"I don't think that being a strong person is about ignoring your emotions and fighting your feelings. Putting on a brave face doesn't mean you're a brave person. That's why everybody in my life knows everything that I'm going through. I can't hide anything from them. People need to realise that being open isn't the same as being weak."

- Taylor Swift

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Now Playing: Limbo by Kimbra (if you say you're scared then I'm terrified, if you say you're ready then I'm justified, if you say it's easy then you've crossed the line, if you say it's over then I'm in denial)

I've never been one particularly interested in fashion, but uni has presented for the first time since I was five years old the opportunity to wear pretty much whatever I like, every single day.

And so, of course, I've totally gone to town on this. Floaty sundresses and vintage skirts. Fluffy blouses and bright floral prints. Waist-cinching elastic belts (I've already destroyed several with constant use and abuse) and impractical shoes.

I have never seen any contradiction, or even any correlation, between what I choose to wear and my beliefs as a sex positive feminist and LGBT ally. I wear what I think looks nice, and what looks good on me. I believe in what I believe to be right. That's all there is, really.

I also believe that how I choose to present myself is no grounds to treat me with disrespect, and nothing I can say or do can excuse crimes against me. You can't judge anything about anyone based on what they look like - you can't tell me anything about my sexuality, my sex life, my intelligence, my interests, my hobbies, you probably can't even guess my uni majors just by the colour of my blouse. The most you can do is...guess. And yes, your guesses that I love dresses and shoes that twist my ankle are probably true. You could also guess, given my general preference for low necklines and bare arms in summer, that I'm a pretty open person, and I'm not at all revolted or afraid of human sexuality, least of all my own. But these are just guesses. You can't call me a ditz for wearing impractical footwear, because what you don't know is that my sandles were broken and I was in a hurry. You also can't assume that I'll accept your advances and I'm playing the cock-tease femme fatale if I reject you, because what you don't know is that I'm a virgin, and as of right now very hurt and a little bitter towards love and other animals. These are all things I know, and my friends know. These are all things random strangers would use to be cruel to me, to bully me, to whistle at me like a dog, maybe even to rape me. It is my right to wear what I want and present myself how I like. It is your right to make as many whimsical guesses about my inner workings based on my wardrobe. It is not your right to treat me with anything less than the utmost respect every human being who walks this earth deserves to receive.

What I do know, though, that the clothes I wear echo times of hostility, violence and suppression. I have learned, like most girls my age, to deal with the discomfort of bras (even if I only wear exactly one kind of bra that I have in about fifty colours, and all of them a few sizes too big). I have learned to see skirts as enabling mobility and freedom as well as femininity and style. I have learned to endure the dramas of smudged makeup and tightly-laced ballgowns and every bruise and blister from absurd footwear. But when push comes to shove, the 50s sillhouettes I love are the prison uniforms of women confined to house and home, the vintage skirts were sewn by underpaid overworked women from a time when contraception was largely unavailable, and the fluffy blouses from a time when women like me were beaten and force-fed in prisons. I know the things that make me pretty are the symbols of female disempowerment. I also know the attitudes that consider me to be pretty come from a fiercely patriarchal rape culture in which there is an absurd emphasis on female beauty, where one's weight and waistline is the only measure of your worth as a human being.

I know all of this, but I have no qualms in wearing this and being a feminist all at once. I am more than what I wear. My right to wear whatever I damn want is something women have lived and died for - Joan of Arc wasn't actually burned for heresy (that sentence was commuted to life in prison), but because she wore men's clothes. I also hold, by wearing this, that I am more than what I look like -  men are judged by their talents and by their brains; and, goddamnit, so will I. To dress as some angry millitant butch would go against my personality and my personal taste, and because it is not really me, I'll simply be adhering to another harmful stereotype about feminism perpertrated by patriarchy. I am who I am, and I think what I think.

But I have struggled, enormously, in trying to apply this thinking to girls in traditional Muslim dress. For all my religious tolerance and belief in religious freedom, I can't do it. When I see a girl in Islamic headgear all I can think of is the sexism and suppression of women in Islamic societies.

Let me get one thing straight - I am not being racist, or discriminatory. The fact is, the Middle East is a dangerous place for women. The Taliban, laws that require the victim as well as the perpetrator of rapes to be punished, children sold as brides, excessive sex negativity, the inferior status of women in society...this is all part of Islam whether saying that is politically correct or not. It can also be said for many religions, especially the more conservative, extreme ends of the Abrahamic ones. To say that Islam is a religion of peace and equality is a lie; I have read parts of the Qu'ran, I have done my research. Without reform religion is a major perpetetrator of sex negativity and the discrimination and suppression of women.

