The politics of women’s clothing: slut-shaming, harassment & punishment

The politics of women’s clothing

women's clothing
Last month I wrote about the Iranian law which requires women to wear head coverings, and it got me thinking.

Globally, daily, women are still subject to victim-blaming, criticism, slut-shaming, harassment and even punishment for the clothes they wear.

In Western culture, girls’ clothing is created to mimic women’s trends and often have ‘sexualising features’, including emphasising ‘sexualised body parts’, teaching them from a young age that their body’s worth is down to how appealing they look.

A study in 1998 proved a correlation between ‘self-objectification and shame and anxiety in girls’ in which young students were made to complete a maths test while either wearing swimsuits or sweaters.

Even though each group took the test in separate rooms, girls wearing swimsuits performed worse than the girls in sweaters. Results among the cohort of boys, however, showed no difference in performance regardless of their attire.

The objectification of girls’ clothing has pervaded school systems, with most schools observing a dress code that outlines how students should dress.

Some school uniforms, like those at private girls’ schools, reinforce gendered behaviour.

Wearing dresses or skirts except for sports classes limits girls’ physical capabilities and participation in certain activities, instead teaching them to be conscious of their movements to mitigate the risk of ‘indecent exposure’.

At schools with dress codes, clothing restrictions disproportionately impact girls and other marginalised students, and are often predicated on ‘not distracting’ male students.

Commonly banned girls’ clothing, like spaghetti straps, short shorts and crop tops is demonstrative of the way in which girls are punished for our broader cultural propensity to ‘shame’ and sexualise their bodies and clothes.

(And, even though girls’ clothes are largely modelled on women’s trends, we blame innocent students for subscribing to trends that are specifically marketed to them rather than challenging the sexualisation of young girls’ bodies.)

Some concerned parents who challenged their children’s school’s dress code have drawn similarities between the onus placed on girl students to avoid attracting male attention and the way in which we victim blame survivors of sexual assault for dressing provocatively.

It’s a sorely misinformed belief. But it’s still part of our response to incidents of sexual assault in virtually every corner of the globe.

In 2017, many women attending new year’s celebrations at the club district in Bangalore, India were victims of a ‘mass molestation’.

Dr, G Parameshwara, the then Karnataka State Home Minister, suggested the incident was inevitable because of the women’s behaviour and clothing on the night:

“They tried to copy the Westerners, not only in their mindset but even in their dressing… So some disturbance, some girls are harassed, these kinds of things do happen.”

In 2011, a personal safety talk at a university by local Toronto police officer Michael Sanguinetti prompted the inception of SlutWalk, a now-international march held annually challenging rape, slut-shaming and victim-blaming cultures.

“I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.”

A 2017 art exhibition held at the University of Kansas takes aim at the myth that a woman’s clothing plays a role in sexual assault.

What were you wearing?” highlights the absurdity of the link between clothing and a person’s likelihood to be sexually assaulted, displaying 18 victims’ outfits at the time of their sexual assault, from cargo shorts and sportswear to a 6-year-old’s sundress.

In other countries, women are subject to strict dress codes in their everyday lives.

In Iran, morality police’s primary objective is to target women who defy the law to wear a hijab.

An incident captured on videophone earlier this year shows onlookers rescuing two women from being forced into a morality police van for refusing to wear head coverings by removing the van’s windows and sliding door.

But what about our lack of acceptance for Muslim women’s veils and garments in other parts of the world?

France introduced a ‘veil law’ in 2004, banning Muslim women from attending school wearing a hijab.

This was followed up by a law passed in 2010 banning women from wearing a niqab (full face veil) anywhere in public, even though ‘at the time there were only 367 women in the entire country that wore such attire’.

Then, in 2016, several seaside towns along France’s Riviera coastline escalated tensions by introducing local by-laws banning Muslim women from wearing burkinis, a swimsuit that includes leggings, a long-sleeved top and built-in hijab.

(The burkini ban was later overturned by the State Council, which ruled that such a ban constituted a ‘serious and manifestly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms’.)

The overarching justification for these laws has always been about protecting the secularisation of French life, but the UN has repeatedly criticised France’s anti-veil laws for unfairly targeting Muslim women and fostering a culture of Islamophobia.

Indeed, laws that ban visibly Muslim garments, like hijabs, niqabs and burkinis are just as oppressive as laws that enforce them.

The politics of women’s clothing have a long and complicated history, but an overarching trend is always the way they are used to control and vilify women for their choices.

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