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Just when you thought things couldn’t get more messed up November 19, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Religion.
Tags: , ,

Just when you thought that forcing women to shroud their bodies and hair in loose black cloth wasn’t bad enough, a moral committee in Saudi Arabia has threatened to force women to cover up their “sexy eyes”. Yet again, extreme conservatives have demonstrated the extent of their ridiculousness – to go so far as to blame “sexy eyes” for tempting men.

So what has this got to do with us normal people? After all, I’m pretty sure that even the most socially conservative person that you or I know would not agree with the committee’s threats. Before we all pat ourselves on the backs for being more progressive than the Saudi moral committee, let’s take a look at our own society, or even at Western society. Are we really that much better than them?

There are two main themes that we all still have in common. The first is blame. In Saudi Arabia and in Singapore alike, it is still not uncommon for women to be blamed for the actions and choices of men. While in a conservative Middle Eastern society, rape may be blamed on a woman’s sexy eyes or tempting ankles, our “traditional Asian”, Western influenced society is equally guilty of blaming rape on a woman’s attire or behavior. In both situations, instead of focusing on the actions and choices of the perpetrator, people choose to hold the victim accountable. Maybe it is simply easier to blame the sexiness of eyes and ankles and cleavage and thighs, than to face the fact that *gasp* men have control over where they stick their genitalia?

The second theme is control. Over and beyond supposed rape prevention, dictating how a woman should and should not dress means assuming that you have the right to control her actions. Control is by no means limited to punishment by stoning (or whatever medieval means we imagine “backward” countries to utilize). Threats of hell, stigmatization, and shame are used to punish women who show more skin that what is deemed acceptable. (Funnily enough, in modern society, we not only punish women for dressing too sexy, we also disregard women who are not sexy enough.) Of course, men are not immune to such judgment either, but I would contend that there is a far higher social price to pay for being a slut than a stud, and there is a far stronger social pressure on women to dress sexy-but-not-too-sexy.

“Decency” is a poor excuse. Decency according to whose standards: the religious police?  The government? Religious leaders? Who gave them the authority to decide what should be considered decent, and who are they to decide that women’s bodies should be subject to stricter scrutiny than men’s? Such control is manifested most obviously in conservative Islamic societies whose laws demand that women (against all respect for reason, safety, or culture) cover their entire bodies. But it also manifests in Western society when we have absurd policies about public breastfeeding, or when everybody freaks out when a nipple appears on national television. It’s almost as if a woman’s body is always defined as sexual, never mind the fact that we use our bodies to dance, swim, run, and nurse infants, the sole purpose of exposing our skin is for the viewing pleasure of men, right?!? Pair that view together with a sexually repressive society and you get a ridiculous obsession with policing and judging women’s attire.

Ultimately, it’s a no brainer that women in Western society and Singapore’s society enjoy more freedoms than our Saudi counterparts. But the next time you see a rape victim being accused of “asking for it” because of her sexy dress, don’t forget that the very same argument can be made for a fully niqab-ed women with sexy eyes. Perhaps the extreme victim blaming and control over women that we hear about in Saudi Arabia will force us to see the absurdity of our own society’s attempts to blame and control women.



1. LCC - November 19, 2011

Who is the oppressed one?

Reminded of the above picture as I read your post. Haa, my friend pointed out that actually, as women, both the ladies in the picture are oppressed.

laïcité - November 19, 2011

Haha, yes. But I think it is also strange when conservative Muslim women take that line of argument when defending the burka or niqab. My choice of whether to wear a bikini today does not include having to face the consequence of being shunned or stoned by my community. Yes – we are both oppressed, but the magnitude of which is hardly comparable.

LCC - November 20, 2011

Haa, interestingly or coincidentally enough, I also came across this news article yesterday as I read your post.

I will agree that the physical consequences of donning (or not) a bikini are perhaps much less severe in non-Muslim societies. And of course, the freedom to wear whatever one wants to wear is one that people should have. But I hesitate to agree as to whether the wearing of skimpy attire should be a “freedom” that should be exercised or endorsed. I am not saying that women should not/cannot wear skimpy attire (I am a guy, after all, haa) but I find it difficult to endorse it as a “positive”, if you get what I mean (of course, I won’t endorse women covering every part of their bodies as a “positive” also).

