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How Should Society View a Woman’s Body?

There is something seriously wrong with a society that frowns upon public breastfeeding, yet is fine with public urination by men.

Making a decidedly strong statement against body-shaming and asserting that girls are not a distraction, no matter what they wear, Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) in California has taken a radical approach by adopting a new dress code. According to the revised policies, students must still wear “bottoms, tops, shoes and clothing that covers genitals, buttocks, and areolae/nipples with opaque material.” The code also bars clothing that depicts violent images, profane or pornographic material, hate speech or drugs. But changes to the dress code allow students complete freedom to wear what they want and feel comfortable in. This new policy is in a pilot phase for the 2018-19 academic year.

The AUSD’s experimental dress code is based on the work done in 2016 by the Oregon chapter of National Organization for Women (NOW). Its model student dress code embodies the principle “dress codes should support equitable educational access and should not reinforce gender stereotypes.” NOW’s code also outlines how administrative enforcement ought to be done without body-shaming or oppression of anyone “based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, household income, gender identity or cultural observance.”

Historically, school dress codes have impacted girls and gender expansive students in a disproportionately higher number compared to boys. A CNN article on body-shaming mentions several stories of insensitive treatment young girls have been subjected to in the name of infractions on dress code. A 15-year-old was given detention because her shorts were too short; her teacher went as far as saying that her dress was too suggestive and that “she was asking for it.” A 9-year-old wearing a tank top on a 99°F day was reprimanded for violating the school dress code. A 13-year-old was told that she could not wear yoga pants because boys would get turned on and be embarrassed.

Authored by Men

Enforcement of these male chauvinistic dress codes is, at best, arbitrary. A tall girl with long hands or fingers would fail the test where the length of her shorts or dress has to be longer than the fingertips when the arms are held at the sides. A girl with a developed body is likely to get in trouble for wearing a top showing some cleavage, whereas a girl who is behind in her physiological development would get away with wearing the same kind of top. The Oregon NOW’s code specifically addresses the latter issue with the guideline “cleavage should not have any coverage requirement.” Yoga pants and other form fitting clothing are also considered kosher in NOW’s dress code.

The sexist nature of dress codes and their enforcement goes beyond the confines of high school, all the way into the courts of Grand Slam tennis. Men routinely change their shirts on court without facing any repercussions. On hot days, Novak Djokovic would even take off his shirt and sit in his chair during changeovers. Yet when French tennis player Alize Cornet took off her shirt that she had inadvertently worn inside out during a 2018 US Open first-round match, she was penalized with a code violation. Cornet realized that she had her shirt backward coming off a break and took it off only to correct the mistake. Facing criticism of their handling of the situation, US Tennis Association apologized to Cornet and clarified the rules around players changing their shirts on court.

Dress codes for women do not stop in schools and on tennis courts. They are present for women of all ages, especially in Eastern cultures. While the debate in the American school system is about form-fitting yoga pants or shorts that are too short, women are expected to dress modestly at all times in Islamic countries. Saudi Arabia has a formal dress code for women, requiring them to wear an abaya, a loose-fitting, full-length robe. By law, Sudanese women have to cover their body when in public. In many Muslim nations, women are required to wear a burqa, a niqab or other variants of garments that cover their entire body and often the face. Some women may wear these garments out of choice or on account of their religious beliefs. But a vast majority have to do it because it is expected of them culturally.

Western women have had more freedom when it comes to the amount of skin they can expose and still be considered properly attired in public. Yet whether it is East or West, whether it is Islam, Christianity or Hinduism that is the religion of the land, what is considered appropriate attire for women in public is dictated by rules that are written by men. By and large, the logic attributed to these social norms and dress codes stems from the philosophy that just being able to lay their eyes on certain parts of a woman’s body is reason enough for men to get turned on.

In an effort to keep their libido in check, appropriate dress and behavior codes have been authored by men, dictating what women can wear, how they ought to behave and conduct themselves in public. “In essence, the veil, much lauded by so-called Islamic teachings, is a protection for men against us voracious vixens of the mortal world. Not, as so many pundits state, a protection for women against men,” says  Jacqueline Pascarl in The Sydney Morning Herald article, “Burqas reveal more about men than women.”

The Myth of Protection

It is a myth that dressing modestly in a hijab or even more conservatively in a burqa will protect women from sexual objectification, harassment and assault. In this moving narrative, a young Afghan refugee in Pakistan walking to school with his sister who was wearing a burqa, describes how men made sexually derogatory comments about her that he was too young to even understand. The brother and sister were emotionally traumatized every day, and the only thing the girl could do was shed silent tears behind her veil, the boy feeling angry and helpless.

In Iran, wearing a hijab was not mandatory until the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Yet many women avoid even taking a walk alone for fear of being groped by the piercing eyes of men or hearing their catcalls and vulgar comments. A woman walking alone without male protection is “looking for it” and is open for hunting. “Should women just disappear?” asks an Iranian girl in this harrowing description of sexual objectification experienced by women on the streets of Tehran.

In an interview with The Independent, Muslim women have shared their personal stories of sexual assault despite dressing modestly. One woman mentions how she was raped even when wearing a hijab; another woman talks about having her crotch grabbed in a crowded public place even though she was wearing a niqab; a 16-year-old narrates her experience of being groped by a tailor under the pretext of taking measurements for her dress in the presence of her mother.

In the world’s most populous democracy, Indian women are routinely subjected to “eve-teasing,” a term specific to South Asia that denotes various kinds of sexual harassment women experience in public places irrespective of the way they dress, behave or look. Two popular dresses women wear in India, the sari and the salwar, are both on the conservative side. Yet that does not stop them from being subjected to sexual harassment, much along the lines of the experiences of Iranian women in Tehran.

Dressing modestly will not help women escape becoming an object of sexual gratification in the eyes and minds of men. In today’s society, men have established territorial ownership of public places. In a telling statement that public space is owned by men, and men alone, France, acknowledging that men have little control over their biological urges and urgencies, installed uritrottoirs in Paris.

Uritrottoirs are eco-friendly, open-air, completely exposed urinals installed on pavements in places with known public urination problems. Rather than question that if a woman can hold her bladder until she reaches a restroom to relieve herself, why can’t men do the same, Parisians have taken the route of installing the abhorrent pissoirs in their capital city. Not surprisingly, uritrottoirs have drawn flak from feminist protesters who call the decision to install them in public places sexist.

Too Much to Ask for?

There is something seriously wrong in a society that frowns upon public breastfeeding, yet is fine with public urination by men. It is bizarre that men can worship goddesses inside a temple, but resort to eve-teasing outside the temple boundaries.

Not everyone is likely to be behind NOW’s dress code for students in American public schools. Indeed, several men and women from different cultures would take serious offense at a dress code that condones ripped jeans, midriff-baring shirts and tank tops. They may feel that the reformist policies cross not just the limits of modesty, but also of decency.

Yet if we are to look deeper behind the rationale for the radical approach, it would become clear that NOW poses a profoundly perceptive question for us to ponder: How should society view a woman’s body? Are women just eye candy, meant for the gratification of men? Is a girl “asking for it” when she wears something that could potentially turn men on? Should she be required to wear a garment covering her entire body in the hope of avoiding sexual objectification by men?

“Just because I’m wearing this doesn’t mean that I want people to look at me sexually. I want to be seen as a woman. I don’t want to have to feel bad about my body,” says the 15-year-old who was disciplined for wearing shorts that were too short. Is that too much to ask for?

*[A version of this article was cross-posted on the author’s blog, PoliSocioNomics]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.