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Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Teaching women how to dress in Baghdad

I recently came across an article in the NY Times, "Mannequins Wear a Message for Iraq's Women" about a display put in a shopping area in Baghdad that was meant to teach women how to dress themselves.
On a raised stage between two shops, four mannequins in Western dress, their blond hair peeking out under colored scarves, stood amid crepe-paper flames. To one side was a banner featuring lust-crazed male ghouls; behind the mannequins, images of eternal suffering.
And at the foot of the stage was a scripture from the mosque.
“Whoever fills his eyes with the forbidden, on judgment day God will fill them with fire.”
The display is meant to show women how to properly dress themselves. Those that do not dress to a certain standard i.e. the abaya, a black cloak that covers the body, which the clerics there believe is what is Islamically sanctioned, then they are committing a sin. It is also meant to frighten women into dressing in a specific manner, to protect herself from men's lustful looks and to protect her from hellfire, the punishment for showing her body. What's interesting about the display is that all the mannequins are dressed in a very conservative manner, long dress, arms covered as well as hair but it is not the abaya. In other Muslim countries this form of dress would be considered acceptable by religious leaders. However in this Shi'a area of Baghdad, the abaya is the proper Islamic dress. The approach of teaching women how to dress as well as the comments made by men and women in the interviews presents an all too common sentiment about women's dress in the Muslim world. Women are taught repeatedly that they must dress a certain way, cover your head, cover your face, cover your body. The reasons given for it are two: one, it is mandated by the religion; and two it is a protection against men looking at them lustful, men can't help themselves if women dress in a way that reveals her body. What is scary is how myopic Muslims are when reading their own texts and religious mandates. What is often not discussed is that the Qur'an mandates that believing men and women dress modestly, guard their privates, and lower their gazes. It is compulsory for women and men, not just women. However the emphasis on the men to lower their gaze and to not harass women is never made or even taught in society. Why is there no display that shows how men will be punished in the hellfire for looking at women and committing other sins? This partial and near sighted view of modesty in the religion is sad and causes more problems. This emphasis on women to cover up even more by wearing the abaya so that men will not lust after them or harass them only gives men the right to do that to women who are not dressed in this manner, even if she is dressed modestly. This harassment is then forgiven because the woman was asking for it, she should know better and cover up more. No wonder, non Muslims see Muslim men as controlling and misogynistic. The equity and fairness that is prescribed for both gender is never carried out, it's always the woman's fault.

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