Our world is a patriarchal structure, cut out perfectly for and by men. Most structures thrive off misogyny and patriarchy, growing off the backs of people from other genders. On one hand, misogyny dictates modesty and sexual repression, while also dictating sexual exposure and commodification. Both are the same things, just wrapped in different colored wrappers, simply catering to society’s needs. If society wants tradition and modesty, women are killed for having visible body parts, and transitioning gets banned.
If they want sexual pleasure and modernity, “sexual liberty” is framed solely as empowerment and empty representation is hailed.
Women are always told to dress or not dress in various structures. Their heads must be bent and covered, or not, depending on what they want. Lest they be removed from the rest of their bodies. Recently, the world is fighting for and mourning 22-year-old Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody after getting arrested for wearing an “improper hijab”.
What followed was a number of women ripping off and burning their hijabs in protest, cutting their hair and waving them as a gesture of protest. A number of girls like Hadis Najafi were shot during these protests. All for resisting a system that vests respect on a woman’s shoulders. These deaths have brought to focus how states regulate women’s clothing. And no, it’s not an “Islamic states” problem. This is not the first time that women have died fighting for a choice.
Before 2018, Saudi Arabia required women to dress ‘modestly’, and hence, tight-fitting clothes, sleeveless shirts, short dresses and see-through materials are not allowed. Oh dear, the calamity of seeing a woman’s silhouette. Men, on the other hand, can wear whatever they want as long as it hides their torsos and knees.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have ordered all women to cover their faces in public, taking away their right to travel long distances alone, work outside healthcare or education, and receive a secondary education. If their faces are seen in public, their male “guardian” gets fined and jailed. It was even suggested women should not leave their homes at all if possible, saying that was “the best option to observe the sharia hijab”, essentially imposing the extreme traditions of conservative parts of rural areas on all women.
#DoNotTouchMyClothes was the resistance adopted by Afghan women in response. They shared their pictures on social media, dressed in colorful and vibrant traditional Afghan attires, to protest.
This, however, has led to the “modern” section (with an underlayer of islamophobia), hailing similar barbaric rules like bans of religious expression.
More than six countries in Europe have banned the burka in public spaces, including Denmark, Bulgaria, Netherlands, Austria, and Belgium. In the Netherlands, the ban also applies to full-face helmets and balaclavas. France does not allow it in schools. In 2004, a French law prohibited donning religious symbols considered “conspicuous” in schools. France’s football federation does not allow hijab-wearing women to compete in the sport.
Around a decade ago an Australian woman of Lebanese origin created a swimsuit for Muslim women designed to permit them to keep their bodies covered while working as lifeguards on Australian beaches. Her design was dubbed the burkini or burqini.
The French, who famously ban baggy men’s swim trunks from their pools, also argue that excessively large women’s swimwear poses a similar risk to public hygiene. PM Manuel Valls said that burkinis represent the enslavement of women and put his opposition in the context of France’s promotion of women’s rights worldwide.
However, these countries are not the revolutionary feminist structures they think. Contrary to popular belief, it is not about the clothes themselves, it is about the freedom to choose.
Why does so much pleasure and tradition rest in not letting women be whomever they want? Or even, letting people who don’t identify as women be who they are? If the prowess of your religion and identity sits underneath a woman’s vein or at the sight of her body, your identity is fragile. If a man’s lipstick or a woman’s jeans hurts your masculinity, you are the defective piece in the equation.
Yet again, since someone or the other is going to villainize specific religions, this is not a religious problem. This is a people-following-those-religions problem.
Italy’s famous tourist destination Sorrento banned bikinis citing locals feeling ‘discomfort and unease’. Although, bikinis are allowed at poolside or beach clubs, people are fined if they are seen walking around in swimsuits in other places like shops or restaurants. Until 2021, Uganda had mini-skirts banned, under their anti-pornography laws.
In 2018, Serena Williams wore a Black Panther-esque catsuit to play the first three rounds at the French Open. It helped prevent life-threatening blood clots after she faced complications while giving birth. Despite this, officials ruled that in the future, female athletes would no longer be allowed to wear such suits “to respect the game and the place”.
Imagine being one of the best athletes in the world and the issue is your clothes that are literally preventing you from dying.
North Korea is a different and bigger fish to fry. Women in North Korea can only wear skirts if it covers their knees. They cannot have tight jeans, dyed hair, and other styles. Allegedly, the country’s Socialist Patriotic Youth League stops people on roads, takes them to their office, and releases them only after someone brings “acceptable” clothes.
This is not just an international issue either. At home, women have been banned from making choices time and again. Karnataka’s hijab ban, Jamia Milia Islamia, and St. Xavier’s Mumbai’s jeans ban show the issues that women face. Worse is the experience of an intersectional marginalized woman. For example, a Muslim woman, a black woman, a Dalit woman, and a transgender woman.
The idea of the hijab in India has been merged with the image of the Muslim “other” – a dreaded figure located in the country’s communal history and minority politics.
In the Karnataka hijab debate, religiosity became the point of focus rather than women’s right to education. Advocates of the ban have expressed the desire for uniformity in the classroom. But little has been said about the sudden imposition of a dress code, a code the protesting Muslim students did not sign up for while seeking admission to these colleges.
Hair is such an issue. A woman’s head is constantly balancing on a knife. Every woman in a traditional or modest set-up, regardless of her background, is not allowed to choose what she wants from her hair. There is always a mandatory head cover. Either she must be ‘rescued’ from the oppression of wearing the head cover or be forced to wear it if does not want it.
In the USA, the alleged trailblazer of revolution, the CROWN Act was created in 2019 by Dove and the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Coalition, in partnership with then State Senator Holly J. Mitchell of California. It was created to ensure protection against discrimination based on race-based hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles in workplaces and public schools. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill at the federal level, but it has not been approved yet by the Senate.
Yes, in 2020, Black women who go to work with their natural hair or in protective styles like braids, locs, and knots, can lose their jobs or be sent home from school. According to Dove’s CROWN Research Study, Black women were 50% more likely to report being sent home because of their hair. As a result of that, statistically. 80% of Black women change their natural hair to fit into a corporate environment. For hair that grows out of their head naturally. Naturally.
Why? Why is it always the woman’s job to cater to a man, his tradition, his ego, and his eyes? Worse, his lack of self-control. Why are women the tools when it comes to defeating a community? Be it a war or a societal denial, why is the first instinct to hurt a community’s women?
In any or every country, the question is not whether one is for or against an outfit. It is how state regimes and power structures – irrespective of ideology – attempt to dictate women’s lives, thoughts, and bodies. Otherwise, the knife is still hovering between the neck and torso.