And that is what I see, when I see a woman wearing an Islamic headdress. It does not mean I treat her any differently, or with any less respect. It means that I will defend a woman's right to wear a burqa and I will not tolerate hate speech against any religion. But I see, in the long shapeless drapes of cloth, a culture in which sexuality is a taboo that negatively impacts on people of all races and genders. I see the people of countries in which homosexuality and premarital sex is illegal and contraception is virtually nonexistant. I see the people of places where crazed religious extremists preach that women who dress provocatively are 'inviting' rape, that immodestly dressed women 'cause earthquakes and corrupt men', and that sexuality, especially female sexuality, is a sin. I see in religion the thousands of instances where women are disrespected, abused and killed simply for being women. As a feminist, I will fight for your right to wear whatever you like. But as a feminist, I wish you wouldn't wear that.

I know this all seems culturally insensitive, but cultural insensitivity is always seen as a very one sided thing. You must also see my point of view. I was raised by my parents to let the best parts of you shine and stand out - your talents, your virtues, and yes, your body. I grew up knowing that confidence is about letting people see you, scars and all, and there's nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to cover up. People have tried to knock that out of me but I have stood tall and firm in this. I've been to Turkey and Malaysia and the need to cover up, to hide myself and my beauty, was incredibly disempowering for me, and it was insulting to know that people in these societies were judging me based on what I wear.

My objection here is also to the thinking that goes behind this - the idea that there is something wrong about the female body, that female purity is something to be revered above and beyond the value of the female herself, that something so natural and intrinsic to yourself must be covered in the name of decency, that self-censorship is a healthy way to think about yourself. Covering up doesn't give you a moral highground. Virginity is a state of being, not something to be worshipped and not a posession belonging to one man and you must be punished for if it is lost. I don't want these women to think any less of me because I don't cover up; I don't like being judged by a culture whos core ideology is totally at odds with mine. The idea that something is obscene about your body and mine deeply saddens me, because so many people have sufferred under such poisonous thinking. The idea that not adhering to these extremely sex-negative rules invites rape and assault is disgusting.

My qualms on this topic, by the way, are by no means focused purely on Islam. As an atheist and as a sex-positive feminist I object to nearly all major religions, because of the sexism and sex negativity that manifests in many ways. Religious freedom is all well and good, but when religion infringes on sexual agency and reproductive rights, I can't go along with political correctness anymore. There is a war on religious freedom, through hate speech and intolerance. Theists hate atheists, and theists hate each other, we all know that. But there is a greater, and more devastating, war on gender, and war on sex, that is attacking from all sides. As an atheist, I will not take sides in religion. But as a feminist, I know which battle I'm fighting and which side I'm on.

Despite everything, though, I cannot help but feel a little hypocritical. Aren't my pretty dresses and low necklines just as sexist and patriarchal as a burqa? Yes. Isn't it my right to not be judged by my appearances? Yes. And it is yours too, no matter what you wear. But I put up this feeble defence; I am proud of how I look. I am proud of my body and what it can do. I am in awe of the way my body heals and grows, I am in awe of the pleasure my body is capable of experiencing, I am in awe of the beautiful and empowering capability of my body to bear and nourish children. By dressing how I do instead of covering up in thick layers like I did before I have freed myself from the insecurities that caged me when I was younger, and from the sex negativity that poisoned my mind with deep shame and self-loathing. I cannot see this empowerment in garments that are worn in accordance to a religion that preaches that sexuality can only be indulged in very specific circumstances, sexual agency is a sin and not adhering to the sexual standards of society is a crime and invites crime. Perhaps I am right; perhaps I do not have the wisdom to see beyond my own point of view. All I know is that what I wear, regardless of what it may represents to some people, represents sex positivity and freedom. Can you say that about how you choose to present yourself to the world, whoever you are, whatever  you wear?

I will defend anyone's right to be free to choose what to do with their lives, how to dress their person, how to think and feel and believe. But I hope you will understand, from one woman to another, that although I can respect your religion I cannot ignore facts, I cannot ignore the obvious. I know a violent religion when I see one, I know an oppressive culture when I see one. Whether your life is different or you haven't directly sufferred the consequences of this is of no matter; culture and society is not about the individual, or the individuals who are lucky to live life uninhibited by the rules that suffocates the rest of us. In my work as a blogger, a social activist and an outspoken feminist, I have seen firsthand how patriarchy and religion has damaged so many lives, and so many societies and societal dress codes, including Islam, is both patriarchal and religious. Have we become so God-fearing that we fear ourselves and what we can do?

