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Let’s Spend More Time Talking About Short Skirts

April 5, 2010

Wear a short skirt and nothing else matters

A small group of Cambodians recently gathered in Phnom Penh to demand that female students not be permitted to wear short skirts. The Director of Khmer Teachers’ Association, and organizer of the protest, Seang Bunheang, tried to explain his actions

I had the idea to organise the campaign because I want to improve Khmer culture [and retain the culture] that we had many years ago – some Khmer women change their manner by copying other cultures and do things such as wearing short skirts or sexy clothes in schools and public places.

The Deputy Director of the Ministry’s Informal Education System Department and the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, a man and a woman respectively, also approved of the protest. Secretary San Arun provided the now all but expected correlation between short skirts and rape:

Wearing short skirts and sexy clothes is a reason to cause rape cases to occur because all men, when they see white skin, they feel like having sex with [women].

I audibly sighed after reading this story. It’s not nearly the most offensive, shocking, or violent story I’ve read this week. (In fact it’s pretty tame in comparison to some of the accounts from victims of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests.) It does concern, however, arguably the biggest red herring in the fight for gender equality: the short skirt.

Why is so much energy focused on this little square of fabric? Because it’s easier to argue over this tangible symbol than the monumental, and intangible, strides we must all take in order to live in a world where equality and respect rule. On the other side of the clothing-as-a-symbol-of-control-over-women debate, Belgium might ban the burqa and niqab. In both of these stories women are being told what to wear and denied the agency to decide what they want to wear. If an adult dictates to a child what s/he must wear, the immediate, and sensible, response? That’s not fair! The same logic applies when one controlling body (namely a governmental or religious body) tells one entire section of the population (or the entire population in some cases) what they can or cannot wear. That’s not fair! Case closed.

A few years ago, a monologue about short skirts was added to the Vagina Monologues. A textbook third wave feminist rallying cry, the performance is a big Fuck You to slut-shamers and victim-blamers. The empowered speaker is PROUD of her short skirt and loves to feel sexy in her choice of clothes. We can wear whatever we want and still be feminists!!!!!

Well, sure, if we live in Western Europe or the US. If we live in Saudi, that outfit will get us arrested. And we can choose to wear the shortest skirt out there with pride, but our choice will not stop people from cat-calling and victim-blaming lest something happen to us in the aforementioned clothing. I can understand the fixation on a symbol; I also feel overwhelmed by the seismic shift in cultural attitudes that seem necessary before women can live without fear of violence. But this little square of fabric is taking away much needed attention from the greater picture of intolerance of equality, violence against women, and destructive misogyny in ALL cultures. As happens all too often, a sensational detail steals away much needed attention from a larger issue. (See Erin’s article from yesterday, in which the actions of 33 US “missionaries” have garnered more attention than the plight of generations of child slaves in Haiti.)

The short skirt has evolved into much more: a flag for some, a blindfold for others. Let’s put the skirt aside and focus on the larger, tougher issues. Let’s work towards a world where people can make a fashion- or any other- decision outside the context of gender. Isn’t that what true equality will look like?

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