Two similar stories about girls being sent away from school because their skirts were too short got turned into a little video by the Guardian this week. Last year, a similar issue in the US went viral.
In each case, the schools ask their girls to avoid wearing clothes which might be considered sexually suggestive, and this is not really anything new. Don’t wear your skirts too short, or your blouses open, because boys will try to look up or down them, (as appropriate) will think you’re a slut, might think that you’re available to them, and will be distracted from their work, as will your poor long-suffering male teachers. Easy on the make-up, you don’t want to be mistaken for a whore. ‘The last thing we want,’ the Milton Keynes Head said, hilariously, ‘is boys peering up girls’ skirts while they are climbing the stairs.’ (Really? That’s the last thing you want? There’s nothing worse? It’s as bad as that?)
There are a variety of responses that the modern thoughtful and fair-minded person might want to make about this, and here are just some of them, not all discussed in the linked articles.
First, why aren’t boys sharing some of the burden of this dangerous sexual energy? Why is it the girls who have to wear their skirts long, and not the boys who have to look away, as it used to be suggested that any gentleman would? Second, why aren’t boys being taught that the way a girl looks is not necessarily a sexual invitation to all, and ideally – I’m sure all boys would welcome lessons in this – how to tell when it is? Third, why aren’t boys getting grief for not being in greater control of their lusts, and why can’t teachers, of all people, just get on with their jobs, not bothering about whether the girl in the second row has her tits out, or her legs spread, just as an actor or, come to that, a shopkeeper might be expected to do. Surely the men of a mature modern culture ought to be able to accept that overtly sexually dressed women might be wanting to dress that way for some reason other than to attract a mate, and at the very least they might be expected not to stare fixedly at a woman’s breasts simply because they are large or partially exposed, or to gaze up her skirt because she happens to have sat in a way that the schoolmarms would not consider sufficiently demure?
Personally, I have a problem with the veil, and part of the problem with it is that it seems to imply all sorts of things about the treatment of women that I don’t like: that they are a possession of men that has to be concealed while the men walk about freely is part of it, but the other is that the appearance of a female – her shape, hair and skin – is so sexually dangerous that it must be hidden, lest men be overcome with lust, whether that might lead to an incontinent sexual attack, or simply contribute to the build-up of sexual tension and frustration in the poor chap. Witness poor Rizwan Shabir abandoning his participation in Bear Grylls’ reality TV show The Island because he was unable to cope with being surrounded by bikini-clad twenty-somethings.
Yet isn’t this more or less what these schools are saying? Is it not just the same shoving of blame onto the girls? They don’t have to keep their ankles covered like they do in Riyadh, but if they show their thighs, it seems, they are dangerous sexual sirens, and boys cannot be expected to stop their ears to the tune, still less (to stretch a metaphor) get themselves tied to the mast.
I respect these sentiments, and I think it’s right that hidden sexism like this is exposed, or at least discussed. I can’t however, stop myself wondering if it is all just a smidge naïve. For one thing, does not the urge to condemn men and boys for their looking and their lusting sprout from the same vestigial virginal Victorian values as the one which shames the ‘sluts’? The same girls who are being condemned for their short skirts here will be the ones protesting about the leering of their teachers and male classmates. If there is no reason to hide breasts because women aren’t all about the sex, why can’t they be gazed at as idly and indifferently as shoulders and elbows? If it is bad manners for boys to look up girls’ skirts, who says, and why? (‘The last thing we want!’) Is it because you should look people in the face when you talk to them? But we wouldn’t condemn those people from cultures were meeting the gaze is frowned upon, would we? Is it because lust is bad, even though it populates the world?
For another thing, though we may well demand the right for women to dress as they please and to suffer no negative consequences, it would be disingenuous to suggest that for most women, choosing what to wear and how to look is a sexually, or even politically neutral process. That process can be frustrating and infuriating, and one of the more convincing arguments Muslim women advance for wearing the veil is that it obviates the need to play all those particular games: that veiled, no one’s going to judge you, gawp at you, cat call or wolf-whistle, tell you to give them a smile, or tell you look tired. (This is an argument I would find more convincing if I didn’t suspect that it fitted in rather conveniently with the uncompromising demands of grim-faced brothers and fathers, and if the corollary were not that such women were instead sidelined, overlooked and ignored.)
No doubt every woman has frequent occasions when she wishes that she did not need to bother with her make up or her hair, and could just go out in a baggy tracksuit, and on those days she should be able to do so without comment or condemnation from either gender. I do not doubt that a very small number of women feel like that all the time, and the same applies. But a multi-billion dollar fashion and make-up industry tells us, by its mere existence, either that most women do choose to spend time on their appearance, or that escaping the clothes and make-up conspiracy is too hard. All that shopping for clothes and shoes, handbags and make-up might be an imposition which women yearn to escape, but in the vast majority of cases, it doesn’t particularly look like it.
The opposite extreme to the burqa, it might be thought, is nudism, and yet I would suggest that ironically it has more or less the same effect, at similar cost to the fashion industry. When no one wears any clothes at all, one is reminded that absolutely everyone has genitals and secondary sexual characteristics, that they all look more or less the same, and any interest in concealing them or conversely, sneaking a peak at them, soon evaporates. Yoruba women of Nigeria and Benin are traditionally completely naked, apart from a string of beads around the waist. Apparently it’s the string of beads that drives the men wild.
So, in lieu of a government initiative to bring in compulsory nudity in schools, what is to be done? If, as Laura Bates says, demanding that girls dress demurely ‘suggest[s] that their bodies are inherently sexual and provocative, and must [be covered up]’, should they instead be allowed free rein on the length of their skirts or the plunge of their blouses, and encouraged in their ignorance of the effect on men, however well behaved? Do we really think that is the most empowering of strategies? Can we not hear the sound of hundreds of creepy male (and possibly lesbian) teachers clapping their hands in leery anticipation? Is it not important, instead, that we try to educate young women about how and when the sexual aspects of their appearance can be deployed, and when they need to be toned down?
I suspect that what needs to change is not what is said or done, but the tone of blame and moral condemnation. Dressing appropriately is a life skill, and it’s not about morality or shaming, it’s just about getting things right.