Let's begin the debate. If you have a different point of view I'd love to know. How do you dress? Why do you dress like that? Do you think how you dress inhibits sex positivity and feminism? What are your views on women who dress differently to you?


slippi said...

muslim women have their own agency and they can interpret their own religion for themselves. muslim women do not need "saving" from other women or men who do not understand what it is to be a muslim woman. it is not your place to decide what's best for muslim women and it's not your place to decide what does or does not oppress muslim women when you are not one yourself.

Lady Starlight said...

I am sorry that you appear to be offended by my thoughts in this blog post. I clearly state that I support religious freedom and the right to do and wear whatever you like, I was simply discussing different motives and how these intersect and clash with other values held by society. I'm not deciding what's best for Muslim women at all and it would be a sad day if ever the Islamic culture was to vanish entirely.

But I do think it is my place to decide what does and does not oppress women. As a feminist it is my work to discuss and promote awareness to issues such as discrimination against women, violence against women, gendercide and other issues, many of which are based in religion.

slippi said...

this is not about "what does and does not oppress women" though
because those who wear the hijab or other islamic headdresses are not just women, they are muslim women, their religious identity intersects with their identity as a women and the two can not be separated
a muslim women faces different oppression than non-muslim women
okay here's an example
you wouldn't let a man tell you how sexism works because he would never have and never will experience sexism and does not understand what it is to be a woman
similarly, a non-muslim woman can not tell a muslim woman how their oppression works because a non-muslim women will never be oppressed as a muslim woman and will never understand it

i suggest reading feminist literature about intersectionality
i think an important part of feminism is understanding that not every battle is your own and not every experience is your own

Lady Starlight said...

I would definitely ask a man about sexism! Sexism is not purely aimed at women, and even if a man had not experienced sexism first hand he'd certainly have an opinion on it.

I have discussed on many occasions the topic of 'what does and does not suppress women'. This is just one of those many topics. I have always found it astounding that people have used religion to hide behind, when in reality this argument is no different to any other I have presented. It's about agency, autonomy and choice. I have never disputed that religion can be a choice, but it can also not be disputed that religion sometimes is not a choice.

Perhaps I will never fully understand this issue. I have admitted that. Nobody really understands anything. But I will not have my views and my opinions discredited and I will not be silenced in this discussion because I present my argument as an atheist woman and not a Muslim one. When it comes to discussing secularism nobody would dare tell a Muslim woman that she doesn't know what she's talking about.

Adelaide Dupont said...

Hello Lady Starlight:

Here are the four questions that you asked.

Come see my wardrobe some time.

"How do you dress?"

Varies on the seasons, the conditions, how my body is feeling that day, and my mind and emotions. I am wearing an orange T-shirt which I won as a prize; black exercise pants and white tennis shoes which are light on my feet and suitable for adventures, though not for heavy walking.

"Why do you dress like that?"

Because I feel fit and strong; because it's ethical and not harsh on the environment. These are congruent with some fairly central values of mine. And because I love orange and black.

"Do you think how you dress inhibits sex positivity and feminism?"

Given that sex positivity encourages various means of expression and communication and tends to minimise judgement, I feel like I'm contributing to a safe and equal world.

In as far as agency and autonomy are promoted ...

And given that you [Starlight] said about "Women who have lived and died to be free to wear what they wear" ...

"What are your views on women who dress differently to you?"

I try to get a sense of the shape and profile and how they may feel. Some feelings I have are probably: enlightened, inspired, confused. When I see that another woman has really thought about what she has worn and why she is wearing it ... Clothes are a tool, and many religions and philosophies do recognise this - as of course do various manifestations of culture and society.

Something about distraction and competence needs to go here. (It's definitely a consideration!)

* * *

Another intersection to think about, especially among a variety of people.


One oppression/suppression that I fought against in my own life is the one about being "age-appropriate". And it's a battle I may or may not fight all my life - even though the shape and the thrust of the battle changes over time.

And clothes are a really good way to reflect changes in status and in your own life. I do not necessarily dress as I did when I was a teenager and a student.

I like to think of tools and symbols. Many of my understandings of symbolism come from the sporting world, as well as maritime.

Belonging and significance.

And a big issue is "self-censorship as health". I like to think that health is a central motif in my substance and style. So things like posture and stance do matter. Though this can be taken too far, feeling like a "rack".

Respect is also pretty big, especially for history and experience.

Another time I might wear a "learning" uniform/outfit.