Lifting veil on our own traditions of misogyny

August 24, 2007

Why do religious and cultural explanations dominate debate on men policing what women wear, asks Mary Evans

Child pornography comes in many shapes, but consider this: a billboard shows a picture of two children, one with her hair scrupulously covered by a scarf. They are about five years old, yet already the girl's hair has been deemed inappropriate for public display.

The headscarf is assuredly not the veil, yet is on that same continuum. In both cases, we are often told, this dress code is a form of religious or cultural observance and identity, and should be tolerated as part of a general respect for other religions and cultures. As neither actually physically harms the wearer, the debate is presented as different from that about female genital mutilation. The veil and the headscarf then escape outright condemnation.

Consider what is happening under the veil. A woman, in public, is deemed a target for the most predatory kind of male gaze. It is said, by male religious and political leaders, that only the complete covering of women, the complete loss of a visible public identity, can protect them from the salacious attention of men. The potential victim must carry the weight of responsibility for the uncommitted crime; the apparently aggressive fantasies of men must dictate the behaviour of women.

The justification for the veil therefore leaves undisturbed any possibility that it might be appropriate for men to consider what they are implicitly endorsing when they police the dress of women. More than 30 years ago, the sociologist Mary McIntosh wrote an essay titled "Who needs prostitutes? The ideology of male sexual needs" in which she suggested that what underpinned many debates around sexuality was the acceptance that men's sexuality was inevitably directed towards the promiscuous pursuit of women. This view assumed blame in the rape victim and distinctions between "respectable" women and others.

Such ideas have been contested, even if not entirely overcome. They remain pertinent to debates about the veil and headscarf, yet are seldom made. Instead, discussions take the form of questions about cultural identity and citizenship. What the veil and headscarf implicitly endorse is a form of sexual and social inequality that runs contrary to contemporary expectations of gender equality and civic freedom: these enforced forms of dress do not protect women, they allow male fantasies and their relationship to half the human race to flourish and occupy a public space.

The case is often made, by supporters of enforced dress codes, that some cultures and societies wish to guard women against the kind of exploitation prevalent in the West - better to see a female child in a headscarf than a scantily dressed woman. The "eye of the beholder" might be mentioned here; at the same time it is difficult to see how any rational person could see sexual danger, or the exploitation of women, in the dress of the great majority of people in any public Western context.

More connections need to be made between the veil and headscarf and other aspects of social life. First, we need to recognise that both forms of dress give women in public only one identity, that of female; they are collectivised in ways that men are not. Second, that the veil and the headscarf (however much defended as "choice" by women) are about male power and gender inequality. Third, that civic democracy (wider and more important than the observance of Western or Westminister democracy) is impossible without the acceptance that both sexes have responsibilities for their own behaviour - men are not such moral infants that they will be reduced to uncontrolled heterosexual lust by the sight of a woman's hair.

A genuinely free society does not police the imagination of one gender through the control of the other; nor should we overlook the fact that those societies that are most fervent in their policing of the dress of women are also the most actively homophobic.

A step forward, therefore, for debates about the veil and headscarf might be to recognise that this is in part about gender and power. Moreover, we might consider that our willingness to cling to explanations about the veil that give priority to the religious derive not from our respect for other cultures but from our fear of confronting persistent traditions of misogyny within our own.

Mary Evans is professor of women's studies at Kent University.

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