“I think you’d look bloody lovely in a miniskirt” says a man off camera, with a dirty chuckle. The usually feisty young woman it’s directed to, Sabbiyah, smiles to keep the peace but I’m repulsed even before another man’s hand gropes her knee, turning her expression very hostile. The scene annoys me because I can relate to it – I can see how the men might consider themselves fairly innocent as they haven’t really done very much other than be mildly provocative. But being objectified and sexualized in this way is unpleasant and uncomfortable and I’m sure there’s not a woman alive who’s not experienced similar at some point or other.
What’s particularly offensive in this instance however is that the men’s provocative comments are directed at an Islamic woman, who’s just told them that she wears what she does to protect her modesty. The scene is from episode 2 of UK’s Make Bradford British and you can watch it here: (this links to the whole episode but it will start at the scene I’ve just described)
There are so many issues that this could springboard onto, but what’s interested me the most is the importance that so many people put on what you wear. I thought that I came from a culture where dressing differently / bizarrely / however you like was at least tolerated… I remember my head of year standing at one side of the long busy corridor looking me up and down in some form of intimidation technique as I walked past her defiantly. My nearly waist length hair had been plaited into nearly 150 braids, each with little beads on the end, and she didn’t approve.
She tried all manner of things to get me to look ‘normal’, including complaining that I was a walking health and safety hazard as I could have someone’s eye out if I turned round too quickly. “What, even if I tie it back in a bun?!” I sarcastically protested. But this was twenty years ago, and even then, I had enough supporters of my right to self-expression – particularly my form tutor who I suspect wouldn’t have let me back down even if I’d chosen to – that she didn’t get her way.
Part of being a teenager is about exploring identity through the clothes you wear, trying out new looks as you work out who you are. Most of my friends wore the Doc-Martin-boots-and-long-black-hair uniform of individuality. What we didn’t realise though was that even if I wore red laces and she wore green, we still looked rather much the same to everyone else. But whatever names we were called, we knew we were harmless and so did most other people.
So it’s particularly saddening to read a couple of stories lately that demonstrate the dire importance of looking like everyone else. Firstly back in December, 65 Indonesian youngsters were rounded up following a rock concert, and made to conform - their piercings were taken off them, their mohicans and dreadlocks shaved off, and their ‘disgusting’ clothes replaced. Then, with their heads shaved, they were paraded around like criminals and forced to undergo 10 days of detention while they were morally re-coded.
Such treatment is obviously rather horrible, degrading and humiliating but the officials protested “We’re not torturing anyone. We’re not violating human rights.” That’s arguable given that some of the young people were apparently held in cages, but at least they were returned to their parents after a week and a half.
What’s far more disturbing is what’s been happening to young Iraqis recently. Nobody’s entirely certain who’s behind it, although the country’s Interior Ministry has been denouncing emo sub-culture as satanic, but in the last month or so around 100 young Iraqis have been stoned to death because of the way they dress. This article describes the situation, but warning: it includes some graphic descriptions and a photo that I intentionally scrolled right past, so I’m not sure how bad they are.
Perhaps in the UK, nothing’s changed, perhaps there will always be people who are against those who dare to dress differently. But I’m very thankful that despite the odd jibe or comment, I never felt threatened, just confident knowing that the way I dressed was what made me, me. As Sabbiyah explains “It’s part of my identity, why can’t I dress like this?” In her case, issues of racism, culture and immigration all play a part in the comments she received but the issue of identity is universal.