Mini-skirt or burka – my choice

From South Africa to Israel, the politics of women’s clothing has become highly inflammatory

What is it about the way women dress that excites so much fury? In Johannesburg, a young woman was recently stripped, sexually assaulted and paraded naked by a group of taxi operators as punishment for wearing “indecent” clothes.

Only three years ago in Britain, an ICM poll found that one in every four women believes that a woman who wears sexy clothes is partially or totally responsible if she is subsequently raped. Evolutionary psychologists like Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer even argue that young men ought to be made aware of the evolutionary reasons why men are aroused by the sign of female flesh and that girls ought to be taught “the costs associated with attractiveness”. We are constantly told that we live in an egalitarian, post-feminist world, but women are still seen as somehow to blame if they are sexually assaulted.

Women have not simply sat back and let themselves be dictated to about how they adorn themselves. Clothes are the new politics. In France, thousands of women marched in the streets to defend their right to wear the veil. Many of them have done this in the name of free choice, rather than slavish devotion to religious or parental exhortations. In Jerusalem, a growing number of Jewish women have taken to covering their heads in a sal. Some have even wrapped themselves head-to-toe in a gown resembling the Iranian chador or the Afghan burka. As one of the defenders of the sal admitted: “If the Jews want to conquer the Arabs in their land they must enhance their modesty.” In such a way, women’s clothing is pressed into service in the battle between Jew and Arab.

At the other extreme, women with more money than sense are having Botox and plastic surgery or paying for their little toes to be amputated (pink-ectomies) in order to fit into the latest Jimmy Choos.

With all this happening, is it any wonder that debating the politics of clothes is back in fashion? In the past women found themselves constrained by fear of dangerous spaces. They protested that walking around Soho at night was liable to elicit wolf-whistles and offers of “cash for snatch”. Today, restrictions on women’s movements have shrunk to the very garments against their skin. Even when not flaunting their flesh, women’s bodies are seen as sexual. Indeed, some rabbis criticise the wearing of the sal precisely on the ground that it actually draws attention to women.

By definition, femaleness has become pornographic. Whether making arguments for covering up women’s bodies or encouraging exuberant sexual expression in dress, these debates share a profound fear of women and their alleged voracious sexuality. Women must know their place, or pay the price. If they break the rules, they should expect a backlash.

For women even more than men, clothes have always been about identity. They signify belonging – whether to another man (a father or husband), a nation (Indian or British), a faith (Muslim or Jewish), or a cultural community (hippie or goth). In fearful times, when society is threatened by war, corruption and crumbling values, it becomes even more important to encourage or coerce women into taking up a symbolic role as upholders of morality and stability.

While these debates about clothes affect women, they reveal a concern about men. Paradoxically, it is men who are the real problem. Arguments about women’s clothing expose a profound distrust of the male sex. After all, who are scantily dressed women supposed to be corrupting, unless it is decently attired men? The problem is that men’s sex drive is aggressively needy: women need to police their outer garments because men can’t police their inner beast.

As long ago as September 1946, the British Medical Journal published a letter from a doctor suggesting that the Government consider the “compulsory veiling of women” in Britain as a solution to an epidemic of crimes of sexual violence. As he quipped, tongue in cheek: “So long as the leaders of civilisation remain unaware of how to promote self-control in the individual the Moslem solution may prove the only alternative to wholesale compulsory sterilisation of the male.”

In this country, at least, neither the knife nor compulsory veiling is likely to prove popular. But the politics of clothing remains important for those seeking equality for men and women. A couple of days ago, hundreds of women in Johannesburg marched in the street, some wearing mini-skirts and high heels, demanding that men who violently attack women for violating a respectable dress code be punished. Women’s right to wear a mini-skirt or, indeed, a burka, might not be on par with their right to the vote or to equal pay in the workplace, but without one it is difficult to see us attaining the other.