It seems to me that proponents from both sides tend to criticise the other side as wanting to take things to the extreme: “conservatives” will say “liberals” will have women wear nothing in public while “liberals” will say “conservatives” want women to be totally covered up. I think there is much room in the middle of these two extremes to espouse “decent” clothing for both women and men.

laïcité - November 20, 2011

I’d have to disagree with your definition of “extreme”. I guess you define bikinis and burkas as extremes on the scale of the extent to which they cover up the skin. But I guess I define “extreme” in terms of what is “unreasonable”, or when the “symbolism” of the clothing has far overtaken its utility. For example, I think a burka is extreme because it takes an idea – modesty – and makes the idea more important than something as basic as facial recognition and communication. If, say, there were a social pressure to wear bikinis in winter or something, then yes, that would be an extreme clothing choice. But in the context of a beach or swimming pool, I don’t see how a bikini is considered an unreasonable choice, given its utility – for tanning, for swimming, etc.

I think the danger here is assuming that if a woman does something with her body, it must be for the benefit of men. I find it difficult to say that bikinis or mini skirts are oppressive articles of clothing for the sole purpose of making men gawk, because I can honestly say that if men ceased to exist for a day, I would still wear those things given the right occasion. Skimpy clothing is just clothing – it’s neither positive or negative. But the freedom to wear it is still a positive thing. I guess what I’m trying to say is, as a man you don’t have to feel bad for “endorsing” skimpy clothing. As long as you don’t pressure a woman into wearing it, or judge her for not wearing it, then I think it is ultimately a choice that an adult woman should be able to make for herself.

2. LCC - November 21, 2011

Hmm. My reference to “extreme” was in light of how the media and people seem to mischaracterise this issue into a black vs white issue. By this, I mean how it seems that one must either be a proponent of the absolute and total freedom of women to wear anything they want (or nothing) or be a hardcore conservative who want women to be totally covered up. But, to me, there is a middle ground – supporting the right/freedom of women to wear whatever they want but at the same time recognising that this cannot be an absolute freedom/right or one that can be exercised without discretion.

laïcité - November 21, 2011

But what is wrong with the absolute and total freedom to wear anything you want? Why must we accept society’s labelling of the human body as a dirty and shameful thing that must be covered up? I’m not saying everybody should shun clothes and walk about naked, but a) I don’t think that nakedness and donning revealing clothing should be thought of as something morally wrong or demonized by society, and b) I don’t think that it should be illegal because it doesn’t actually cause tangible harm to anybody.

I guess you could call me “extreme” because I support this absolute right, but to me it’s a matter of principle: society has no right to judge you based on how much or little you wear, and the law has no place in policing our bodies.

LCC - November 21, 2011

I am not saying that it is wrong, I am just saying that it is something which should be exercised with discretion. It is not about society or the law, it is as my female friend said: be aware of the intended/unintended consequences of what you wear.

One may not be wearing a particular set of clothing to attract attention but the fact is that certain sort of clothing do attract attention (and unfortunately, sometimes, the wrong sort of attention). This is not blaming the wearer but just that he or she should be aware of the effect his/her attire will have. Those with better self-control may be able to look away or stop looking after a short while but they will still have had looked.

I mean, to use a bad example, people definitely have the freedom/right to flaunt their wealth but they need to be aware that this could attract criminal attention. And advising people to not flaunt their wealth too much or to flaunt it tastefully is not to say that they deserved to be robbed if they don’t but just that criminals tend to be attracted to people who flaunt their wealth. Admittedly, not all those who flaunt their wealth are robbed nor are all those who are robbed wealth-flaunters but not flaunting one’s wealth too much or openly is still a good precaution to take against being robbed. And of course, the police should arrest robbers and people should be taught to not rob others but nonetheless, individuals still need to take necessary precautions against being robbed. Hope you understand my point despite the bad example.

Haa, at a loss for proper words to put my point across at the moment. Will perhaps expand on my thoughts in an upcoming blog post, hopefully.

laïcité - November 22, 2011

Yes I do agree that you have a fair point. And practically, it remains true that it would be wise for women to be aware of their attire generating unwanted attention. Not merely mindful of their attire, but also keeping alert when walking home alone in the dark etc.

But to me, that is precisely the problem with society as it is now. Why is it that, just because I am female, I have to take so many more precautions just to feel safe? I mean, how would you feel if your neighborhood police advised you to carry a knife around protect yourself from robbers? As a woman, it sort of feels like that – being told to always be on guard against rapists makes me feel that society isn’t doing enough to get rid of them.

