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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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Turkish women shocked at restrictive British clothing

Orientalising images of women’ s clothing are common enough. But how about occidentalist views?

A photo of an Egyptian street scene, taken by the European G. Lekegian & Co. This photo is easily interpreted in an orientalist frame, denying the women on the wagon any agency. I know little about Egyptian life around 1900, but perhaps these women were just taking the bus? (collection Rijksmuseum Prentenkabinet)

Many Europeans and North-Americans regard Muslim women who wear a veil with an orientalist eye. This means that they see them as specimens from outlandish and traditionalist Asian and north-African cultures that differ fundamentally from their own. Often, these women are regarded as the victims of Muslim men, who are thought either to force them to wear a veil, or against whom they would need their veil as a symbolic protection. (But see this interesting short documentary from Pakistan.)

Such European orientalist interpretations of cultures in North Africa, Asia, and indeed south-eastern Europe itself, stretch back several centuries.

Now from 1716 to 1718, as this orientalism was gaining ground, a wealthy English woman made a famous journey to south-eastern Europe. Mary Wortley Montagu joined her husband on a diplomatic and trade mission to the Ottoman Empire. In Sofia, then part of this empire, she visited a bath house. (The beautiful public baths still existing in Sofia all seem to be much younger, from around 1900.)

A bath house scene from a manuscript of Zenannâme  (The Book of Women) by the satirical Ottoman writer Enderûnlu Fâzıl (now in the University of Istanbul; repro from Wikimedia).

A bath-house scene from a manuscript of Zenannâme (The Book of Women) by the satirical Ottoman writer Enderûnlu Fâzıl, late 18th century. Now in the University of Istanbul; reprod. from Wikimedia.

Montagu noted three things while there. First: the women were ‘stark naked’ and presented a beautiful sight; a sight, she suggested, as one might see on an Italian Renaissance painting. Second: for the women, the bath house fulfilled the social function of a coffee-house. Third: the women did not mock Montagu’s foreign habits, as western-European women would have done, but welcomed her politely.

I was in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them. Yet there was not one of them that shewed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court, where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to such a stranger. I believe, upon the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles, and satirical whispers, that never fail in our assemblies, when any body appears that is not dressed exactly in the fashion. They repeated over and over to me; “Uzelle, pek uzelle,” which is nothing but, Charming, very Charming. (Letter xxvi from the collection she edited after her return to England, published online by Jack Lynch.)

Nevertheless, the Sofia women demonstrated a slight streak of reverse ‘orientalism’, that is, occidentalism.

They tried to convince Montagu to join them in their bath. But Montagu found it only self-evident that, as an Englishwoman, she could not expose herself. She excused herself – in vain. In the end, she stripped up to her stays.

probably North American

Stays, c. 1750-60, probably North American

This had the desired effect.

they believed I was locked up in that machine, and that it was not in my own power to open it, which contrivance they attributed to my husband

The Sofia women easily convinced themselves, it seems, that she had been ‘locked up’ in her stays by her husband. Pityingly, they allowed her to keep her clothes on.