How We Dress: The Oppression of Women

It is commonly accepted that Muslim women are oppressed by their husbands and their culture. But many Muslims, women included, counter by claiming that Western women are “oppressed” by the demands their society places on them to be sexy.

A Muslim woman can be alluring, too, which is why the whole modesty thing as a reason for covering is somewhat pointless. Men will fantasize about women no matter what. In fact, you could argue that the more covered a woman is, the more a man fantasizes about her. But no matter how a woman is dressed, a man should never be allowed to use the excuse that a woman enticed him by the way she was dressed.

My standards are looser than most Muslims. I’m not offended by bare arms, necks or legs (as long as the dress or shorts don’t expose more than the leg!).I am uncomfortable with cleavage and bare midriffs, not to mention bikinis. But I don’t think that a woman who is “uncovered” is bad or even wrong. What I do object to is the subtle ways that women (and even girls) are told that they must be desirable to men.

Perhaps it is biologically wired into women to try to attract men, but that doesn’t mean that we should be doing it all the time, at any age, and regardless of our relationship status. What reason does a married woman have to doll herself up in front of other men? Hasn’t she already attracted her mate?

Some say that women dress as much for other women as they do for men. But why are they trying to prove that they’re sexier if they’re already in a relationship? Others say that men like their women to be perceived as attractive, even sexy, by other men because it’s an ego boost for them. But isn’t it a little crass for men to put their women on display as if they’re mere possessions?

Many non-Muslims think that the reason Muslim women are “made” to cover is because their men don’t trust them. They think they’ll attract the attention of other men which might lead to infidelity. They also don’t trust other men to keep their hands off their women. Because they know what men are like, they believe that a woman shouldn’t do anything to make a man think about her sexually.

While this may be true for some men (Muslim and non-Muslim), the Qur’an makes it clear that women are to be honored and cherished. The implication is that dressing modestly helps men to hold them in high esteem, not because they would blame women for being sexy if they didn’t, but because they appreciate it when a woman knows her own value.

I reacted strongly when I saw this picture of Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover of Elle magazine. Why did she have to pose in nothing but a sweater (and at least a bra) with her one shoulder bared provocatively? Wouldn’t she have looked just as attractive if she had been wearing slacks or leggings and had kept her sweater all the way on? It’s not that I think she looks sluttish (for this type of picture, it’s fairly tasteful), but I can’t help but wonder why she felt she had to pose this way? Or why she was pressured to?

I think I know what motivates some women to agree to pictures like this: It’s because women are seeking affirmation that they are desirable. If they see themselves in a photograph or painting looking sexy, it reassures them that they are. I would guess that most women would like at least one photo of themselves looking sexy and beautiful. That’s one reason for the popularity of Glamour Shots®. What woman doesn’t want to be recorded as looking beautiful at least once in her life?

But why do they want these pictures on public display? Wouldn’t it be enough to have them at home? I can see Paltrow hanging this picture in her bedroom for her husband to enjoy. But what motivates her, and so many other women, to present themselves this way to the whole world?

I’m not saying that women shouldn’t try to be attractive. I think there is something in a woman’s makeup that makes her want to be beautiful. (One reason why some women wear the niqab or full burqa is because they’re trying to erase that desire from their psyches. They believe that it is only appropriate to glorify God, not themselves.)

But when women start feeling that they will enhance their careers or be treated better if they dress the way that men want them to, they have crossed the line between self-esteem and self-pandering. “Selling” the way that they look in return for favors. What’s that called? Oh, yeah, prostitution.

Cross-posted on Femagination, my blog about women’s issues, including feminism.

Published by

Ellen

Editor and chief writer at I, Muslimah and Femagination. Ellen also contributes regularly to Elevate Difference. She is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with two cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

8 thoughts on “How We Dress: The Oppression of Women”

  1. I understand what you are endeavoring to portray in using Paltrow’s pic, but I had to wonder if we’re looking at the same pic? She actually is wearing more than just a sweater…that’s a black swimsuit. And, knowing her, I’d say she rather enjoyed that shot for Elle. Totally feminine; totally Gwyneth Paltrow…and proud of it.

    1. I did say that I thought the photo of Paltrow was tasteful. And I stand corrected: she is wearing more than a bra, although I think it’s a leotard, not a swimming suit (I think I see a long-sleeve peeking out).

      I see what you mean about this being “totally feminine.” But why is being feminine so often equated with being sexy? Is that inevitable? Or is it something women cultivate because they think they need to, in order to keep up their image or remain marketable?

      I do not agree with people who say that to be modest, women have to obliterate everything about themselves that could be called beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with beauty.

