Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Clothes Women Wear

Are political in this world. They are not only about convenience, comfort and individual ideas of beauty; they are also about sexuality and the control of the society in general. And about religion.

An odd juxtaposition took place quite recently in my mind. It started with a piece of news from the United Kingdom about an American Muslim woman, Manal Omar, whose five-piece Muslim bathing costume caused difficulties at a pool in Oxford. Another swimmer complained about "inappropriate attire" and an altercation ensued. Omar was allowed to continue swimming in her costume, but the whole thing was written up in the press and an Internet debate began. Omar writes about it:

Needless to say, I was shocked to find out a week later that my swimming habits had caused not only a "row", but a huge online debate. Perhaps the most daunting part of the experience was the strong reactions from those who read the article. It was the website's "most viewed article" even two weeks after the incident. The comments ranged from attacks on me (from both Muslims and non-Muslims) to full xenophobic attacks on all immigrants in Europe. At no point did any of the readers question Caldwell's version of events; nor did the majority of readers question his motivation for highlighting the issue. There was a blind acceptance that some random Muslim woman had done something, as one commentator described it, "a bit stupid". British Muslims piped up in apologetic tones, and everyone else openly attacked.

My routine visit to the gym had suddenly sparked a crisis: it was all about immigration, asylum! As one person commented, "This multicultural society is now becoming a multidirectional mess." Another commentator went as far as to write, "All the time people seem to be burying their heads in the sand and allowing our once great country to be taken over by others. I hope you one day will wake up when all our beautiful churches are being demolished and mosques built in their place." A tad drastic for a woman taking a swim, don't you think? (Mind you, it's all relative. I had one email from a woman in Sweden saying she found it disgusting that people in Britain went swimming wearing any clothing at all.)

Although Omar's point about the exaggerated response to her choice of a swimming costume is correct, it is also true that women's clothes are seen in that wider way: as messages about the society, about religion and about sexuality. Something to be controlled and not necessarily by the woman herself.

An example of this, and the second part in the odd juxtaposition comes from Iran, where the usual spring-time tightening of the dress code is in operation:

With the arrival of spring, Iranian police have launched a crackdown against women accused of not covering up enough, arresting nearly 300 women, some for wearing too tight an overcoat or letting too much hair peek out from under their veil, authorities said Monday.

The campaign in the streets of major cities is the toughest such crackdown in nearly two decades, raising fears that hard-liner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intends to re-impose the tough Islamic Revolution-era constraints on women's dress that had loosened in recent years.

The move highlighted the new boldness among hard-liners in Ahmadinejad's government, which has used mounting Western pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program and Iraq as a pretext to put down internal dissent.

But it could bring a backlash at a time when many Iranians resent Ahmadinejad for failing to boost the faltering economy or halt spiraling prices and blame him for isolating Iran with his fiery rhetoric. The two-day-old crackdown was already angering moderates.

"What they do is really insulting. You simply can't tell people what to wear. They don't understand that use of force only brings hatred toward them, not love," said Elham Mohammadi, a 23-year-old student.

Mohammadi's hair was hardly hidden by her white and orange headscarf _ an infraction that could bring police attention. Police could be seen Monday stopping and giving warnings to other women who were showing too much hair or even wearing too colorful a headscarf.

Both these cases are about what women wear, and both of them assign societal meaning to what women wear.

There are differences, too, and they are extremely important. The Iranian restrictions apply to all women and have the power to imprison and punish behind them, whereas in the British case the woman was not formally sanctioned and indeed prevailed. I personally prefer the British outcome. But in both cases it is the symbolic role of women that stands in the forefront and the right of those seeing her to decide what her clothing might mean.