Less clothing doesn’t mean less oppression

We Westerners easily identify the clothes of other cultures as oppressive. And certainly, when dress-codes are enshrined in law and the non-compliance is punished with more than mere social ostracism, this is indeed true. But in many circumstances, this is not the case, and yet we identify this “other” clothing as oppressive, even going so far as to ban it, without seeing the irony of saying “Poor subjugated women, we’d better tell them what to wear”. And at the same time, we miss that our own culture has clothing rules that also serve to limit women, starting with the fact that most fashionable clothing is extremely uncomfortable and limits movement (I’m reminded of various actresses in dresses into which they had to be sown; or actresses wearing dresses in which they couldn’t sit down). I actually remember the idiotic uproar when there was some special edition barbie in muslim dress, and everybody suddenly whined about the oppressive clothing. As if teetering on the tips of her toes, and wearing clothes that would never permit a real woman any room for movement(if you bend a barbie at the waist, she will occasionally fall out of her western dresses, too), wasn’t already oppressive to begin with!

And the next person who tells me how horrible it is that those poor Muslim women have to go completely covered up in the summer heat will be dragged to Minneapolis on a Friday night in February, to watch women run around in open-toed heels, miniskirts and tank-tops in -20F/-29C weather (an experience very similar to what a friend of mine reported was standard in NY high-schools: you’ll wear “sexy” clothes, no matter how fucking cold it is; also, see women’s Halloween costumes, most of which are not designed for October weather anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line) As much as I prefer the cold, I’d say the latter is much more likely to be uncomfortable and health-damaging than the former.

And then there’s high-heels, which have well known detrimental effects on health, but are still considered a requirement for femininity. It’s not foot-binding, but the difference is one of degree, not kind.

Anyway, my point is that it doesn’t matter whether women are pressured into wearing more or less, or whether they’re pressured by religion or some other social-pressure mechanism; as long as women are expected to wear certain things, and these things are restricting them, and not wearing them results in social punishment, it’s oppression. And it’s not just “the other” that oppresses with clothing; it’s us, too. We are not the height of enlightenment in this regard, not by a long shot. Especially if you also add economic oppression to this, since a proper “female uniform” costs a lot of money: almost all clothes are more expensive for women than for men, and women are expected to have more clothes (a man can get away with a single formal suit, but a women will earn scorn for always wearing the same fancy dress, or even the same work clothes too often).

The economic part of this has to do with classism, too though. I remember the ridicule heaped on Evo Morales for wearing his sweater all the time. And for what? It’s a fucking sweater, what’s so funny about it? well, it’s obviously that a sweater isn’t the proper uniform for the class of people he was meeting with, all of which tended to show up in formal wear (oh, and it was the same sweater over and over again, compounding the offense of lower-class appearance)