Run like hell

Catherine Bennett notes that the Rational Dress Society protested against dress fashion that ‘impedes the movements of the body’ with the result that after three or four decades, women were able to ride bicycles. Well, yes. Clothes and dress codes seem like a comparatively trivial matter, but they’re not. They’re immensely important. I’ve felt that literally all my life – from earliest earliest childhood. I always wore jeans when I could, I always fought wearing a skirt whether for school or for social occasions, I always fought binding or uncomfortable clothes. I remember fussing (okay probably whining) about a dress that was too tight or pinchy somewhere when I was a child; my mother said something to the effect that a little discomfort was the price of looking elegant; I rejected the principle absolutely. And it’s gone on that way ever since. I loathe the dress code for women, and that includes the secular dress code as well as religious ones – I loathe all the things women are expected to wear that impede the movements of the body. Did you know the streets of lower Manhattan were littered with high heeled shoes on September 11? Women are expected (and expect themselves) to dress for work in such a way that they can’t even run. They even, ‘Wonkette’ tells us, amputate ‘their little toes the better to fit their Jimmy Choos’ – and it’s been little more than a century that we’ve been able – and allowed – to ride bicycles, run, play sports, swim freely. Imagine not having that option. Imagine always having to wear a long dress, a corset, little flimsy shoes; imagine never ever being able to run, breathe freely, lounge, jump around – never being able to use your own body in an unconfined untrammeled way. Imagine life imprisonment.

Over a century on, this is just one of the many freedoms that young, enthusiastic female proponents of the jilbab and veil are content, apparently, to deny themselves. Yes, they freely choose not to be able to see properly nor to be able to communicate directly, nor move freely, nor play sports, swim in a public place and willingly embrace all the attendant limitations on their professional and social lives. Meanwhile, they are happy to watch their menfolk caper about, bareheaded, in western trainers and jeans.

Imprisonment for me, freedom for you – ‘freely’ chosen.

All this free choosing, according to Straw’s critics, we should accept, uncritically, at face value, because – here’s their trumping argument – what does freedom mean, if it doesn’t mean being free to oppress yourself? What does freedom mean if you can’t feel comfy in a niqab? Or happy to shave off your hair and wear a wig instead? Or comfortable – if you so choose – with footbinding? Or keen – if that’s what you want – to have a clitoridectomy?

The irony is beautifully stark in this item on a teacher suspended for wearing the niqab in class (the students, not surprisingly, couldn’t understand what she said).

She said: “The veil is really important to all Muslim women who choose to wear it. Our religion compels us to wear it because it’s in the Koran.”

As Edmund Standing pointed out when he sent me the link, note the juxtaposition of the liberal language of choice with the anti-liberal language of religious compulsion. She chooses to be compelled to wear it – and presumably not to fret too much about the women in Iran and Saudi Arabia and Iraq and many other places who are unable to choose not to be compelled to wear it.

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