WHAT a dressing down an ustaz got last month when he preached that women who “tak tutup aurat” (do not cover up) deserved it if they were sexually violated. Critics pointed out that no one deserved to be sexually assaulted. If you stole money from a handbag left open, your contention that the woman deserved it would not stand up in court.
With see-through regularity, the dress code polemics have surfaced every year over the past three decades and unfailingly stirs passionate debate. Just as alcohol is used to draw a line separating Islam from other religions, so is fashion used to divide Muslims and non-Muslims. But all religions hold strikingly identical values for promotion of social wellbeing.
The dividing line is between drinking and non-drinking, careful dressing and careless dressing – not between Muslims and non-Muslims. Unfortunately, both liquor and fashion have become enabling tools for politicians to champion the “right of non-Muslims” and hence secure votes. The result of such politicking is that liquor is sold in sundry shops and supermarkets, whereas Australia (a country with many more drinkers) restricts sale to liquor shops only.
Long dresses were the universal norm in all scriptural times. Gaze at statues of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and notice the flowing fabrics. Kuan Yin, the bodhisatwa of divine mercy, is similarly covered. The Catholic Church catechism guidelines for women’s attire include “refusing to unveil what should remain hidden” (No. 2521) and Catholic girls school dress codes forbid clothing that draws “undue attention to the wearer”.
In the historical epic Mahabharata, the beautiful Draupadi was being stripped by a ravenous king but the endless yarns of cloth that made up her sari greatly tired the conquering monarch as he couldn’t pull it all away. Contrary to the Bollywood-hyped sari with its high bare midriff and exposed navel, the traditonal saris used in many parts of India don’t expose the midriff and navel.
Skimpy dressing in non-aboriginal societies is a 20th century invention to create mass markets for consumer goods. It started in 1928 when Vogue fashion magazine featured women in half-length skirts. Around the same time, the sleeveless high-slit tight cheongsam made its appearance in Shanghai. It certainly wasn’t cultural apparel but nightclub wear. But it was Sex in Advertising that provided fuel to drive the fashion revolution forward. An early 1930s Spinner Series tyre rim advertisement featured a model with her fully exposed legs curled around the rim. As expected, sales raced speedily ahead.
World War II saw fashion put in neutral gear. Then came 1957: Our Merdeka was also the year of raucous fashion revival in England that swept the mini-skirt and hot pants into dominance. From then on, women’s wear departments knew the direction to go. By 1977 the craze had taken root in Malaysia. This is the naked truth, the commercial drive behind the skimpiness heavily promoted by fashionistas.
Clothing isn’t primarily about religiosity or liberty: it’s about safety and practicality. The general rule is to cover sufficient areas of the skin to deflect the attention of prowling lechers. Some non-Islamic mothers’ groups have long opposed concert rules that put their little girls into scanty attire, as that may alert paedophiles. For young women, global sex crime studies reveal that exposing too much skin in the wrong place with a lustful crowd is dangerous neglect. Molest is never justifiable, but neither does any religion condone the mantra that a person is free to dress as she pleases anywhere.
The first rule of safety and practicality is to size up the risks around you. A sarong-wrapped aboriginal girl is very safe within her tribal vicinity, and so is a girl gymnast in skin-tight sport-safety costume doing a pole vault at a competition. These are non-risky environments.
But most urban settings carry some risks, and if you keep your handbag open for too long a thief will emerge and steal your money. Three weeks ago, the #MeToo movement drew attention to a “bikini flight” airline in Southeast Asia for its high incidence of sexual groping of the scantily-clad air hostesses.
The writer champions interfaith harmony. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org