How We Dress: The Oppression of Women

It is commonly accepted that Muslim women are oppressed by their husbands and their culture. But many Muslims, women included, counter by claiming that Western women are “oppressed” by the demands their society places on them to be sexy.

A Muslim woman can be alluring, too, which is why the whole modesty thing as a reason for covering is somewhat pointless. Men will fantasize about women no matter what. In fact, you could argue that the more covered a woman is, the more a man fantasizes about her. But no matter how a woman is dressed, a man should never be allowed to use the excuse that a woman enticed him by the way she was dressed.

My standards are looser than most Muslims. I’m not offended by bare arms, necks or legs (as long as the dress or shorts don’t expose more than the leg!).I am uncomfortable with cleavage and bare midriffs, not to mention bikinis. But I don’t think that a woman who is “uncovered” is bad or even wrong. What I do object to is the subtle ways that women (and even girls) are told that they must be desirable to men.

Perhaps it is biologically wired into women to try to attract men, but that doesn’t mean that we should be doing it all the time, at any age, and regardless of our relationship status. What reason does a married woman have to doll herself up in front of other men? Hasn’t she already attracted her mate?

Some say that women dress as much for other women as they do for men. But why are they trying to prove that they’re sexier if they’re already in a relationship? Others say that men like their women to be perceived as attractive, even sexy, by other men because it’s an ego boost for them. But isn’t it a little crass for men to put their women on display as if they’re mere possessions?

Many non-Muslims think that the reason Muslim women are “made” to cover is because their men don’t trust them. They think they’ll attract the attention of other men which might lead to infidelity. They also don’t trust other men to keep their hands off their women. Because they know what men are like, they believe that a woman shouldn’t do anything to make a man think about her sexually.

While this may be true for some men (Muslim and non-Muslim), the Qur’an makes it clear that women are to be honored and cherished. The implication is that dressing modestly helps men to hold them in high esteem, not because they would blame women for being sexy if they didn’t, but because they appreciate it when a woman knows her own value.

I reacted strongly when I saw this picture of Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover of Elle magazine. Why did she have to pose in nothing but a sweater (and at least a bra) with her one shoulder bared provocatively? Wouldn’t she have looked just as attractive if she had been wearing slacks or leggings and had kept her sweater all the way on? It’s not that I think she looks sluttish (for this type of picture, it’s fairly tasteful), but I can’t help but wonder why she felt she had to pose this way? Or why she was pressured to?

I think I know what motivates some women to agree to pictures like this: It’s because women are seeking affirmation that they are desirable. If they see themselves in a photograph or painting looking sexy, it reassures them that they are. I would guess that most women would like at least one photo of themselves looking sexy and beautiful. That’s one reason for the popularity of Glamour Shots®. What woman doesn’t want to be recorded as looking beautiful at least once in her life?

But why do they want these pictures on public display? Wouldn’t it be enough to have them at home? I can see Paltrow hanging this picture in her bedroom for her husband to enjoy. But what motivates her, and so many other women, to present themselves this way to the whole world?

I’m not saying that women shouldn’t try to be attractive. I think there is something in a woman’s makeup that makes her want to be beautiful. (One reason why some women wear the niqab or full burqa is because they’re trying to erase that desire from their psyches. They believe that it is only appropriate to glorify God, not themselves.)

But when women start feeling that they will enhance their careers or be treated better if they dress the way that men want them to, they have crossed the line between self-esteem and self-pandering. “Selling” the way that they look in return for favors. What’s that called? Oh, yeah, prostitution.

Cross-posted on I, Muslimah, a blog about my thoughts and experiences as a Muslim convert.

The World’s Worst Mother (Video)

Ayelet Waldman tells how her essay about how she loves her husband more than her children caused a furor after it appeared in The New York Times. She is now officially known as the “World’s Worst Mother.” The video is 52 minutes long, but it is funny and gossipy and contains a lot of insight about the dilemma of modern motherhood. Fathers, there’s a message here for you, too.

Enjoy! Video here.

Read what Sandra Tsing Loh has to say about Ayalet Waldman’s bad motherhood in The Atlantic Monthly.

