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Global Feminism in the News: Women & Clothing

October 1, 2009

Global Feminism in the News is a monthly column discussing recurring themes in international news stories concerning women. This month we will discuss women and clothing.

This month saw fashion week in cities like London, Milan and New York, where I live. No, this post will not be about this season’s runway shows. Sometimes I wish I could care more about clothes and less about crises, more about this season’s new look and less about this year’s many human rights violations. I admit, I can feel defeated fighting an uphill battle against sexism, violence against women, and ignorance. But then I remember the many brave women risking far more than me by speaking out, and I feel rejuvenated. So this post is not about fashion, but rather about women and the way clothing often limits, binds, and contorts us and even results in punishment or death.

I never cared very much about clothing except to keep me warm, but my mom always tried to explain to me that the way you dress influences the way people think of you. I now realize that my nonchalance was a privilege because, as with most things, my mom was right. An extreme example of this is the story of Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese woman who faced up to forty lashes for wearing pants in violation of Sudan’s decency laws.  Hussein, a journalist who worked as a public information assistant for the United Nations in Sudan, was eventually fined $200 and spared the whipping, but she refused to pay the fine. A judge threatened to jail her if she did not pay, to which she replied “I would spend a month in jail. It is a chance to explore the conditions in jail.”

Lubna Hussein

Lubna Hussein

Women in Uganda were also stripped of their pants during a riot outside the capitol. Specifically targeting the only women not wearing skirts, male protestors stripped about 20 women of their pants and forced them to walk home in their underwear. The riots were sparked by ethnic tension, and the women’s pants were seen as the ultimate symbol of Western Culture. Interesting considering the scantily clad models parading down runways all over the West earlier this month.

Luckily for me,  fellow GAB author Carrie already eloquently summarized my feelings about the many ills of the fashion industry in Tuesday’s post “Faith, Fashion and Feminism“. In addition to her comments, however, I do want to specifically highlight the fashion industry’s role in the hyper sexualization of young girls, discussed in further detail in this intriguing (and horrifying) article from The Guardian. I encourage you to read the article in full (It’s short and exceptionally well written) but the thesis of the article is quoted below:

Little girls epitomize a patriarchal society’s ideal of compliant, docile sexuality.

In this short excerpt from her book, The Lolita Effect, Professor M. Gigi Durham argues that disturbingly over sexualized toys, (like Bratz dolls) and clothing designed to sexualize and expose young girls (boyfriend jeans for your four year old?) has led to a disturbing trend of viewing young girls not only as consenting sexual partners,  but even as enticingly wicked and manipulative sexually mature women. (Just look to the news coverage of Roman Polanski who “had sex with” a 13 year-old girl.)

Bratz dolls

Bratz dolls

And just in case young girls avoid this hyper sexualization, they can look forward to trivial annoyances in the workplace such as a a “risk assessment” of high heels in the workplace proposed by a trade union in the UK.  The Union is citing loss of working days due to lower limb and foot injuries as the reason for the potential stiletto ban. In protest, Loraine Monk, a UCU delegate from Nescot College in Epsom, Surrey, says

Let’s debate the women’s charter with the same enthusiasm as this debate. Let’s demand mandatory pay audits to redress pay inequality. Let’s stop telling women what to do.

I have to agree with her. With 1 in 10 women dying in child birth in Sierra Leone, and the trafficking of women and girls quickly becoming the most profitable illegal market in the world, don’t advocates truly concerned with women’s health have more important things to worry about?

I feel this topic is endless, and would love to hear comments from readers. How do you see misogyny in your clothing choices? What advantages do men’s clothing choices offer them? Has any part of your feminist identity been formed by or in reaction to your clothing choices? Can feminism and fashion ever make peace?

One Comment
  1. October 1, 2009 9:09 am

    Wow. I just commented on another post on this site and I absolutely must comment on THIS one, too!

    I could not agree with you more about misplaced priorities and wasted energy spent on vanity, sexism and perpetuating inequity through image.

    Great job!


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