I write all the time about how the everyday harassment of women on streets around the world is gendered regulation of public space. How the threat of real violence perpetuates male dominance. On one end of the spectrum harassment is superficially benign and women can feel flattered by strangers’ attention. I say superficially because a) a woman never knows when the tone of an interaction will go from unthreatening to threatening and b) even purported flattery is a reflection of a cultural understanding that the female body exists not just for the private, but even the public, comment and pleasure of men. On the other end of the spectrum the harassment causes dire inequalities, bodily disfigurement and death.
I don’t think anyone should resort to violence in situations like this, but this story just made me smile. Not because a woman defended herself with force, but because of the harasser’s response: shock, horror, dismay at being accosted by a stranger in the street. Not an iota of irony.
From Bloomberg last week: Iran Cleric Pummeled by ‘Badly Covered’ Woman After Warning
In traditional fashion the man of he title, Hojatoleslam Ali Beheshti, believes (he continues despite this experience) that it is his destiny to enforce divine rules regarding other people’s behavior, especially women whom he perceives as rule-breakers. In the course of doing this he told a woman he did not know to better cover herself. She responded by telling him to better cover his eyes if he was bothered. He insisted, she pushed him and he fell on his back. Maybe this man should have purchased modesty glasses. Bloomberg quotes him as saying “I don’t know what happened after that, all I could feel was the kicks of this woman who was insulting me and attacking me.” I am not downplaying his real physical pain. I am just amazed by the total lack of introspection or empathy in his statement that her defense of his assault on her (and who knows how many other girls and women over the years) is “the worst day” of his life. Like many men with power and authority he probably has never thought about what it is like to be a woman moving through time and space on the planet and considering yourself fully human. Kinda like Jim Buchy, the anti-abortion crusader from Ohio who, when asked why he thought a woman might need an abortion responded “Well, I’m not a woman….I don’t know. It’s a question I’ve never even thought about.” Bonus points for Team America!
Now, I don’t want to get sidetracked. The modesty police are way too interesting and come in all fundamentalist flavors. Here are some Mormons photoshopping sleeves on girls and here are some Christians providing clear and detailed guidelines for dressing for Christ. Taking another tack, ultra-orthodox Jewish men in Brooklyn have taken to wearing $6.00 “modesty glasses” that blur women. Yes. Just blur them RIGHT OUT OF TEMPTATION. I don’t know exactly how they work and assume that everything in sight is actually blurred. But, that’s irrelevant. What matters is that these men are taking responsibility for controlling themselves. It’s a net gain even if they fail to utilize the small slit in the lens that enables them to see properly and stumble now and then.
Earlier this year a writer in the Huffington Post suggested that articles like this, with slightly mocking or sarcastic tones, reflect a hatred for the ultra-orthodox and argued, “They’re not hurting anyone.” I disagree. They’re hurting a lot of people. Radical religious extremists who perceive gender as polarized and normal sexuality as sinful wreak havoc on societies. Children and women are abused in private and girls and women who are abused in public.
She scared them. Yes, I did say scare. Because when little girls walking quietly to school incite you to violence fear is the only explanation that makes any sense. Psychology Today reported last year that studies show that conservatives have larger amygdala then people who are not conservatives. As a result they are predisposed to react to change with real anxiety and fear. That isn’t particularly heartening. However, the change we need isn’t sartorial. It’s an awareness that people have individual rights – to freedom, choice, bodily integrity. And girls and women are people. We are still so far from this idea that street harassment, modesty patrols and more profoundly damaging but sexuality and gender related evils are ubiquitous around the world. People should believe what ever they want about god and their relationship to god. It just becomes a problem when they feel they have the right to tell total strangers, usually girls and women what to do. In this case, how they should dress. And then do it using harassment and escalating violence.
It pays to remember that people dressing any way they want has always been part of revolutions.
I say yay for “Badly Covered Woman”!
Image via Wikimedia Commons.