Sunday, May 15, 2011

Your dress is illegal (part II)

The "Part I" post from a few days ago got one single comment and now it has mysteriously disappeared.  Blogger has been acting up all week and now the only opinion offered about my previous post is gone.  Phooey.  The good news is, I can offer a very concise summary: he stated, very strongly, that J. Cumming's article was wrong.  He said that full-body coverings for women are degrading to them and to men, since it implies that men are incapable of controlling themselves if they catch sight of even a square inch of skin of a woman's body.

I happen to agree, so let's start there, then.

#1: Full body coverings objectify women. 

There are at least two meanings here.  First, that women's bodies are sexualized and therefore become, exclusively, objects of sexual attraction.  It is as if to say that her legs are not intended primarily for walking nor her hands for working, for carrying or writing or any number of other tasks.  No: the sight of skin is primarily sexually appealing.  Or perhaps more correctly, skin itself is, primarily, sexual.  Body=Sex.  If anything, I would think that concealing her figure might heighten the "mystique" of the feminine, and statistics have confirmed that completely hidden women are unfortunately not safer from sexual predators than women who don't. 

Secondly, that women's bodies become a source of socio-religious capital for their families is distressing to me.  According to this model, full covering = increased honor quotient for herself and family, while no covering = less honor. 

Third, a woman's body becomes a single man's possession: only a spouse will have the right to look at her body (her face, her skin, her everything).  Everyone else gets to see the general outline.  But wait, you say, not everyone else, right?  Surely she still has rights to at least look at her own body and other women will also be able to be in her company without her needing to cover up.  And that brings me to #2:

#2: Full body coverings sexualize all male-female relationships.

It is my understanding that in communities where women choose to (or are forced to) cover themselves up completely, they will do so in the presence of any male relative or stranger (if they are even permitted to be in the presence of a man who is not a relation).  This means: sisters in front of brothers and father, and mothers and grandmothers with their own sons and grandsons, nephews or great-grandsons.
But even when this is not the case, for a woman of any age to cover up anytime she walks outside her home means that any man (of any age) that she encounters could be tempted by her body.  And frankly, that is disturbing.

Let me pause here and say once again that I am not writing about the general issue of women's dress as compared to men's and whether or not women have a responsibility or duty to present their bodies modestly when in public.  That is a different topic and to me it seems much more complex.  In this series, I am only interested in whether or not it is harmful to society (not just to women, not just to men, but to everyone) to encourage or compel (post-pubescent) women of any age or state in life to completely cover themselves when in public--or in private, for that matter.  I believe it is.

It is especially degrading to married couples, so I will make that it's own bullet-point:

#3: Full-body coverings for-women-only devalues men's sexuality.

Not only does covering up a woman head to toe imply that men cannot, or should not have to, exercise self-control when attracted by a woman, but, worse, it over-values a woman's sexuality as opposed to a man's.  I mean: if the [sexual] purity of a woman's body is worth protecting and if their [sexual] honor is so valuable for a father, a brother, or her husband, why isn't a man's?  Is it because fidelity is less important for a man than a woman?  Another way to say it: if a man's honor rests so precariously on his wife's good name, why isn't his body considered just as precious to her reputation?  Or in other words, it points to that inequality the French brought up.  Is it really marriage between a man and a woman, where a couple is formed?  Or is it that a man is "taking a woman as his wife" (language that makes me shudder whenever I hear it)? 

#4: Full-body coverings contribute to alienation between the sexes.

The material cloth that drapes a woman's body serves as a physical barrier between an individual woman and any male onlooker.  It is not only her distinctly feminine parts which are covered with special care, but every single part of her.  This is not a practice that encourages public exchange, dialogue or communion between men and women, but one designed to shield women from men and men from women.  As a material barrier, it is only reasonable to assume that it will likely only increase isolation between men and women rather than serve to foster intimacy or mutual understanding between the sexes, and especially within a marriage.  Should we conclude that honor is valued more highly than marital communion?

I realize that some will disagree with this point perhaps more than others.  There are people who oppose France's law for this very reason: to wear a covering is a woman's only chance to have any kind of public existence.  It is the only way that she can, in good conscience (or according to the rule of her religion, as she interprets it), appear outside the safety of the home.  Without the freedom to cover up, she would have no public life whatsoever and less liberty to interact with others outside her family unit.

And I just want to ask, Why?  Which brings me to my final objection:

#5. Full-body coverings are just plain unncessary (and in certain climates they might even be cruel!)

There is just something inherently unnatural about covering oneself up entirely.  It is impractical to walk in, it is unnecessarily zealous, it does not ensure a woman's safety, and outside of an ice or sand storm, the outfit makes no sense at all.  Why not wear a headscarf, or a long skirt, or whatever else you want if modesty is your greatest concern? 

