Thursday, February 24, 2011

Covering up is a Feminist Issue

a Canadian blogger I just might be in some serious love with....


Deb said...

While I fully support breast feeding wherever whenever, as a high school teacher I do have to disagree with the whole idea that there are no appropriate places to tell a woman how to dress. I think when a child is younger - and they're still figuring out what it means to be a woman, they need to be guided about how their choices impact those around them, and therefore themselves. THEN, when they're old enough, they can make those decisions for themselves.

If we don't teach women to respect themselves, and then say it's a feminist issue for them to dress the way they do, that's a big problem (be that women "choosing" to wear skirts and long hair, cover themselves or show lots of skin). If the reason they're choosing what to wear is out of insecurity, immaturity, pleasing others or an inability to respect themselves enough to dress independently of the circumstances they grew up in, that's a problem.

I think the clothes we wear, the way we let others treat us, the kind of work we think we're worthy of are all indicative of deeper root problems. We should be working really hard on THOSE problems, of insecurity and respect for ourselves, rather than getting caught up on the details. BECAUSE I respected myself enough, I didn't EVER feel judged for nursing in public (although I wouldn't do it in the mall my students hang out in). I didn't avoid that mall because I was being oppressed, but because I didn't really want my students to see me nursing. My choice.

melissa said...

Deb, I hear what you're saying. But I have to respectfully disagree. I mean, as a teacher you're the expert on teenagers, but I was a teenager once. And I've thought a lot about dress and choice and I have some opinions. They're just opinions, so take that for what it is!

But I really think that while girls travel the journey towards womanhood, they need to be able to have the freedom to make choices with regards to dress (and so many other aspects of their bodies). What if they make some mistakes? What if they dress inappropriately? Hm. Culturally I would hope we would teach our boys how to respect girls to the point where society as a whole is (in general, one can't eliminate perverts) a safe place for girls to make not so wise choices when it comes to clothing, as they sort out who they are.

Teaching women to respect themselves MEANS teaching them that they have the freedom to dress as they see fit. Perhaps there will be some insecurity, definitely some immaturity, and perhaps some pleasing others--why can't we give them the space to figure that out by DOING, instead of closing them down with rhetoric and dogma?

Sure, I'd have a hard time with my daughter leaving the house dressed in a barely existent skirt-butt floss-bikini top combo when she was a teenager. I'd have a hard time with my son leaving the house to go on a date with a girl dressed like that, too! But fundamentally I believe strongly in women's freedom to choose what to wear. That includes girl women, too.

Suppressing and repressing sexual expression is really unhealthy. I'd rather see some oversexualized expression as girls traverse the journey of discovering self than undersexualized or over repressed~anything that's driven underground, tabood, or infused with guilt or hyperresponsibility (ie, as 'girls' you must 'protect' boys by covering yourself up: pardon me, but GAG and not effective), tends to become warped.

If a woman in the middle east wants to explore her options wrt dress and, perhaps wear a burkha, or robe that covers her entire body and a headscarf, I believe strongly (STRONGLY) that she should be free to do so. France and its predjudicial head covering laws be damned, I think it's wrong to limit her choice.

Same with more revealing clothing.

But I respect your view, and am glad you commented on this topic~it is a good one! And charged!

melissa said...

p.s. I get you also on the breastfeeding in the mall thing~I cover up if I'm showing my baby off to my coworkers: I don't want those guys thinking about my breasts at all!!! lol

tamie said...

Great discussion, Deb & Mel!

It seems like maybe what it comes down to is on the one hand giving women (and girl women, as Mel pointed out) the total freedom to express themselves however they want to, even if they make "mistakes." But then on the other hand, it can't just be about choice. There need to be the accompanying conversations. Because, like with so many other parenting decisions, it seems like there are lazy parents that just let their kids do whatever they want, in the name of choice, but don't engage the children in meaningful conversations about their choices. I'd say that it's important, at least in parenting, that both elements are present.

The main reason I stopped by to comment on this post is that I don't think that blue burka should have been shown in the video, because those specific kind of burkas are the kind that the Taliban forces women to wear, and if they don't wear them they can be stoned to death or otherwise killed. I've never heard of a woman *choosing* to wear that kind of burka. It's very different to wear a head scarf, and I agree with you, Mel, that women should be able to wear head scarves or whatever religious garb they want. But there's a huge difference between head scarves and burkas, which are profoundly oppressive to women.

melissa said...

