Tuesday, July 11, 2006

What Not to Wear?

There is a mini debate starting to boil over in the letters section of the Independent (I know, I should stop buying it). The argument is about Muslim women who wear various forms of veil/covering dress.

There are those who are arguing against women wearing full or part burqa in Britain; they say it demeans women and oppresses them. They say that there is no place in this country for such control over women's dress and behaviour. I agree.

There are those who argue FOR the veil, jilbab, burqa etc. saying that the type of dress commands respect and makes women safer from some forms of abuse. That may well be true.

There are those that have said that the sight of a veiled woman is much less degrading to women and less offensive in general than the sight of a half-naked, drunken woman staggering the streets. This is just reactionary; I think that its too easy to put these two particular images in direct opposition, as if women are necessarily either one thing or the other, but that's another argument.

Here's what I think: I don't think it is freedom when women are routinely wearing lashings of make-up, starving themselves, shaving themselves, sticking on long false nails and pouring chemicals on their head. To me, it all amounts to much the same thing as purdah: women have to mask their real appearance before they go out in public. It is wrong to think that women in Britain have a free choice about how we dress; we might THINK that we are free to choose but we all know that we have been socially and culturally coerced into thinking about body and dress the way that we do. It's become just too easy to point to Muslim traditions and criticize, all the while feeling smug about alleged Western freedoms.

I wanted to go out to the shops today wearing my khaki shorts and a t-shirt. It took me over half an hour to decide whether or not it would be A) appropriate for a woman of my size and B) worth the harassment that goes along with it. I decided that the answer was yes in both cases. I am determined to make actual choices about my clothes. I am utterly sick of being told what to wear and how to wear it. I want to control my own appearance and identity. It's a lot to ask.

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