Preface: I know this is probably going to make some of my favorite people angry with me. Leave your comments, but then let’s just hug it out, please.
I found myself in the middle of a clash of cultures recently when I checked my Facebook newsfeed in Amman, Jordan. Given recent Supreme Court decisions, woman-hating killing sprees, and the generally nasty rape culture on our college campuses, several of my friends had posted interesting articles about the next frontier for feminism and women’s health in the United States. Many of these have recently started confronting the prevalence of “slut-shaming” in our culture. If you aren’t familiar with this term, it refers to those who bash women for sexual or wardrobe choices that they disapprove of. One post about a teenage girl fighting her high school’s dress code got my attention along with several similar articles. Essentially this young lady and her classmates argue that “women shouldn’t have to cover themselves up completely because we shouldn’t be viewed as sexual objects.”
I’m not sure what I would have thought about the article prior to this trip, but at the time I read it, I hadn’t gone into a store, to an ATM, or to a public restroom without a male to walk me there. Out of respect for the culture in Jordan, I have worn long pants or skirts and loose conservative shirts everyday, usually with the addition of a scarf so that I could cover my head if I felt it was necessary. Unfortunately, a great deal of my caution comes from the harassment that many white women experience while traveling here. We are particularly targeted for inappropriate behavior and robbery by local guys for a number of reasons: white women are associated with promiscuity, not covering our heads can be seen as a refusal to submit to men, and obviously we aren’t as likely to know the place or customs or to have a man along that will look out for us. There have been moments in my trip that confirmed that my caution was not unwarranted. However, I want to be clear that I don’t directly attribute these issues with the culture of Jordan to Islam. Though I am not expert on Islam or the Qur’an, I do appreciate that Islam established property, marriage, and inheritance rights for women several centuries before women in other cultures had similar rights and violence or harassment against women is just as repulsive to the Muslim community as to decent people anywhere. Still, I could not help but notice the patriarchal culture that exists here and be disturbed by the limits on women’s freedom of movement and equal treatment.
Still, it makes me wonder if this dress code conversation we are having is a case of asking the fish what water is. Are we are so focused on a certain kind of patriarchy, the variety that I’ve experienced in Jordan that asks women to “cover themselves up completely” or else face unwanted advances and shaming, that we have ignored another manifestation of this many-headed monster? I’m not going to lie: I pushed the dress code at my high school too. Short skirts and low cut tops. And frankly, I didn’t wear them because it was hot outside. I have a great personality and all too, but I was also learning about relationships and sexuality in a culture where I knew wearing less would get me attention from boys. And as far as I can tell, it was an effective strategy that my patriarchal culture was more than willing to teach me. Do I wish young men were raised better? Yep. Do I want 16 year-old girls to come up with healthier ways to attract someone she’s interested in? Yep.
That may not have been Lindsey Stocker’s intention when she wore shorts to school, but it is a reality for many young women as they grow up. I completely agree that no woman should be called a slut or made less safe because of what she chooses to wear. Slut shaming is an important conversation that we need to have in this country (though this story comes out of Canada), and on the whole, I agree with the argument that the aggression we see against independent, liberated women contributes to rape and domestic violence and toxic work and school environments for all ladies. Still, I think minors should have fair rules that both sexes are equally subject to that allow them to be comfortable in their school environment, and I don’t really want any of them wearing leggings as pants… because they are not pants. To help with that difficult distinction, here is a handy flow chart. We’ve made huge strides for women in the past few decades that I am thrilled about, but as some patriarchal structures fall away that were instituted to protect women in a less-enlightened time, let’s not forget to teach our daughters how to be speak up for and protect themselves in their absence and how to be themselves, not just the girl that gets the most attention.