Thursday Thoughts: “Outing” Gays

Apparently the blog world is all a-flutter with speculations about whether the Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is gay. Besides the fact that there are more substantive issues to be discussing about Kagan, I find the idea to be extremely sexist. She wears pants, has short hair, is unmarried and childless, has never been associated with a man, refuses to discuss her private life and supports the end of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” therefore she couldn’t possibly be a normal woman. Never mind that she has had a demanding career (a situation that has prevented many women—and men—from devoting themselves to a spouse and children), she still should have the outer accouterments of accepted womanhood.

And of course, the speculation is homophobic as well. Kagan is not the first person in the public eye who has been suspected of being gay, nor will she be the last. Even dead people are not beyond suspicion (Eleanor Roosevelt being one example). You can be a wife-beater, a philanderer, a deadbeat dad, a sexual harasser (funny how these are all usually associated with male behavior) and nary a word will be spoken against you. But being gay—OMG!—elicits much the same response as being a Muslim (read: terrorist) does.

Of course there are people who are saying that it doesn’t matter to them whether or not Kagan’s gay; what they’re concerned about is how it would affect her rulings on LGBT issues. Then there are those who are supposedly more liberal about gays, but who are not comfortable with a person coming “out” as a gay. Both types are uncomfortable with a gay being ensconced on the U.S. Supreme Court. They prefer all gays, not just those in the military, to operate under a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. We won’t ask you if you’re gay—after all, we’re too politically correct for that—and you won’t tell us if you are.

Except that’s not what really happens. We have a voracious appetite for “outing” gays. And we don’t just do it with public figures; we do it with people we know as well. “He/she must be gay,” we whisper. And we obsess about it. We gossip about the person, maybe even come right out and rag them about it. It’s a relentless witch hunt that has driven many people to suicide.* Even just being suspected can lead to a suicide attempt, especially among teens.

When are we going to get it through our thick skulls that who people choose for sexual partners has nothing to do with anything else they do with their lives? Most of us keep our sexual lives private (thank God!) for a reason: sex itself is an intensely private affair. Who among us wants the details of our own sex lives to be common knowledge?

I can’t imagine how it feels to have people accuse you of being gay, whether or not you actually are. Because that’s just it; they’re accusing you. As if you’re guilty of something.

There’s one more thing that’s insulting about “outing” gays. It usually has more to do with an obsession with sex than with wanting to know who a person loves. As if one is impossible without the other. Or as if gay relationships are about sex only, not about love, devotion, friendship and day-to-day normal interactions.  Sex may only be a small part of what a couple feels for each other. In fact, sex is often an outgrowth of a loving relationship, not its sole reason for being.

[Yes, there is such a thing as gay encounters that are for sex only, but that’s also true for heterosexuals. The assumption is that heterosexuals are  not promiscuous and homosexuals are. We should all know better than that. Straights can be promiscuous and gays can be monogamous.]

What we are really doing when we “out” gays is making value judgments. We’re saying that there’s something newsworthy about being gay, because, after all, we all know that being gay is something bad. (And let’s face it, news is based on what is “bad” or “wrong.”) As long as its considered a topic of interest, one’s sexual orientation will always be subject to extreme scrutiny (especially if we fit the gay profile). I look forward to the day when people don’t even care whether a person is straight or gay.

I wonder whether I’ll live to see it.

*See “Suicide Attempts Among Gay and Bisexual Men: Lifetime Prevalence and Antecedents” for some interesting statistics.

Also read Jezebel’s article “Elena Kagan: The Sexual Politics of a Private Life.”

Why Do We Put Up With This??

It’s not that O’Reilly is a conservative—it’s that he’s a nasty conservative. I was appalled by his behavior in this video. Is that the kind of role model we want for our children?  One woman wrote in and asked him that very question because of the way that he says “Shut up” so often. His answer: “I’ve only said it once.”

I’m surprised that conservatives, most of whom I’m sure are caring people with traditional values (like the importance of being courteous), will put up with this. Why is he still on the air?