Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Stripping Away the Diversity of Modesty

MEMRI has a YouTube video entitled “Iranian Police Enforces ‘Islamic Dress Code’ on Women.” As an aside, I’m kind of impressed by the use of quotation marks, because MEMRI videos (whether posted by the news organization itself or reposted by individual users) tend towards inflammatory Islamophobic phrases.

The video shows the so-called “hijab police.” A woman, clad in black chador and manteau, walks up to women and asks them questions like, “As an Iranian citizen, do you think the way you are dressed is appropriate?” She points to scarves deemed too thin, hair not fully covered by scarves, lack of manteau, excessive makeup, and too-short trousers. According to the woman such dress is incompatible with Islam. The presence of the hovering policeman and threat on being “put on the bus” drive this message home.

Watching the “modesty officer” harass the women, none of whom were “indecent” by any reasonable standards (certainly not compared to the T-shirt-wearing men walking freely past), made me angry, as I’m guessing it was intended to do. Look at Iranians and their crazy Islamic rules! Don’t you see how they need American liberation?

Indeed, many who commented on the video took it as an opportunity to unleash racial prejudices and supremacism. I saw anti-Iranian tirades, anti-Arab, even anti-Jewish rants — and of course Islamophobic ones. (This context makes me appreciate MEMRI’s use of quotations marks around the phrase “Islamic dress code” even more. It’s easy to assume that because a government official says it’s Islamic, it is.)

But possibly more disturbing were some comments by fellow Muslims. Some drew a parallel between dress standards in Iran and in the United States. In the United States, women face consequences for being topless in public, because it violates a societal norm of decency. Proponents of this analogy argue that in Iran, dress standards are stricter, but they are just as appropriate for their respective society.

It doesn’t take long to see the flaws in this argument. At least from colonialism onward, toplessness in America has long held the status of unacceptable. While each generation considers more skin acceptable than the last, it remains a basic standard for women to cover their breasts. On the other hand, the standards imposed by the woman in Iran in the video are not based on any such history in Iran. If these so-called societal norms were truly based in cultural tradition and modern standards, there would be no need for a “modesty” police squad to begin with. (Topless women in America are so rare because the instilled societal standards, not law enforcement, prevent women from even considering going outside topless.)

Besides the logical flaws, the comparison has a dangerous message. Not wearing “proper hijab” is akin to half-nudity? An Iranian woman wearing a sarafan over a long-sleeved shirt is paralleled by a topless American woman? So it implies. In other words, women who wear any less than the chador/manteau combo (and let’s not even talk about those who don’t wear hijab at all) might as well be naked. What an effective way to deny any scrap of the word “modesty” to women who differ from proscribed standards.

For further discussion of the video, see the posts and comments at the Her Modesty magazine blog here and here.