      Unfortunately, though, we put such a premium on being beautiful, that if you’re not, you are considered inferior. That’s what Islam is trying to get away from. Beauty should come from within, and a truly discerning man will see and value that kind of beauty more than the “skin-deep” kind.

        1. Good question. I’ve thought of it every once in a while and then I forget and I’m too lazy to try to figure out how to do it. I’ll get my webmaster on it.

  2. I think she posed like that because she was being paid to do so….
    and it’s a bathing suit (there is no long sleeve).
    And there are times I want to look nice in general, not really FOR anyone (maybe sometimes for my boyfriend when we go out, but he thinks I look nice in anything).

  3. I can’t speak to Gwyneth’s motives, although I would speculate that judging by her body of work, that her feelings are similar to my own in this matter. These are as follows:

    I have long believed that there are two different interpretations of beauty; First, there is what the media has created and force fed us to believe is beautiful – in American society, large breasts, small waists, little to no excess body hair, etc. This interpretation is everywhere in American society, on television, in movies, on television, in magazines, in the news, in advertising, even on billboards. We can’t escape it, and from the time we watch our first Disney movie, we’ve been indoctrinated into the Western mindset that our value lies in our patience, our compliance, our sweetness, and of course, our beauty.

    However, there is another definition of beauty that, as we grow up, some of us are lucky to uncover. It’s a struggle to embrace, even after you know it, but I believe Ms. Paltrow not only knows it, but she is one of the few who does believe that beauty has very little to do with what you look like, or even how other people judge you physically. Beauty is your individual quantification of your own worth. As you say, it’s all about knowing that we, as people, and particularly as women, have value. All too often in American society, the message we’re getting these days is that we have no value, no worth, no anything, unless we have wealth, power, and/or beauty.

    It’s up to us to look within ourselves and discover that worth, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with physicality. I once knew a woman who was overweight, an ethnic minority, a sexual minority, and physically not what one would consider “classically pretty”. Yet, she was one of the most confident and inspiring women I’ve ever met because of that. All of those things could have worked against her, had she been a weaker person, but her strength made her beautiful. Had she posed in a picture like Gwyneth’s, I guarantee that there would have been a lot of people horrified by it, but there would also be a lot of people inspired by her spirit.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve known numerous women – absolutely gorgeous – who I’ve secretly wished I could look like, who have hated themselves so much that they’ve done almost anything they could to destroy their bodies and their lives. We all know them, or know of them, right? There’s drugs, or alcohol, or addictions to plastic surgery, or they think they need to lose weight, so they become anorexics, although they already weigh 105 lbs. They engage in destructive behavior, searching for acceptance and meaning, because they don’t love themselves. They have no concept of their own beauty, and need that affirmation from someone else.

    Some of these women are in the sex industry, or models, or actors, but even more of them go to the gym with us, and stand in line with us at the Supermarket, and take their kids to the same schools our kids go to. They’re no more or less special than we are. Heck, they are us. I’m still working on moving from one stage to the other. It’s hard to love yourself, and to undo thirty years of brainwashing.

    My point is, that for someone like Gwyneth, who knows her worth, and who already knows where her beauty comes from – both inside and out – she doesn’t pose for pictures like these out of some need to feel better about herself, or seek approval, or to entice men, or to intimidate women. She does it, in my opinion, because she does know her inner beauty. She radiates confidence and strength, and even she doesn’t have the protective barrier of clothing between herself and the viewer – the camera – she is still strong. That can’t be taken away from her.

    Look at some advertising pictures in magazines of women who are scantily clad and then look at this again. Other pictures, I can almost guarantee, will feature women whom, if you study them closely, will look either like they’ve been dressed like children (or, if a child, dressed like an adult), and/or they will look like the victim of a violent crime, possibly sexual in nature. There could be a man in the ad, and he’s usually either in a position of dominance over her, or he’s positioned between her legs, either in a sexual pose, or, strangely, in a position reminiscent of a woman giving birth.

    In comparison? Gwyneth here looks like a Queen.

  4. Hello

    Im sorry your offended by bare arms and legs and think women should’nt have to dress up if they already have a husband. The top and bottom of it all, is oppression, simply because you are speaking about what you think women should and shouldnt wear, ive noticed it does not apply to men with bare legs and arms, I have been happily married for years and love my husband, I love to dress up nice and so does he, we wear what we want and if he dosent like something i wear he will tell me but wont tell me I have to take it off, the same goes if i dont like something hes wearing. You are basically brain washed even though you think you are being so liberal. By the way my mother is catholic my husband is muslim my son is catholic and me and my daughter are church of england, who cares love one another and stop judeging

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