The truth is, I believe that it coverings are actually harmful, and not neutral.  I think we can all agree that clothing can be a reflection of the inherent dignity and value of a woman's body and person.  That's what fashion and personal style are all about, right?--showing off your individual creativity (for men, and women).  But clothing does not confer dignity.  I have a big problem with women's bodies being the main point of focus for dignity or honor.   Doesn't a woman's (and man's, for that matter) entire person have inherent and sufficient dignity?  And if we believe in the unity of person and body, then why cover up?  I simply object to the implicit or explicit notion that a woman who does not cover up is somehow lacking in self-respect. 

A woman is precious not just because of what she thinks or does or believes, and not only because of her relationship to certain others (such as parents or spouse or inlaws).  A woman is not just a wife or mother or sister.  She is all those things even though she is first of all an individual person with her own rights, inherent dignity, talents and gifts.  Clothing neither adds to nor dimishes any of these elements of her personality or uniqueness, though it might reflect them.  I simply have a hard time believing that a woman requires an extreme and impractical mode of dress such as a burka to be modest.  I disagree that men need their wives or sisters or mothers or aunts to distinguish themselves by being "extra" modest, let alone the notion that full-covering be a minimum requirement for minimum modesty. 

None of this is, to me, a question of cultural relativity because it is simply so very extreme and because it singles one half of the population and not the other.


Standing next to women while in Malaysia who were covered from head-to-toe, a feeling of revulsion for the clothing (not the women!) came over me more than once.  To me, no style of dress symbolized the alienation of men from women that we currently struggle with in today's world more than this cloth. 

But it wasn't all bad. As I spent time thinking about women robed in black and for all intents, concealed from society's intrusive view, I couldn't help but appreciate how these coverings point to the very public dimensions of sexual behavior.  The act of sex is private in one sense, and yet also very public.  Ideally, in a perfect world, we wouldn't have to wear anything at all; we wouldn't have to conceal anything.  Ideally, we could all, men and women alike, truthfully say, "I've got nothing to hide!"

[I just re-read this post and realized something.  I was going to add a note mentioning that, besides ultra-conservative Muslim ones, I don't know of any other communities where women shield themselves almost completely from view, but then I thought: hey, some Catholic religious do!  So let me point out a few differences.  First of all, I don't know any nuns who wear netting over their faces; usually you can see the entire face.  Secondly, nuns are not married and they are not going about "life as usual."  Their clothing is a designation of a life set apart from that of others.  Third: this rule often applies to men and some male orders also wear long and impractical-to-walk-in robes.  Some of them even do their gardening in these robes, which I guess is for extra penance or something.  But again, I can't think of any religious who cover up entirely.  Anyone have thoughts on this?]


  1. I am still not sure what to say about the actual points in your post. I basically both think and feel the same way (I was shocked by my internal reaction last summer when we moved to an area where I now see Muslim women fully covered, as opposed to my previous exposure to women who practiced hijab without covering their faces) but I have a vague uneasiness that my view is somehow *wrong*.

    But regarding your note: I think that there is all the difference in the world between covering the face and not covering the face. Monks and nuns who wear the most impractical of habits are often cloistered, and for those religious who wear robes in public, their clothing does not merely say "you individual person may not possess me sexually" it says that they belong to God alone, and thus are giving themselves to everyone in a different way.

  2. Rae, I would love to hear more of your thoughts on this. It is funny that you mentioned feeling uneasy because I have felt the same thing.

    Also, the point you bring up about robed religious is a good one because I think that many Muslims feel that it is exactly what full coverings for women signify: a spiritual identity more than a social one. But I happen to disagree precisely because these women are living regular lives as laypersons and are not part of a specially-consecrated community who are set apart in a particular way. They are robed and their faces are covered because they are women and not men.

  3. It is difficult to comment because I find myself nodding along to all of the points, without having anything to add.

    In theory I think we should very much defend the rights of others to do as they believe religiously necessary - especially because we as Dhristians want the right to worship as we see fit. Not to get all post modern, but it is very subjective. The people in power decide what is right, more often than not. In the western world it is the "christian" majority who decides

    Interesting that you bring up religious orders. In Mexico it was during my lifetime that nuns and priests were allowed to wear full habit out in public. It was against the law previously - not for the issues you bring up here - but as a result of a Marxist government, the Cristero war and a whole bunch of other shenanigans. I remember the first time I saw a nun in full habit walking down a street, it was shocking! Of course my attitudes were different then (protestant missionary child in a catholic country), but never the less it was shocking to see someone all decked out in full religious gear.

    Unfortunately, I feel a full body covering ONLY for women demeans, more than sets apart. When we focus solely on one set of people, something that begins even "for their protection" goes bad very quickly. Brown eye/blue eye experiment, anyone? When you separate a group, for no matter what reason, it is too easy to forget their humanity.

  4. And are you gone completely from FB? I just answered your (month old) letter with a big, long essay and it wouldn't send. In fact my letter disappeared. I will now go tear my hair out.

  5. Oh, no, Kris! I can't believe that happened the second after I deactivated myself from fbk (might be temporary might not, I haven't decided). I am so sorry. You have my email, right?

  6. i'm curious to know what women who wear the full coverings are saying about the issue. where can i find this?

  7. hmm, i just read it a couple more times. layered.

  8. more Leia, more! Please.

    I'll work on finding some links for ya.