Thursday, March 25, 2004

Who Wears the Pants?

One October night in 1792 a young North European woman was returning home after her day's work when the town guard stopped her, took one look at her clothing, and arrested her. She was wearing trousers. The next day she was taken to court where she was accused of having had criminal intentions. Why else would she dress as a man?

The woman defended her choice of clothing by pointing out that the male garb was more practical in her heavy manual labor and that it was also warm. The court decided that it was 'selfish and shameless' for a woman to dress like a man, declared her a person of no fixed abode, and ordered her to be driven out of town. Should she return, she'd be sentenced to a certain number of lashes at the hand of the official beaters*.

In 2004, leaflets began circulating in Kenya telling women to stop wearing trousers and mini skirts by March 1. In January, 54 women were stripped naked in Oyugis town for wearing trousers or 'dressing shamelessly'. The men who attacked these women were local youth. One resident of the town told a radio station that the action of these men was justified and also warned that :

"If they continue dressing in ways that make us (men) suffer, we shall rape them."

These cases are very similar, aren't they? The women who are the pathbreakers in wearing what's regarded as men's clothing are 'shameless', threatening, to be driven out of town or to be raped. Never mind if trousers actually are more comfortable and practical than the traditional female garb, women who wear them make men suffer.

Why is that? The answer is simple and summarized in the old saying about 'who wears the pants in the family': male dress is a sign of authority in traditional societies, and if this dress no longer reliably signals real authority, the whole society will be in chaos. Consider some of the fears expressed by callers to the same Kenyan radio station referred to in the above quote:

In recent weeks, local radio stations have been receiving calls from emotionally charged men - and some women as well - claiming that by wearing trousers, women are not only provoking men to rape them, but are also largely responsible for the spread of HIV/Aids in the country.
Most of the callers argue that only men should wear trousers, with some quoting verses from the Bible to the effect that women should not wear men's clothing and vice-versa. Others even claim that some women wear trousers to disguise their intention of usurping their husbands' role as the head of the family.

Honore Daumier's prints from the mid-nineteenth century France express similar fears. In one**

"...a wife angrily refuses to sew a button back on her husband's pants. He, standing woefully with hands held limply in front of his phallus, comments that not only does his wife "wear the pants" but now she throws them back at him."

The question isn't really then who gets to wear the pants, the question is what women wearing pants means. To some men it means a threat, a horrible fear of authority lost, of dominance hierarchies upended. It isn't a fear of equality between men and women, but a fear of a total reversal: If women wear trousers, will they act the same as we did? Will they misuse the power this would give them as some of us did? Will we then have to wear dresses? Will we have to serve the women who now wear the pants? These are the monsters of the night that are behind the leaflets in Kenya, that were behind the public eviction of a trouser-wearing woman in the eighteenth century Europe, and that tortured Daumier to draw pictures about them.

Well, we know now that the world doesn't tip over just because women wear pants. More's the pity in some ways. It would be great if women-in-pants would mean the end of bloody wars and greedy battles for power, hunger and pestilence and crooked politicians. But it doesn't work that way. All this development really tells us that women in some country are trying to gain a few more freedoms, to wear what they wish, perhaps to be safer at an assembly-line job or more practically dressed for farmwork.

But that women in trousers can still provoke the punishment of rape tells us that real equality of the sexes is still far in the future for many. Perhaps it won't really have arrived until everybody, male or female, can wear dresses, pants, shorts or burqas, and nobody else raises an eyebrow. Though right now I think that the day when the Devil will build an ice-skating rink may come a little sooner.
*I have lost the reference to this story which I had written down on an index card. It was in some book of European history. Sorry.
**Anne Higonnet: "Representations of Women" in A History of Women, Part Four, edited by Genevieve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot, 1993.