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What we’re allowed to wear on Women’s Day

Today is Women’s Day. These weeks’ news again brought plenty of reminders of why this day is necessary.

In the Dutch North-East Polder, the police report, a fourteen-year-old was pushed off her bike, kicked in the head and back, and left on the pavement with bruises and brain injury.

Who did this? Two blonde boys aged c. 18.

Why?

Because she was a woman.

Because she was exercising her right to education and independent mobility, by cycling home from school alone.

And, finally: because she had the guts to say ‘no’. She said ‘no’ to the boys’ demand to undress.

Is this then ‘simply’ another case of gendered sexual assault? Not quite.

Because the fourteen-year-old was also wearing a headscarf.

And although most Dutch newspaper readers will have reacted with shock to the assault, its underlying mechanisms are perpetuated by a large proportion of those same newspaper readers. They are women and men from western-European, largely Christian extraction, and they are not so sure whether Muslim women should be wearing a headscarf.

It’s the people I’ve spent most of my life amongst. I think I understand them a little, and therefore I would like to ask them something.

I would ask them to imagine emigrating to a distant planet. The local inhabitants look just like us. However, there is a striking difference in the way they dress: everyone, whether male or female, wears the same skirt (pretty progressive, what?). And nothing else. Wherever they go, they go dressed like this; to parties, but also to work.

Most European immigrants are taken aback by the naked breasts of the local females. And all of the immigrant women continue to cover their own chest in public spaces.

In the eyes of the locals, however, this constitutes an act of repression, and they wonder what masculinist ideology forces these women to hide themselves. They decide to help them. Female employees and schoolchildren are sent home, bikini-wearing humans are chased off the beaches, and everyone is ordered to only come back after throwing off these absurd symbols of self-humiliation.

If for a migrant to Europe, wearing a headscarf is like wearing a T-shirt, surely their European hosts can sympathise and forbid neither. 

Of course, my comparison here highlights only one of the reasons women have to cover their hair or their face – but I think a fundamental one. It suggests that wearing or not wearing a specific headdress is largely a cultural matter. By that I mean that someone’s decision to (not) wear an item of clothing can best be understood by placing oneself in the position(s) that person occupies in the culture(s) she lives in. In the end, what we wear is often a matter of what we feel comfortable in, and that is not based on abstract choices but on the signals we emit with these clothes and the response we get from the people around us. (British physician and columnist Qanta Ahmed has also underlined the cultural rather than religious background of the hijab, though arriving at a different conclusion than I am.)

So European anxieties over Muslim dress are really about migration and the intercultural misunderstandings this leads to.

A few images to illustrate the cultural and regional nature of female dress decisions:

Women of three different religions in Israel (all three anonymous: 2012, 2010 and 2012, respectively)

 

These images should not feel unfamiliar. Nor should these:

Anonymous woman working a buzz-saw, probably in Hungary, 1955

Another anonymous model (Spain, 2013)

 

In a nutshell: not all Muslim women want to cover their head, while many non-Muslim women do.

So far, I’ve argued that to wear a piece of clothing is often a matter of conformity rather than repression. However, it can also be a part of personal style or identity. Of fashion. Or of shyness. Of distinction. Of rebellion against previous (migrant) generations; or of defiance of the locals who lack the experience of living in two cultures at the same time. Or it can function as a reminder and token of religious commitment… all depending on women’s cultural backgrounds, their interpretation of their religion, whether they are migrants or have long been settled, and many more factors.

But in the end, do we even need to understand women’s motivations in order to accept their decision? A decision which, after all, concerns their own bodies? (The same does not apply to the actions of their critics: these always concern other people’s bodies.) Do people need to justify the way they look? Perhaps public figures, who act as role models, may expect some form of public interrogation of their choices – but at the moment, this unfortunately means that we should in fact be talking a bit more about how men look.

To return to the student who was not allowed to attend school safely: our public discourse about what women and specifically Muslim women should wear, gave her attackers their motivation. Remember, this was not mindless bullying: the boys were 18, not 8. Their actions were the practical manifestation of a way of thinking which they had gleaned from their less violent neighbours.

As non-scarf-wearing Muslim Tahmeena (no surname) has said in Broadly magazine when asked about European employers’ bans on headscarfs:

There’s no liberation in being told what to wear […] in order to ‘become’ liberated

 

(An English rendering of the Dutch news item can be found on The World News.)

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2

China: 44640 minutes of fame

This is the third episode in a series on freedom and China. Previous posts were about the elegant carelessness I found in Chinese culture and about feeling safe: two causes of the sense of liberty I experienced while visiting the country for a month. I want to discuss a third factor here – one with less positive overtones.