Ah, Tamie thank you for adding your comments! I like the idea of accompanying conversations. I'm not sure how much I would have liked having those conversations when I was a teenager, if my parents had views expressly different than mine. But I don't have teenagers yet, and I generally come down firmly in the YES YOU TALK ABOUT IT camp, so I think I agree. I just hesitate to stifle self expression when it comes to clothing, hair, jewellery, tatoos, etc, but that's the artist coming out in me.

I'd have to disagree with you about the blue burkha though. You really think there are NO women in Afghanistan who would choose to wear that burkha if the freedom was open? YES, it's symbolic for us and for a great number of women in Afghanistan of oppression and violence and sexism gone wild. But for all?
I read a book by a female journalist who described how women would try and pretty up that blue burkha by spending hours ironing it into tidy pleats, and embroidering the screen. And then carefully dressing up the shoes, etc, in an attempt to be individualistic about their dress amongst all the blue burkhas. I feel like that much care isn't solely a quest for individualism but also self expression within a preference for the cover.

There are lots of forms of burkha out there: long and black, long and brown, heavy material and lighter weight material, etc. It's not fair to take away women's choice to find freedom from unwanted sexual attention or impious intentions by covering in a way they see fit.
It startled me a bit when I saw it in the video too, that blue burkha. But it only took me a second of thinking about it to feel that yes, some women would choose that blue burhka, too.

Caryn Ouwehand said...

When Dan and I travelled in the middle east we became very familiar with the many different Burkas. Without the face guard, the Abaya, was commonly worn even by westerners. Most of the women there wanted to wear them. They were all they ever knew for clothing and felt comfortable in them.

Tough debate this one its.

My parents certainly told me to put on a longer skirt at times. Hmmmm... was that wrong, there were some creepy guys out there.

My highschool also had a "no bra-straps showing" policy, likely so teenage boys would actually look at the front and listen to the teacher.

Restrictive? Maybe.
Giving direction to horny young people? Maybe that too.

In terms of breasts when used for breastfeeding, I have no issues at all with it all hanging out. Feed those babies!

Deb said...

Tamie - I love the lazy parenting comment. This is EXACTLY where the questions come in - somebody needs to be asking those questions. As I've been thinking about this more this week, I know that I'm the kind of teacher who always wants to have a "why" conversation with students, not just a "don't do that" conversation. In my classes I do have those conversations, but with some innocent girl who doesn't realize that her bra is showing over her tank top that got accidentally pulled too low - you just say it (and yes that happened to me in Grade 5, and I only WISH someone had said something to me, rather than the whole class staring at me).
People staring at you (to quote Caryn, creepy guys) is a whole other form of oppression, and the judgement those classmates made on me was certainly just as oppressive to me as someone telling me to wear a less low cut tank top.

lori said...

We are sexual beings, and our sexuality can be accentuated or down-played by apparel (and a number of other things, like language and body language). Our sexuality can be used as a tool, either intentionally or unintentionally. Young boys (who are attracted to girls) are wired in the head to be visually stimulated by a woman's body. So, even though we may consider it a woman's "right" to dress however she wants, are all ways of dressing kind and respectful to the other people she'll be interacting with? I suggest not.

Sure, she'll make mistakes, as she learns the nuances of being true to herself while respectful of others, as we all do in virtually every arena of life. But trying to peer into the future as best I can, I don't think I'll have a problem suggesting (and enforcing, if age-appropriate) certain dress standards for my kids - not to stifle creativity or to make them feel ashamed of their bodies, but as another way of helping them to understand community, really, and the power each of us can hold over another.

Caryn Ouwehand said...

Reading over these comments again and watching the video again, I think the divide in opinion comes in terms of the age of the girl we are talking about, right?

Writers of Kosciusko County Jail said...

Hey friends. Good discussion!

Having grown up in the Middle East, I have to say that I agree that the abaya is both a true cultural *choice* as well as a possibility for fashion, etc. Although, I'd bet that many many women associate it with lack of choice, with oppression, etc. Most of the young women in Israel who *actually* have the *choice* don't wear the full abaya. But sure, perhaps some women do choose that, and I'm all for women's choice, etc.

(By "choice" I mean having freedom from familial humiliation or bullying, as well as having economic freedom and psychological freedom to choose something and not fear for the consequences.)

