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Overdressed and Underexposed or Underdressed and Overexposed?

November 10, 2013

Women who have been judged to be wearing too much are called to undress as they are seen as interfering with the rights of others, while women judged to be wearing too little are urged to clothe themselves to avoid being seen as inviting sexual assault, points out Lori Beaman.

Women who have been judged to be wearing too much are called to undress or be seen as interfering with the rights of others, while women judged to be wearing too little are urged to clothe themselves to avoid being seen as inviting sexual assault, points out Lori Beaman.

Fatema Mernissi, in her interesting book Scheherezade Goes West claims that Western women are no “freer” than Middle Eastern women.

In the Middle East, she argues, the harem is about family.  Bodies are covered, to be revealed only to the husband, who marries you before he sees it.  Femininity is thus largely invested in intelligence, wit, skills and education.  How you look and what you eat does not define you.  Mobility is circumscribed, however, to keep you—and your family–from shame.

In the West, women are freely mobile. Their harem, says Mernissi, consists of submitting themselves to the male gaze, of starving or exercising their bodies to meet a cultural code that places a woman’s prime value on her ability to display herself as a particular kind of woman, primarily to men.

Mernissi argues that neither cultural system offers women real freedom.  Both systems constrain them in different ways.  In both societies, she says, women have to seize their freedom.

It’s a sweeping generalization, but it sparks a lot of class discussion.

I was thinking about this claim when I read an essay by Lori Beaman in the most recent issue of Social Identities.

Beaman argues that judges and public policy makers routinely transmit conflicting messages about how women cover–or don’t cover–their bodies. These messages are rooted in normative judgements about how women are to appear in public.

Women who have been judged to be wearing too much–say, a niqab–are called to undress, as they are seen as being oppressed, or as interfering with the rights of others, or both.

Women judged to be wearing too little are urged to clothe themselves. If they do not, they may be held to be dressing like sex workers, or even as inviting sexual assault upon themselve.

Its not so much that women are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. It’s that the range of acceptable dress–dress that won’t bring down judicial and public judgments–is narrow.

Yet similar judicial and public regulation of men’s clothing simply does not exist.

Inequality? Oppression? Patriarchy at work?

Or is this about living in different harems?

References:

Beaman, Lori G. 2013. Overdressed and underexposed or underdressed and overexposed?  Social Identities  19(6): 723-742.

Mernissi, Fatema. 2013. Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. Washington Square Press.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 11, 2013 8:30 pm

    I agree that Mernissi’s work on “the size 6 harem” is really excellent to use in class, especially for students who have uncritically accepted the “oppressed Arab woman” stereotype.

    Thanks for the write-up of the article–I’m off to read it. (Oh, hey, the author is faculty at my new university–good to know…)

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