Last time I spoke about anonymity. This time I’ll speak of celebrity.

The more billboards, adverts and shop-windows we saw on our journey, the clearer it became that a European look is a sign of beauty in China. A big proportion of the models promoting the clothes and jewellery, cars and real estate on sale, is of European lineage.

In other cases, I only thought they were European at first sight. On closer inspection, they had been made up to change, for instance, the shape of their eyes. Extra lines and glue create the impression of a ‘double eyelid’. Many East Asians even resort to plastic surgery to achieve this extra wrinkle. The same applies to other eye characteristics and to noses – which are supposedly prettier when they are bigger. Another technique, which we could study in detail in the sleeper trains we took, is to try make the skin whiter as well as ‘younger’ with (toxic) creams, electric devices, and old-fashioned slapping.

To a large extent, these beauty ideals show the influence of North American pop culture, and of the history of European colonialism. Some of it – such as the whiteness ideal – may also be a much older home-grown desire, based in class politics and the division between those who had to work (in the sun) and those with leisure. But a large part of this beauty ideal that we found in Chinese cities is clearly a form of racism that values a European appearance over an East Asian.

To me, these practices and desires were frankly horrid. And yet I cannot deny I benefited from them.

Throughout my stay in China, I was showered with a inordinate amount of attention. And so were my European-looking co-travellers. Some would no doubt give us attention because they were curious or sincerely interested or because they like to mock a foreign tourist. However, much of the attention we got was clearly positive and amounted to admiration. The blonder, the taller, and the bigger the nose, the better.

We posed for literally hundreds of photos; more than I have of ourselves. (I wonder what happened with them?) On one boat trip, an actual queue formed of people wanting to talk to us and take our photo. For our fellow tourists – our Chinese fellow tourists – we had become an attraction in our own right.

CelebrityinChina

We had become ‘iconic’ indeed. On the left: someone from our group. All the others in the photo: unacquainted tourists. Of course, by taking this picture, I placed myself in their company.

Shy boys and giggly girls would come up to me for a chat. At the conference, a boy confessed he was a ‘fan of both your work and you as a person’. One waitress took the trouble of asking her colleagues to write a note in English, with which she approached me after dinner. It said: can I have a photo of us together? And so on. Never in my life have I had so many girls tell me I’m beautiful. (Another thing Northwestern Europeans can learn from people in the rest in the world: how to be less skimpy in their compliments.)

There’s nothing like receiving compliments from strangers at any moment of the day, for boosting your confidence. And there’s nothing like confidence for making you smile and feel at ease. And, as one in our group remarked, the effect spirals upwards because the more you smile and feel at ease, the prettier you will be.

China’s European bias – who knows how long it is to last? – therefore added another layer to my sense of liberty there.

I had not expected to find something which I detest so deeply – privilege rooted in racism – leading me to feel so good.

True, part of the reason that large chunks of my journey made me laugh and smile, were precisely because I was aware of this ridiculous situation; because I had the feeling I had stepped into a period drama, set in the age of empire. Having grown up in the place I did, I had never encountered such ostentatious privileging in real life. The situation was overly familiar, but only from books and films, which made it almost fictional at times.

Have I now also got a taste of the dangerous attractions of real imperialism?

2

Free as a … Foreigner

In my earlier column on China, I talked about a certain kind of freedom that I experienced there; a physical ease that seems to imbue Chinese culture.

There is another way in which I felt amazingly free during my month-long stay there. This had to do with safety, and with being on my own for part of the journey.

Feeling safe and feeling free are closely related. (1) When you do not feel that you need to be on your guard, you relax. Instead of seeing danger everywhere, you see interesting people and beckoning paths. You can start exploring.

Sometimes when you climb every mountain, you run a risk of getting too high... (Authorities worrying about our safety in Yangshuo. Photo by the author.)

Sometimes when you climb ev’ry mountain, you run a risk of getting too high… (Authorities worrying about our safety in Yangshuo.)

I felt safe in China, and I felt free. Thinking over why this was so, I was probably subject to a lucky combination of factors.

1)

People at home in Europe had warned me of China’s dangers. No doubt, real dangers exist in China. Yet my journey made me realise there is also a lot of misunderstanding between Europeans and Chinese, including a lot of prejudice.

How well can most Europeans (and North Americans, etc.) estimate the dangers of going to China as a foreigner? What is the information that really gets passed on through popular media? That must surely be the news, mostly negative, on things like censorship, working conditions in big factories, the long-term effects of air pollution, and heavily centralised politics. These things are serious stuff, I agree. But they are not at all unique to China. Also – and this is the point here – they are not the first things you encounter when taking a stroll in a Chinese city.

But of course, I had been influenced by the same media, and, having never travelled far out of Europe, I came prepared to be watchful.

