Men and women in the West tend to have strong opinions about the attire worn by Muslim women. In the media as well as in private many bemoan the fact that Muslim women are apparently unable to wear what they want, ‘have’ to cover themselves up and are subject to what we see as external constraints imposed upon them by others, mostly men.
Here in the West, we smugly tell ourselves and each other, it’s not like that; women are free to wear what they want. This is why, in countries like France and Italy as well in the UK a debate is currently taking place about whether or not women should be allowed to wear the ‘Burkini’, a fully body swimsuit, to public swimming pools or on beaches.
The French and Italians apparently believe that women shouldn’t have to cover themselves up in this way although the other issue at play here is whether or not France and Italy’s imposition of the view that a woman shouldn’t wear a ‘Burkini’ or indeed the Burka itself – which France looks set to ban – is any better or different than the view that she should.
The real debate here isn’t about the actual clothing but about ownership of the female body. In the West we claim to believe that the body is a private space to be determined by the individual alone and claim to object to notions to the contrary.
However, with the recent and ongoing judgements and criticisms over the clothing donned by America’s First Lady Michelle Obama I have been reminded that despite what we say, women in the West are still subject to the imposition of others’ beliefs about what is and isn’t considered appropriate dress. The Western woman’s body and her choice of its adornments continue to be very much in the public domain, and according to the level of discussion about Michelle Obama’s clothing, still must be regulated and kept in check by others.
Last week, while on holiday with her family, Michelle Obama decided to wear a pair of shorts. Outrage ensued. Her shorts were apparently too short and she was showing too much skin. In the following days, hours of talk and hundreds of column inches were devoted to discussing whether or not it was appropriate for Michelle Obama to wear said shorts. The Huffington Post even polled its readers to ask whether or not the First Lady has the ‘right’ to dress that way.
Even though 80% of the 13,000 Huffington Post readers polled said that Mrs Obama did in fact have the right to wear those shorts and even though her shorts weren’t even all that short, that’s really not the point. The point is why such such questions are being asked at all.
This is not the first time that America has debated the First Lady’s clothing. It must be noted that this goes beyond the usual superficial discussion about whether or not an outfit is stylish. This is about the covering and uncovering of parts of a woman’s body, about a woman’s ‘modesty’. Previously, the public discussion has centered mainly around Michelle Obama’s arms and whether or not it is ‘appropriate’ for her to show them. Now it is about her legs. Each time the message is the same: the public has the right to tell her that showing these parts of her body isn’t appropriate and that she would be better off to cover up.
What is this about? Why in the West where we pride ourselves on our freedoms, do we even have to think about asking whether or not a woman has a ‘right’ to show her legs or her arms? And in what way is this different from the impositions that we criticize other societies for putting on women?
Granted, women in America do not wear hijabs. However if the argument is that religion – or other external forces – dictate to Muslim women what they must wear and what parts of their body they may or may not show, we are demonstrating the same behaviour each and every time we criticize a western woman on the same grounds. Whether that woman is a shorts-wearing Michelle Obama or a burkini-wearing woman in Paris, it all comes down the same thing. Both women should be free to wear what they choose.
Understandably Michelle Obama is the First Lady but this discussion is clearly simply a microcosm of one that does still take place in wider society. A discussion about whether or not any lady has the ‘right’ to wear certain clothing is problematic and exposes those who engage in such discussions as hypocrites when it comes to how we look at the ownership of the female body. For as long as such discussions continue, people in the West cannot claim to be any better than those who they criticize.