Dress Codes for Women say more about Male Fears than Feminine Modesty

September 11th, 2009

There has been very limited coverage of the prosecution of women for non-compliance with dress codes for Muslim women. A recent New York Times Article, “Sudan Fines Woman Who Wore Pants” by Jeffrey Gettleman and Waleed Arafat (9/7/09) breaks that silence. The woman, Mrs. Lubna Hussein, was found guilty but spared flogging. She has refused to pay the fine levied for wearing pants, claiming no religious law is violated by that type of garment. Imprisonment is likely to follow.

Women in the US have long been fighting the issue of ‘provocative dress’ while arguing our own degree of culpability in male sexual aggression. Men have long been granted a tacit permission to be ‘overcome’ by the sight of female flesh and driven to violence in consummating their justifiably intense desire. ‘Dress’ has been addressed most prominently in court transcripts of rape trials, to the point of being included in the hard-won ‘rape shield laws’. These bar the prior sexual history of victims from being introduced into evidence. However, attorneys can still get matters of dress placed before juries under issues of implied ‘consent’ and, failing that argument, for purposes of evidence of struggle and semen/blood residues. They know the power of the universal acknowledgment that men are strong – except when confronted by feminine pulchritude. As reward for being the warriors of society, it should be theirs for the taking, given any degree of ‘encouragement’.

When we examine current norms for modest dress around the globe, the above article should tell the whole tale. Men will arbitrarily choose any degree of cover for a woman as sufficient or insufficient ‘assistance’ for them to avoid damnation by salacious thoughts and impulses. Be it sleeves below the elbows, skirts below the knee or a complete absence of flesh showing beneath volumes of fabric, men are at war with themselves in matters of sexual violence.

Even when women have become accustomed to having no region of flesh exposed to view, it can still be deemed inadequate by males to keep them sinless with regard to sexual attraction and behavior. Then comes the mandated protection of travel only with a male relative or other ‘owner/protector’ figure. That declares a woman as unavailable for one’s lust and thereby helps tame the sexual urge. Fear of other men, rather than respect for the woman appears to be the guiding impulse.

In the US where a large part of the country experiences very warm temperatures, will shorts or halter tops be considered normal garb or as a too-great temptation for male libidos? If it is bared, is it available to touch? If a part of a man is bare, would a man find it acceptable to be touched there…, by another man? If not, why assume it is acceptable to touch a woman without an explicit, verbal invitation to do so?

This news article is no less relevant to American women than to Sudanese women. Equality in the US will be denied us as long as men can point to other nations and extol the virtues of what has been marginally attained here. Freedom by comparison is a very dangerous way to conceptualize an absolute.

The following letter was sent to the editor:


Re: NY Times Article, “Sudan Fines Woman Who Wore Pants” by Jeffrey Gettleman and Waleed Arafat (9/7/09)

To the Editor,

This important case regarding legal mandates for women’s dress has been sparsely covered in the US, despite a relevance in the struggle for equal rights here at home. It is illustrative of how norms regarding modesty are mainly determined by male fears of temptation. The US has rape shield laws which limit introduction of information about prior sexual history for female victims at trial and about their clothing choices as well. However, dress remains uppermost in people’s minds when evaluating issues of ‘implied consent’ or when seeking evidence of ‘struggle’.What is sufficient to please?  Cultures differ vastly in this regard.

Requiring a victim to exercise ‘caution’ is never enough in a society willing to excuse violence upon any provocation other than self-defense. Prosecuting men for lack of inhibition is a better choice than prosecuting women for exhibition. The message remains clear and unchanging no matter the current, but ever-changing, societal norms.

Barbara Rubin

UPDATE: The Miami Herald has a follow-up on this story here –

Categories: Letters, NY Times

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