2)

Once I stepped foot on Chinese soil, however, I did in fact feel quite safe, and continued to do so for most of my journey.

I was wary of infectious diseases, but for the rest? As said earlier, I did not see any traffic incidents or other serious accidents. I do not remember being followed or leered at by suspicious men (which is a rather sexist fear to start with!). The only time I came close to that was at the thoroughly ‘respectable’ international conference I attended in China. None of the beggars I met were intimidatingly insistent, and hardly any of the salespeople. (2) I did not witness any physical fights or see any drawn guns. (I saw a drawn sword in a park, in the hands of someone practising their martial art.) Even dogs were well-behaved.

But most of all, it was precisely because I had come so well-warned, that things truly looked ridiculously safe on closer inspection.

3)

I was clearly a foreigner in China. No doubt a valuable foreigner. That is to say, I am acutely aware of the disproportionate benefits my European passport and looks gave me.

I could travel into China and out again.

I was recognisably a tourist, with spare time and a little bit of money to spend.

And finally, officials probably made it their task to prevent giving foreign newspapers the chance to report more bad news, along the lines of ‘tourist found dead at bottom of prestigious dam’ or ‘innocent young woman gone missing in Beijing alleys’. So people were perhaps just a little bit more careful around me than they are around their fellow citizens.

Many also treated me quite matter-of-factly, especially when at work, which most Chinese people are most of the time. The elite, however, with a reputation to care about, tended to be fantastically polite or else fantastically protective.

One tiring afternoon, our travel group had been shuttling to and fro through Shanghai to finally catch a sleeper train to Beijing. Some of us had even been stopped at the station security checkpoint and had to unload their bags. Then, one authoritative figure started a heated conversation with our tour guide. We were ordered to a separate section of the waiting area. We had started to feel apprehensive already, when our guide finally explained to us that we were given a (rather unceremonious) special treatment that would allow us first entrance to the platform. It would save us a lot of queueing up. (It saved the locals a lot of time, too, no doubt, because we were clumsy with our tickets, and as long as we stuck together we did not have to process our individual tickets).

Later on in the month, I was exploring the buildings and grounds of my conference hotel, but kept running into cheongsamed ladies (partly selected for their height, I suspect) who with their stunning, never-ceasing smiles tried to cajole me back into the prettier central regions of the hotel. When, on my second day there, I had finally grown properly tired of its third, fourth and fifth stars, I sneaked out for a lunch in the park. As I was eating my steamed buns on a bench, however, one of the conference’s student volunteers spotted me. (3) Surprised, he asked me what I was doing there. And on my own, too! Had I lost my way? He offered to walk me back, but I protested that I had specifically wanted to spend some time outside the hotel enclave. He still did not quite believe someone would choose to be on their own, so he sat down next to me and we chatted for a while. Although both these events around my conference hotel created the impression with me that I was being watched (somewhat diminishing my sense of freedom during this last week), it is only fair to stick to the kinder conclusion that I was simply being cared for.

In between the people too busy to care, and the people busy caring, there was the category of shopkeepers and others with whom I had some kind of brief business to arrange. They were usually quite happy to spend a little extra time on the dumb foreigner.

All this enhanced care for privileged foreigners is completely unfair to China’s own citizens of course, but again: that is not the point here. The point is that, apparently, you can fly to the other side of the world where you do not even speak the language, and feel free and at ease.

Last solo meal. Last meal in China.

Last solo meal. Last meal in China.

Imagine, being a young woman on your own, with all the connotations that come with that; in a city which you have been raised to consider dangerous, where you stand out as a foreigner, and where everyone stares at you.

Imagine packing everything you have in a bag, leaving your hostel room, and handing in the key to reception. You can now no longer rely on them, either.

Imagine knowing no one, and having nowhere to go, except one of the many stations in that sprawling city – one of the biggest in the world – where a train will bring you to one of the many, many other cities in that vast country, a city completely unknown to you, where you are to again find your way through millions of strangers, to the next place where you are supposed to sleep.

All through the journey, you stand out as a stranger, as someone who may not know her way around and who can hardly ask for help.

If that is the case, and yet all the circumstances conspire in such a way that you are not afraid, then, surely, you must feel exhilarated beyond measure?

(1) That was one of the conclusions of the project I did at the University of Oxford some years ago. Then, I was looking at people of the past. Now, I am experiencing it myself.

(2) I am probably thinking of these examples because, again, these were typically nineteenth-century travel fears. (See my research project at the University of Twente!)

(3) Half the conference was run by unpaid students. One of their vital tasks was to interpret between the foreign delegates and the Chinese (hotel) staff. They cannot be praised enough.