Dress and custom are ways we maintain boundaries or how we identify ourselves as being part of a certain group or community. I wear Converse with my bootleg jeans and grow out my grey hair because I want to be recognised as part of the alt-middle-age group (and not the M&S clothing demographic), Mods wear Docs with their fish-tale parkas, Sikhs wear turbans, priests wear dog collars and crosses, politicians are apparently obliged to wear a dark suit (if men) or plenty of chest-covering (if women), toddlers don’t generally wear business suits and business men don’t usually dress up in rompers and bootees (unless they are having some very special moments with grown up friends). Clothing is cultural, symbolic, loaded with meaning and a way of signalling your tribal alliances. It’s also a gender battlefield and deeply political.
For example, adherents of this religion must dress modestly, their heads must be covered at all times, knees and elbows should be concealed, fashionable or tight-fitting clothes are frowned upon. It’s terrible isn’t it, the strictures that Islam places on women? Except that it’s not Islam and it’s not women, these are the restrictions placed on some orthodox Jewish men.
It’s interesting to note however that no-one wants to rescue these men from the dress-code they live under, because they are men and if they decide to do something, it’s assumed that it’s their right to do so, and they have full agency. Muslim women who want to veil their heads are viewed as victims and oppressed, or foolish followers of male dictates – and in France at the moment, potential terrorists.
I hope I wasn’t the only one to be appalled at the pictures of four armed men obliging a lone woman to undress on a public beach. I assume that if you believe that these are foreigners who should observe our cultural norms, you would be happy to wear a hijab and face veil when you’re next in Dubai, and be happy if your grandma was forced at gunpoint to don a black robe over her one piece swimsuit on one of their public beaches? If you’re not, then darling, you’re a raving hypocrite. And an Islamophobe.
Oh, but of course, we only worry about women being oppressed by their clothes if they’re brown and foreign. If they’re white and young they might well be oppressed by various other strictures: skirt too short = slut, skirt to long = frump, too much make-up = slut, too little = lesbo, too much chest on view = slut, too much chest on view = breast feeding mother = feminazi, but this is just part of our cultural values that women have to negotiate and that, brother, is that.
I don’t think that those who have been cheering on the French authorities for clamping down on burkini’s are actually defending women, I think they’re other-ing Islamic people and going after an easy target, the dress that defines them as different, because if they were really and truly worried about women’s rights and freedoms they’d allow the women in question to wear EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANT.