is that it seems to upset people that someone is dressed in cultural dress. Why should that be so? What does it matter? It is not a swastika, which has, as Goldfish rightly says, so much baggage and symbolises so much hatred it IS offensive.

I really can't get my head around why someone is offended by what someone is wearing and I really don't think someone wears niqab to be provocative. They wear it because they are expressing their religion.

I would argue that a Muslim woman does not ake up and think "How can I piss off some Brits today? I know I'll put on niqab. That'll provoke 'em!"

Why are people so scared of something different to them?

Anonymous said...

Well, for one thing, because this is about a clash of cultures, not just one culture.

And in British culture, for a long time - go back to Dick Turpin if you like - and forward to the Irish Troubles - the masked face has had all sorts of dubious connotations.

Now you can say as often as you like that this is not the case with these ladies. No doubt it isn't. But they are, whether they like it or not, pushing buttons. I'm sorry, but they both remind me of children playing with fire and with no idea of the consequences.