However, the face-guard burka, I truly do not believe any woman chooses out of a free place. It restricts movement and vision in the extreme. It was invented by men whose sole aim was to do violence to women. It's actually illegal not to wear it, at least in the places it's commonly worn. So how can we even begin to have a conversation about women choosing or not choosing wear it, when they don't actually have the choice? They *can't* choose otherwise.

I'm not surprised that women try to individuate themselves within their situation of oppression, by ironing the burka or finding pretty shoes, etc. I think that's our human tendency, and perhaps particularly our feminine tendency. Even within systems of extreme oppression, we try to distinguish ourselves, and we try to beautify our environment. But that doesn't mean that those blue burkas aren't oppressive and aren't wrapped up with all kinds of violence against women.

This is something I feel strongly about, so it's hard not to get a little riled up. But y'all know I love these discussions.

To address the other part of this conversation...I've always found it interesting, this conversation about what responsibility a woman does or doesn't bear for how her appearance affects others. When it comes to grown-ups, I guess I don't feel like women bear any responsibility for how they affect men (or other women, for that matter). We're grownups; we need to take responsibility for our own sexuality, our own thoughts and feelings and etc.

When it comes to children though, it gets more complicated, because children don't have the kind of self-awareness we should expect from adults. They're still figuring out their sexuality. I'm not sure what this means, in terms of how we guide them in terms of

Writers of Kosciusko County Jail said...

Shoot! I wish I could figure out how to not have to sign in as Writers of Kosciusko County Jail. Anyway, this is Tamie.

melissa said...

you really think NO woman would choose that blue burkha? It's very symbolic, but in a culture with little access to media for the past decade and a half, would that be the case universally? It had to exist before the Taliban and something about it made them force it as a legal requirement, but it existed before the Taliban. I mean, I don't actually know that for sure but I'd be willing to bet it did, and was universalized for some reason by Taliban. Maybe some rural areas used it and the Taliban saw that as more 'pure' because it was rural? I saw similar ones in India. It's not fair to cite only masculine familial pressure and legal requirement for an entire culture of women, some of whom may have chosen to wear it anyways: like if you look back before the Taliban and count some of those women as choosing.

I don't want to downplay what happened there for years wrt that burkha, I really don't. I just take issue with the idea that no woman would choose to wear it.

I don't mean choosing in the sense that Ayaan Hirsi Ali chose it for a period of time: as an educated, religiously free woman growing up in relatively open intellectual space~I think we could agree that THAT woman was free. But is that really fair? Only if you are educated, or have freedom from familial pressure, are you truly choosing? That feels like cultural prejudice. Isn't it possible to live in a family that strongly believes in a certain type of dress, and still feel like you choose it? Or would, even without that pressure? Not ALL men are violently controlling within their families.

melissa said...

As for the dress code elsewhere, I often get upset because there's this "boys are visual! Girls need to guard them by dressing modestly!" thing and I just don't buy it.
There are parts of the world where women are nearly nude as a regular thing and men and boys don't fall over themselves raping them because of the skin they see. What we see and are accustomed to is hugely influential to what we consider appropriate.
Like in the Babies documentary, where the Nambian women's dress code is to cover their genitals but not their breasts. Or much else. It's culturally normal to dress that way, so men don't get all flared up sexually just by being around so much feminine skin. I read a story once by a breastfeeding advocate, I can't for the life of me remember WHERE I read it, but she said she was visiting Malaysia and was on the maternity ward at the hospital, tons of mommas were nursing their babies and a male doctor walked in. All the women frantically scrambled to cover their heads, NOT their breasts nor their infants! If you've seen a newborn breastfeed before, you know it's not really that discreet. Another example of differing cultural norms as far as modesty is concerned.

Since this is true, I think it's NOT the responsibility of women to dress modestly to help men with self control at all. And since I think that, why can't it extend to girl women?

Caryn might be right, here there may be an age differentiation. I was talking to my mom about it last night and I was quite clear that no little girl of mine is going to emulate Hannah Montana or any of the other girl idols and their inappropriate marketing towards little girls. Dress like Hannah Montana! Etc. No way. SICK. PUKE.
But I guess since we'd have been having this conversation all along, by mid to late teenage-hood I'd really be inclined not to incite a rule.

There IS the fact that teenage girls often have NO clue how they dress affects the males around them, nor how much power they have. That realization is something they grow into as they get older. But I guess I just hate the cultural idea that teen sexual behavior and choices are always made from a place of insecurity on the part of girls. And I hate the idea of stifling.

