“What is she wearing?!” is a question many women have probably heard whispered behind their backs at least once in their life – especially women who dare to dress a bit differently than what is the norm in their society. Both men and other women feel like they are compelled to tell women what they can and can’t wear. This blog post will take a look at the different wardrobe requirements across the world and throughout history, and try to figure out just what makes people think it’s OK to tell someone what to wear.
The concept of men telling women what to wear goes back for millennia. As far back as Ancient Greece and Rome, men were telling women that it was “disgraceful” for a woman to wear a man’s toga. In relation to the restrictions on wearing the toga, women’s rights were decreased. From then on, women were restricted in many ways all over the world: from foot binding in China to mandatory corsets in France. In the 1890s, women in the UK had to wear dresses that covered everything down to their ankles, as well as everything up to their chin. As late as in 1919, less than 100 years ago, Luisa Capetillo was arrested and sent to jail in Puerto Rico, simply for wearing trousers.
As you can see, men telling women what to wear is not new. In fact, it goes back almost as far as we have historical records. From being made to cover up their whole bodies, to walking around in crop tops and short skirts, it is safe to say times have changed. However, the way people feel compelled to tell women what to wear has not. In the West, many people see women as “liberated”, and insist that they can wear what they want. However, there are many people who then criticise or harass Muslim woman for wearing a hijab, or a slightly over-weight woman for wearing a crop top.
Women have historically been judged on a binary scale, where they are either seen as “pure and innocent” or “dirty and offensive”. If you dress in a way that covers “too much” of your body, you are either a religious fanatic, oppressed or a prude. If you dress in a way that covers “too little” of your body, you are deemed promiscuous and “asking for it”. You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. In France, they wanted to ban the use of burkinis, while in Saudi Arabia women have to cover up in public. Recently a young girl in Saudi Arabia was arrested by the police and publicly vilified for posting a video of herself walking through empty streets with her hair uncovered and wearing a knee length skirt. It seems that women are free to choose what to wear anywhere in the world. This serves to suppress religious freedoms. In France, a Muslim is not free to dress as she pleases, nor in schools, workplaces or on the beach, and in Saudi Arabia, women are offered no choice as to whether they follow Islamic prescriptions of dress, coercing them into taking a religious position, and reducing their freedom to decide.
Not only are women’s characters judged by what they wear, but across the world they are continually victim blamed for their choice of dress. In Italy, a man was acquitted of a rape charge because the woman was wearing “very tight trousers”. It is incredibly common across the world for rape victims to be told they were “asking to be raped” because of what they were wearing, and in many countries the law supports this rhetoric, placing the blame on the victim of the crime rather than the perpetrator. Just the concept that women are saying, in their choice of clothing, that they want to be sexually assaulted is preposterous. It is also incredibly insulting to men to imply that they cannot control their urges.
Proponents of freedom and equality are speaking out against the hijab because it is a “symbol of oppression”, but these people seem to be oblivious to their hypocrisy. They say that women should be able to have freedom to do and dress how they want, yet they do not accept the decision to wear a hijab, even when the women wearing it insists that they are doing so of their own free will.
If you truly believe in equality and freedom, you will let women wear what they want to, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Whether their choice is to cover up or show a lot of skin, that is their choice and none of anybody else’s business. The most important thing is that women are allowed to decide what they want to wear, without this restricting their ability to live their lives and without this deciding how they will be judged by others. At JAN Trust, we work to empower women every day. Find out more and support our work at www.jantrust.org.