The Grand Cover-up
In Afghanistan today, a woman is considered provocative if the wind blows her skirt above her ankle, and the price for such “lewdness” is acid thrown in her face. The fact is women have been covering up for men’s indecency for millennia, hiding our own bodies in deference to men’s claim on our very own flesh.
By Jewish and Islamic laws, both time-honored ancient traditions, women must dress “modestly.” By Jewish law, the woman’s entire body must be covered. By Islamic law, her head must also be covered, and by some interpretations, her face as well. Ask any religious individual from either tradition, and you probably will hear the reason is to protect girls and women from harm. I am less familiar with Islam than with Judaism, but it seems to me the assumption in both traditions is that men have uncontrollable sexual urges and that if women reveal any part of their bodies, men will be tempted to rape or otherwise molest the women.
One might think that mainstream American society does not follow these codes, given the female flesh we see plastered around us. I contest, however, that we do: When female flesh is visible, it is “exposed,” “revealed,” as if it were something to be hidden; as if its very visibility were an invitation for male sexual consumption. Whereas Jewish and Islamic traditions seek to protect women from this consumption, American society encourages women to be its recipients. As far as I’m concerned, that’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Nowhere have I seen a mass movement of men reworking their relationship to the female body, spirit, and will. Nowhere have I seen mainstream society assuming that if a woman wants sexual attention, she’ll actively initiate it herself. Nowhere have I seen a heterosexual landscape where men respond to women’s breasts as they respond to our hands — sexual only when we ourselves infuse them with that energy and intention.
A friend of mine recently transitioned from female to male. I asked her why. One of her reasons was that she wanted to run around without her shirt on, whenever she felt like it. That statement really impacted me. Must women risk dangerous operations and undergo sexual identity changes, just to run around peacefully with our shirts off?
When I was a little girl, my standard attire was a hat and boots. Period. When I turned three, my mom made me wear clothes. I resisted at first but eventually gave in. Only nineteen years later did I ever again take my shirt off outside. One bright, sunny day in Los Angeles, I was possessed by the screaming desire to have the sun rays on my chest. I suddenly felt imprisoned by my shirt ˆ wearing it was not an option; rather, it was an obligation, a purported protection from men’s verbal, visual, and physical assault.
Sitting in a field adjacent to the parking lot of my dorm room, I scanned the area to see if anyone was within visible distance. Convinced I was safe, I raised my arms and pulled the shirt over my head. I did not expect the feeling of power and glory that washed through me. “This is what guys get to feel every day,” I thought. “We women are stripped of this amazing connection to our universe.” The difference in stature of how men and women carry themselves — the more powerful way men seem to take up space with their chests — suddenly made sense. I wanted that feeling and that space. I wanted to always have the sense of aliveness I was experiencing in that moment.
Eventually, I did put my shirt back on and return to my dorm room. But the powerful feeling in and about my chest stayed with me and changed me forever.
The construction worker I passed the other day had his pants halfway down his exposed butt. I didn’t see anyone ogling him. The teenage boy I passed another time had his jeans belted at the bottom of his butt, exposing all of his contoured underwear as he walked down the pedestrian path. Nobody grabbed his ass. The guy I passed peeing at the tree didn’t have a group of women gathering around him, trying to “get some.” And the man in the ball-bulging bikini number at the beach wasn’t invaded by women’s whistles and stares. So why must I choose between my physical and emotional comfort, whether I choose to wear a t-shirt, a bikini top, or no shirt at all? If a man practices neither the discipline nor the respect to control his gaze or his tongue, who is truly the indecent one who should expect the consequences?
While Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel about 50 years ago, either the incidence or the report of rape increased. The men of the cabinet suggested an 8:00 PM curfew on girls and women, to protect all females. “But gentlemen,” Golda Meir countered, “It’s the men who are doing the raping. If there is going to be a curfew, let it be on them.”
In the year 2000 in America, our social mores and laws protect and endorse men’s “right” to leer at women. I propose that if women are truly to liberate our bodies and our clothing options, we must scrutinize and redo our laws. We must make men take responsibility for their behavior. We must create stricter anti-harassment laws, recognizing the damaging impact of visual and verbal assault and endorsing a woman’s right to physically defend herself against it.
Two assholes recently wrote The Natural History of Rape. They’re on the talk show circuit now; it’s all the rage. The main thesis seems to be that men rape – always have, always will – so cover it up, ladies! I emailed both of them promptly: “If men’s natural inclination is to rape,” I advised, “then the entire male species is utterly useless to women and needs to be exterminated. Thanks for the motivating force.”
The issue of women’s dress is an issue of power in religious and secular circles, in the Middle East and the United States. Until women can wear not only what we choose to wear but also define the significance of dress for ourselves and walk down the street in peace, the politics of our clothing are just a grand cover-up for the same old, tired codes of patriarchal domination.
© 2000 by Loolwa Khazzoom.