I don’t want to obediently accept that “this is how society is”, “this is how men behave in the presence of women”. And I think that even by telling women to avoid dressing a certain way, this message is simply being reinforced. We are telling women that they should live in constant fear, instead of addressing the fact that it is a problem with how society views women in the first place. That’s like telling a Jewish person to try to keep attention away from himself in order to avoid being a victim of an anti-Semitic attack, instead of combating anti-Semitism in the first place. Or telling a gay person to be less obviously gay in order to avoid being attacked. Such messages consciously or subconsciously absolve society from the responsibility of teaching its members not to be rapists, or racists, or homophobes.

(Anyway, I would also like to point out that attire is not statistically correlated to the incidence of rape. The most common outfit of rape victims is jeans. Other factors such as location, drunkenness, and being alone are much more important factors when a rapist chooses his victim. I think people commit the fallacy that dressing scantily contributes to rape because in their minds they are already judging that scanty clothing = slut = asking for it.)

3. LCC - November 22, 2011

Hmm. I get what you mean but following your argument or logic, the police should not issue crime advisories of any sort. They should not advise people to keep an eye on their belongings when they visit crowded places during the upcoming festive season because such advice will subconsciously reinforce the message that the crime of theft should be tolerated, that we should not arrest pickpockets or educate people to not steal.

The fact is that crime exist and while we do our best to combat it in various ways, it nonetheless remains necessary and prudent for individuals to adopt precautionary measures to guard against becoming victims of crime.

Anyway, your reference to Jews and homosexuals is a false analogy, in my opinion. This is because while “Jewishness” and “gayness” are perhaps innate to Jews and homosexuals respectively (in that they cannot choose to be not Jewish or gay), the wearing of skimpy attire is not something innate to women. I am sure you will agree that the wearing of skimpy attire is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for womanhood or for a lady to exude a sense of femininity, no?

Lastly, I recognise that other factors also contribute to the occurrence of sexual crimes (and by this, I am not limiting only to rape but also am including molestation) and skimpy attire is perhaps only a minor contributing factor. But I never said that we should just concentrate on advising women to not wear skimpy attire, I only said it is a precautionary measure that can be taken; not the only one.

laïcité - November 22, 2011

Funnily enough, a few months ago I actually wanted to write a post about how it is flawed for the police to rely on advising us to avoid being victims of crimes. I’m not saying that they are wrong to do so, but that is not where the focus should be. The focus should not only be on educating people not to steal, but also on addressing the factors that contribute to crime: poverty, class inequality, gang culture, and in the case of rape: misogyny. If you look at the public attempts of rape prevention, how many choose to address the perpetrator, or the punishments that rapists may face? It sure seems as though the policy is to focus on preventing yourself from being a victim.

I don’t want to live in a city where the responsibility is on me to be afraid of being a victim. And I think that it is especially unfair that women are expected to bear the lion’s share of this sense of fear. Just something as simple as walking home alone alone at night. Sometimes I even find myself feeling jealous that my boyfriend can do something so simple without a care in the world, while I am told by society that I have to fear for my safety, just because I am female. I don’t know how else to explain this gross sense of injustice that I feel.

I don’t really see it as a false analogy, because to me it is fundamentally an issue of freedom – not just freedom to be yourself but freedom to express yourself however you wish, even through clothing. In the case of Jews, is it right to tell them to shave their distinctive facial hair or tell them not to wear skullcaps to avoid looking less Jew? In the case of homosexuals, is it right to tell them “act manly” (Interestingly, there was an instance of a teacher here in the UK advising gay students to act less gay to avoid getting punished. Needless to say, there was a huge backlash in the press). It doesn’t matter if it’s a choice. Freedom to choose is as important as the freedom to be. As a woman, I do not think it is necessary to wear mini skirts, but it is necessary to have the fundamental freedom to wear whatever I want.

Edited to add:
Actually, this also reminds me of something I saw a few years back, where there was a news report in the US encouraging parents to stop allowing their toddlers from running around topless in some sort of public water fountain/pool, in order to avoid being preyed on by pedophiles. It’s just ridiculous to even have to consider such a thing. Yes, pedophiles exist, and yes, rapists exist. But to expect women to constantly think of their bodies as sex objects that could attract the wrong attention, is as wrong as making parents do the same for their prepubecent children.

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