Time to Listen to the Woman and Not the Clothes

women gender-based violence taxi drivers public transport
Wednesday, 13 October, 2010 - 09:43

The ruthless behaviour directed toward women for how they dress and what they wear is becoming a norm is our society. The claim that rape victims “asked for it” because they were dressed ‘inappropriately’ should be condemned as it promotes gender-based violence

The taxis would not stop honking as the young lady walked across the road with an air of confidence. She was indeed looking great in a jaw-dropping outfit, but her confidence seemed shattered by the nasty statements, insults and jeers that bombarded her from the taxi drivers. As she ran into one of the many cars, it seemed as if she was forced there, unable to endure more disapproval from the taxi drivers and the commuters within them.

This ruthless behaviour directed toward women for how they dress and what they wear seems to, sadly, be the norm in our society. It's as if our clothes are doing the talking for us -- and society listens to what we wear before they hear what we say.
How women dress has always been a topical issue, which only increased at the beginning of the feminist movement. Unending arguments have been formulated around what defines appropriate dress, and women's clothes have been picked apart by men and women alike.

Sociologists like Diane Crane argue that clothing is a part of a larger social plan, suggesting that women's clothing has always been a mechanism of social control. "One of the most visible markers of social status and gender and therefore useful in maintaining or subverting symbolic boundaries, clothing is an indication of how people in different eras have perceived their positions in social structures and negotiated status boundaries," she writes in her book Fashion and its social agendas.

This is especially true in today's patriarchal societies, which have imposed social identities on women based on clothing -- from which stereotypical images have been formulated. Just think of the "submissive" doek-wearing wife, or the ‘loose’ or ‘immoral’ woman who wears a short skirt, heels and skimpy top.

Consider also the married woman who decides to go all out and dress up for a day. She's automatically asked whether there's someone else in her life - or that tired old question "what's the occasion?" As if women who are married need a reason to look nice.

Women in politics have not been immune to such scrutiny either. They are endlessly picked apart by the media for how they look or how they are dressed - often much more than for what they actually say about politics. The message being that a woman is only worth the clothes she wears or how much cleavage she shows.

Take Helen Zille, who has been called a "rather plain woman who has never looked good in her life" or an "aging politician who has had her image professionally made over." What about her politics or her professional attributes, isn't that what we should care about?

A recent analysis by City Press journalist Babalwa Shota poked fun at "big mama MPs who squeezed their swollen feet into dainty, strappy sandals with high heels ...literally tiptoed their way into parliament with pained expressions that not even the flash of a camera could erase."

But what does it matter what women leaders wear? Political stories too often divert from politics to mention the physical attributes and clothing faux pas of female politicians. Rarely do male politicians suffer such scrutiny.

In the workplace too, women are accused of dressing in certain ways in order to get promotions or curry favour from male bosses. People with nothing better to do endlessly run their mouths commenting on what women wear; and men make ridiculous claims that they can't think straight because a woman has chosen to wear something revealing or complementary to her figure.

Does that mean women shouldn't be able to think straight when men wear clothes that don't appeal or are too skimpy, such as ripped or dirty trousers, scuffed shoes or revealing sweatpants?

It is often said rape victims ‘asked for it’ because they were dressed ‘inappropriately’. But rape is a crime, and it's about criminal behaviour that scars a woman emotionally and physically. How dare we make it the woman's fault for simply wearing a certain outfit?

Ideological state apparatuses such as religion also play a role in reinforcing and constricting women's clothing choices. Many religions impose fashion restrictions on women, and many women don't wear the clothes they might like to because they fear backlash from religious leaders or friends.

Some churches even have dress codes, such as the Fellowship Baptist Church, which has rules much more particular for women, for example: "Shirts should be long enough and jeans should be high enough that no skin can be seen between the neck and mid-thigh even when raising arms and bending over."

Society does not seem to want to accept that the way women dress is their choice and it is a fully informed choice, usually made in very good conscience. Although we also need to be aware that the way we dress is shaped and influenced by TV, film, music and popular culture, which inevitably leaves us all beholden to the mood of the times. But it has always been this way.

So when modern women mimic the clothing choices of Angelina Jolie or Shakira, why is it so strange or unacceptable? If it's ok for us to admire such clothing on celebrities, then it should be as acceptable if we choose to wear it ourselves. It's time to stop listening to the clothes and start paying closer attention to the woman wearing them.

- Tarisai Nyamweda is a media intern at Gender Links. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service. It is republished here with the permission of Gender Links (www.genderlinks.org.za), a NGO committed to a region in which women and men are able to participate equally in all aspects of public and private life in accordance with the provisions of the Southern African Development Community Protocol on Gender and Development.

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