Jessica Valenti talks about this in her book Feministing: how teen girls are labeled as insecure automatically if they engage in sexual behavior, when rather it can be a mature choice depending upon the girl and the circumstances. The same would be true wrt dress.

lori said...

I like this discussion! Thanks for providing the forum, Melissa.

Okay, so:

On the one hand, I agree that the culture a person lives in HUGELY determines what they think is acceptable, sexually provocative, etc. On the other hand, don't we live within culture? We just can't divorce ourselves from the way we were all raised - even as we acknowledge differences between different locales - and wish that it didn't exist that way.

I mean, many people in Western culture will always, from here to their graves, think boobs are primarily a sexual part of a woman. Even educated people who know first-hand the other uses for breasts, and even people whose wives/partners have had babies, and even doctors who see them all the time. These people, because of culture, will probably continue to be aroused by the sight of beautiful breasts, whereas someone from the African bush might go their whole lives thinking we're all crazy. It would take a high degree of de-training for anyone attracted to women in our culture to come to the point of INITIALLY thinking of breasts as mammary glands. And why should they change? I'm guessing that every culture holds SOME body parts to be sexy, sacred, worth keeping under wraps as far as the general crowds are concerned - don't they?

I guess I see it as the difference between living hypothetically (having in mind the best of human nature and even helping to tear down stereotypes and work toward that) and acknowledging the current conditions in which we live, even accepting them if we determine they're not oppressive.

Of course, what you're getting at is that it IS oppressive to tell a woman what is provocative. And I agree with that to a point, especially considering any dress that is meant to hide a woman's very shape and hide the fact that she is a woman. That's where it's ridiculous. But I think the balancing point is that there ARE ways to dress provocatively, and it seems a bit rude to do that if you will be around others who are inclined to be greatly affected - because of genetics, culture, whatever. Obviously this can be taken to the extreme; we can't go around making our every decision on how everybody else is potentially affected. Obviously.

I'm thinking of this in terms of consideration, see. In the same way that it's rude to swear in front of your grandma, who lived in a time when swearing was not so commonplace. You know? Unless you've got a rockin' grandma who herself swears like a sailor, in which case, yee-haw. Turn yourselves blue with swearing!

lori said...

Furthermore (as if I haven't commented enough already)....

We generally have qualms about people doing other, non-dress-related provocative things in front of each other, don't we, unless it's invited? Like, if a person stood very close to you and made seductive remarks or paid you a lot of compliments or gave you gifts meant to lure you to bed, you would be a bit appalled by that, especially if it was uninvited and unwelcome.

I mean, isn't there such a thing as crossing other people's visual boundaries? If you don't think so, you haven't visited and clicked on "photos." :)

Dana said...

Regarding the clothing choices I or my daughter make, I look at these Bible verses from Romans:

23“Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. 24Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

Dressing a certain way isn't necessarily bad on its own, but sometimes may not be appropriate in a given situation or company because it wouldn't be good for others (inciting lust, for example).

31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

Caryn Ouwehand said...

If only Adam and Eve had left that stinking fruit tree alone,none of this would be an issue. Sigh.

I love debates like these...

Especially the fact that this discussion has included both the words "burka" and ""

Dan and I were chatting last night and he almost made me spit my wine out my nose when he said that if we had a teenage daughter garaunteed she would come down the stairs all skanked up for a night out at some point. At at that point if we tried to have a discussion about her outfit maybe not being a great idea, and she played the "your practising a form of Oppression Mom and Dad!" card, that Dan would bark back that "Yeah, well prostitution was a worse form of oppession to get caught up in."

Now, I know a skanky outfit is far from making a girl a prostitute, but I think it is all about directing our children's creativity into forms that are safe. If clothing (on either a child or an adult female) is going to risk her safety, I don't think this is a hill to die on for me.

That said, I love and agree with the premise of the video, but I think in this fallen world its ideals are hard to practice. If I were back in the rural middle east tomorrow, I would put on a head-covering, just like I did when I was there in 2006... not to give in to a form of oppression, but to be safe (personally)and respect the ammount of skin that the men there normally see.

But then maybe I am a big scaredy cat.

Writers of Kosciusko County Jail said...

