OnPointe - Policing and Policy-ing Attire

FRANCE banned and then unbanned the burkini on their beaches. India’s tourism minister just told a press conference that female tourists should not wear skirts for their own safety. And on our shores, a long list of how women should and should not dress and what kind of dress is acceptable.

From medal-winning athletes being chastised for their sportswear to women being compared with exposed houses that invite robbers, to even dictating what kind of traditional wear is acceptable for office events.

When photos of armed French policemen instructing a woman on a beach wearing a burkini to partially derobe, it irked a lot of people. The visual of a group of fully clothed policemen surrounding a woman enjoying summer on the brown sand fully clothed being made to take off her head scarf and long sleeve top brings many emotions.

In that context this is what it looks like – Islamophobia, men dictating what women can and cannot wear, a race thing, secular versus religious, misogyny, liberalism versus conservatism, cultural imperialism, majority imposing values over minority and a violation of basic rights.

What does it look like in Malaysia when our female athletes are told explicitly to cover up and taunted on social media for their sports attire, or when everyday Malaysians are told to cover up or wear longer skirts in public or that certain traditional outfits are deemed too sexy. What does this look like?

Years ago in Western societies, women wearing trousers or a bikini were taboo and even fined. Today, it is a totally different story and the narrative has changed.

For generations men were seen to dictate what women can and cannot wear. But today it is not just the men who misguidedly feel it is their rightful place to tell women how to dress but it is women too who find it their duty to look down, condemn or body shame other women as a form propriety guidance if they do not dress according to what is deemed acceptable.

Dictatorships are known to do this too only in a more coercive, straightforward manner. A few years ago North Korea released a circular of 18 state-approved hairstyles for its citizens.

Women are not only told how much or little to show or cover up but also what is age-appropriate or status-appropriate. This objectifying and scrutinising of women, their clothes, bodies and choices is troubling.

Not only are these narratives disrespectful and intrusive, they are harmful. It is the kind of thinking behind statements like “she was asking for it” or “it’s her fault” that furthers rape culture. Imagine what these narratives then do to young girls. Or what they do to their self- worth, self-esteem and confidence.

Frankly it is no one’s business what a women wears or how she looks. While there are cultural and religious standards that we might choose to follow it is exactly that – a choice. Not something women should be shamed or coerced into. And if that choice is made it should not be imposed on someone else.

Women seem to have come a long way from the plight of the suffragettes, but their bodies are still seen as commodities and used for political agendas. France is doing it and Malaysia is also doing it – just in different degrees and for different reasons but ultimately for power.

It is a matter of us realising it and saying no. No to politicians and public figures who disrespectfully talk about women and their bodies. No to policies that take away rights, governing what clothes can be worn. No to public officers who are allowed to judge women’s clothing and deny entry into public offices.

While it is noble to fight for the rights of those in Europe perhaps we can first start at home and fight for each other; not with each other to have the right to wear what we want to without imposing or policing what others wear.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com