Wednesday, March 22, 2006

What lies beneath

I saw something the other day that I haven't been able to get out of my mind.

I was in line at a store, and there was a Muslim woman in front of me. She was traditionally dressed, with a full scarf covering her hair and neck and a dark, heavy, ankle-length, long-sleeved robe. Her face and hands were all that were visible outside her clothes. I noticed her apparel in particular because it is beginning to get hot here, and I wondered if she wore a lighter weight robe in the summer. Then, as I had nothing better to do while standing in line, I noticed what she was buying.

She was purchasing several ornate bra and panty sets, complete with lace, fringe, bright colors, thong panties, and push-up bras.

I vaguely remember reading something, or perhaps hearing something on NPR, about the popularity of Victoria's Secret-esque lingerie stories in majority-Muslim countries. The idea, from what I remember, is that it is a Muslim woman's responsibility to keep her body hidden in public, but in private, with her husband (or, I assume, under her clothes), lingerie is fine, perhaps even encouraged. What went through my mind then, and again as I watched the heavily clad Muslim woman in line in front of me pay for her purchases, was that it was the worst of both worlds.

Obviously, my views on this, as someone who grew up in a Christian, Western culture and has little idea about the teachings of the Muslim faith, are going to be skewed. But I can't help but think it would piss me off to live in a society that dictates that I wear heavy utilitarian clothes, even when they are climate inappropriate. I would be even more pissed off, though, if it was also expected that I wear fancy, uncomfortable underwear. Aside from the general comfort issues this brings up, it seems to also underscore the idea of a woman's body as property of her husband, to be protected from the leers of strangers (even to her discomfort), but also to be showcased when shown to him (again even to her discomfort).

Seeing the woman I saw buying what she was buying also provided a clear illustration of the variation in uniforms women are forced into, in order to prove their appropriateness as wives, or as sex objects, or just as women. Though I've never worn a hijab, and I feel free to show my arms, knees, and whatever other parts of myself I deem appropriate, I know about the uncomfortable underwear. It is only in my mid-late 20s that I'm secure enough to throw out the panties and bras that don't make me feel good. But how much worse would it be if, rather than just a vague social pressure to be sexxee, I had to deal with that pressure for my underclothes as well as a more real, faith-based pressure to cover myself on the outside? To have both types of mandated uniforms pushed on me at once? How much worse would I end up feeling about my female body, which is both to be hidden and to be exploited?

I could be making a mountain out of a molehill here. I know nothing about the woman I saw in the store--it could be that she is 100% pro the fancy panties, she is not hot in her long robe, and she likes covering her neck and hair with a scarf. That's certainly possible. But the illustration remains, and it bothers me. When what lies beneath doesn't match what is on top, and when neither of them are freely chosen, we are in bad, bad shape.


Blogger Sofiya said...

I used to wonder how women in Middle Eastern climates could stand to wear the hijab, but when I actually visited, I realized that it can be quite practical. In some places I went, there was a lot of sand flying around, and really, long robes would have been no less practical to wear than the skimpier clothes that I was wearing. It's my understanding that a lot of women wear only light garments under their robes, though of course you can't go around asking everyone! Also, another thing I didn't realize was that a lot of men in the Middle East dress in long garments and head coverings too. I asked a guy I met about it, and he just shrugged and said "modesty applies to everyone". Of course, how Muslims interpret the Koran's instructions about modesty can vary - a possible analogy with Christianity could be St. Paul's command that women cover their heads in church, which some Christian women do and some don't.

I don't really know what to say about the underwear issue. I find thongs uncomfortable, but I know a lot of women who find them more comfortable than anything else. And I personally find push-ups the most comfortable kind of bra. I suppose it's just a case of YMMV. I guess we can't really ever know what someone else's motivations and desires are, or whether a woman's choices are free. And that probably applies to women of all faiths.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Grace said...

I'm sure it does, Sofiya. What I was trying to draw attention to here is more symbolic than having to do with this particular woman. It just really struck me to see the same person participating in two forms of what can be seen as control by fashion, you know?

2:17 PM  
Blogger NooraNoora said...


I really enjoyed reading your post and I have one of many references for you- as we all have a different perspective and each one is fashioned by our own experiences- so we can go on forever. I am a Muslim woman and I find myself wearing that robe (we call it jilbab or amira) a lot to places like Target, etc. Normally, I do not wear it- BUT when I go to the Mosque to pray I certainly do. Afterwards, if I go out to the store then I do get some interesting looks with it on. Since, we pray at least 5 times a day I often meet my husband at the Mosque for Isha (night) prayer around 7:30pm. Then ofcourse, I am wearing the robe/hijab and we go to the market or wherever. I get the looks! But, I love wearing the robe to the Mosque because it is loose fitting and falls right over my jeans. My scarf is usually chosen to fit whatever mood I am in and my Brighton jewlery. I looove Brighton! With wearing the robe I never have to concern myself with thoughts or question if I am completely covered. In our world the most conservative or pious wins! Now, when I am out on my own and not going to the mosque I am wearing jeans and a button down top. No one would even take a second look at me. This is what I have taken note of: American culture tends to reward women for thier beauty and for flaunting it. The old saying, 'If youv got it flaunt it-right??' But, in Islamic culture the women are rewarded for guarding that femine beauty as if it is too sacred to flaunt. Either way, we are rewarded and respected the more we cover. That is not to say that we don't have fun and enjoy. It's just a different look. I see women wearing a long flowing floral skirt, black top and a silk scarf that matches. She looks elegant and femenine. Pls excuse my spelling- it sucks! Regarding the victoria secret stuff- all women have a sensual side- so who knows! But, thanks for being curious. I love that. And, we are all Sisters of Allah (God). So may he bless you!

10:30 PM  
Blogger frog said...

I don't agree that this is "the worst of both worlds," Grace. Not at all.

7:04 AM  
Blogger sybil said...

Sounds like worst of both worlds to me. But then I can't stand wearing too many clothes, inner or outer. I can certainly understand long clothing providing protection in desert environments. I wear long skirts and gowns a lot myself. By choice, not mandate. So I can sprawl or sit in other immodest positions. ah well, I guess this just confirms me as one of those *natural wimmin*, for whom sensual is compatible with relaxed and comfortable, and underwear is strictly optional.

good post. and good conversation about it. thanks.

11:08 PM  

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