As a means of further conversation + clarification, let me ask this question: what's wrong with arousing someone else's desire? What's wrong with dressing in a way that elicits desire, attraction, arousal, etc.?

lori said...

I think it's ironic/fun that we're continuing this woman / young girl conversation on Melissa's blog while Melissa herself lies in bed with her new baby daughter. (Hi, Melissa! Hope you don't mind.)

in response to Tamie's question...

I'd say nothing's wrong - if you have the intention of delivering on what you're promising (or at least implying). Otherwise, isn't it a classically misleading scenario? What good is it to cause frustration in another, other than possibly to boost one's own confidence? Of course, I'm not talking about light, silly flirtation, just like I'm not talking about apparel that is attractive or lightly sexy (? not sure how else to put it) or highlights your best features. I guess I am envisioning the extremes.

People will be attracted to each other just by virtue of their existence; I'm in no way suggesting that if someone is attracted to you, you're dressing inappropriately! Cuz whoa, isn't that the thought line that precedes oppression?

But when an adult woman dresses the hard-to-describe way I'm thinking (essentially, leaving very little to the imagination), it usually seems that she has some major unmet emotional needs or insecurities, and views getting bodily attention as her best bet. Such a woman doesn't need our scorn or judgment, of course! But she likewise mightn't need the kind of attention she's seeking.

Aside from that, the main provocative dress I see is on young girls (jr. high and high school), and honestly, they all look alike. There is very little creativity or individuality shown, so I would have a hard time buying that as justification for such attire.

Through it all, even if a parade of completely naked people is walking by seductively, I still think each individual is responsible for his or her own thought life, self-control, or as you put it in another conversation, Tamie, living with honor.

Writers of Kosciusko County Jail said...

I like you, Lori. You're cool.

And yes, hi, Melissa and Amaryis! Hope you're doing fabulous!

Here is an interesting and not-at-all-hypothetical scenario. I know a young woman, age 25, who dresses extremely...well, she wears high skirts and low shirts. She's got a beautiful, attractive body, just the sort of body that looks great in short skirts and low-cut tops. I am willing to bet that she has all kinds of self-confidence issues. She is a recovering addict and I'm guessing she has been used by many men. She is a dear person, has a quiet and easily-scared spirit, is trying hard to succeed but is easily scared off. She loves to shop and if there is anything she feels confident about it's probably her sense of style, her knowledge of perfumes and makeup, etc.

So here is the thing. Her parents have tried to talk to her about the way that she dresses. They're conservative Christians who no doubt believe she's provoking men to all sorts of lust. And no doubt, the conservative Christian men she hangs out with (and most other men) do feel aroused by her beautiful, scantily-clad body. But guess what? Her parents telling her to put on more clothes hasn't convinced her to put on more clothes! Not at all.

I have this theory that what she really needs is for her parents to compliment her great sense of style, as well as to compliment her on her many other positive attributes. Okay, so she shows a lot of skin. Get over it, I say. Tell her how great she looks. Accept her as she is. If men are uncomfortable with how she looks, I guess they're going to have to figure out how to handle their discomfort, now aren't they.

Maybe someday when she feels very confident and good about herself, she'll dress differently. And maybe she won't dress differently. Maybe she'll always like clothes that make conservative Christians (and a lot of other people) squirm. I say, there are worse things to squirm about in this world. One thing I do know for sure is that confronting her, or "trying to talk to her," it ain't workin', and it's just making her feel worse about herself.

(I'm finding these days that I like stories better than anything! Let's tell stories about the people we know...)

Writers of Kosciusko County Jail said...

Two suggestions:

1. I wonder if what we're really uncomfortable with, around scantily clad women, is desire. Our own desire and others' desire.

2. Perhaps women who dress in tight, etc., clothing have no intention other than to provoke desire. In other words, maybe it's not an advertisement for sex. Maybe some women just want the folks around them to think they're hot.

Writers of Kosciusko County Jail said...

Hey Mel, in response to a couple comments you made a few days ago (and it feels weird to continue this conversation when you have a new baby, but I know there are other people who are interested inthis conversation too!)...

Let me put it this way. If a person is *truly* free, then I am all for that person choosing to wear anything she wants to wear. I am extremely opposed to men (ie. the Taliban, other religious extremists) imposing a dress code, particularly one that restricts movement or vision or in other ways makes life harder for women. But if a woman is truly free, I'm all for experimentation, freedom of choice to choose what you want to wear, etc.!