JULY 7 — Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the strange incidents of men molesting the life-sized cardboard cutouts of a Shell petrol station supervisor was the way her so-called “modesty” was highlighted.
The standees of the 25-year-old woman showed her in a headscarf, long-sleeved shirt and trousers. Some men did funny stuff like posing beside the standee with her thumbs up; others did slightly icky things like kissing the cardboard cutout on the cheek. And then there was the downright disgusting grabbing of the standee’s chest and crotch.
There was the usual social media outrage, but curiously enough, many reports and Facebook users talked about how incredulous the lewd acts were since the model was “modestly” dressed.
The victim’s dress is always highlighted in incidents of sexual assault, or in this case, the “molest” of a woman’s likeness. Either she’s dressed skimpily (however that is defined), which to some people means she deserved what she got, or she’s totally covered up, to which people will either shrug or say, “How can she be sexually harassed when she’s dressed decently?”
By focusing on a woman’s clothing during sexual attacks, we give the impression that only “modest” women do not deserve the crime committed against them.
If the molested standee had been of a bikini model, would people still jump to her defence? I think not as many people would.
Society’s obsession with a woman’s dress and her related culpability in a sex crime sometimes makes us second-guess ourselves.
When I was writing an article about being sexually harassed in a public park, I hesitated about whether I should include what I was wearing during the time of the incident (I was wearing a tanktop and shorts, my usual jogging attire).
I hesitated because I wondered if some people might blame my clothes for the man’s lewd comments towards me. (Although, logically, wearing a giant loose T-shirt would be even more reason for the man to say “Where are your breasts?”, which was what he had said to me despite my wearing a tanktop).
I went ahead and described what I wore during the sexual harassment anyway because I felt that there was overwhelming focus on various rape victims’ “decent” attire, but not enough discourse about how a woman should not be sexually assaulted even if she was wearing a miniskirt.
True enough, one commentator posted in response to my article: “Not trying to put the blame on you, but do you honestly believe that the incident had nothing to do with the tanktop and shorts?”
The modesty narrative is harmful to women. It lulls some women into falsely believing that covering up from head to toe will protect them from sexual assault. And for women who know that whatever they wear has no impact on the likelihood of sex attacks, the thought of facing social condemnation in the event they are assaulted while dressed “sexily” is unpleasant.
It is also unfortunate that Shell removed standees of its employee after images of the “molest” went viral. The instinct in such incidents is always to “protect” the victim, which usually translates to removing her from the public sphere. This should not be the solution.
Women should not be told to remain in the private sphere, to avoid going out late at night, or to quit selling goods and services, which Isma bizarrely labelled as “exploitation.”
Women exist. They have breasts and hips. Deal with it.
If people feel that they cannot resist sexually assaulting a woman because of how she is dressed, then the problem lies with them. Such men should not be allowed to leave their home.
Otherwise, we might as well ban companies from openly selling food like hamburgers, ice cream and potato chips, in case they tempt people into unhealthy diets. But we don’t because we expect people to exercise self-control and to make their own choices about their eating habits.
The modesty narrative is just a tool for men to subjugate women and for women to oppress other women (because women who follow men’s rules gain a little power in their world). It has nothing to do with “protecting” women’s “purity.”
If people really wanted to protect women from dishonour, then men themselves should respect women, initiate sexual relations only with consent, and call out other men who sexually harass women. Women should defend other women who are sexually assaulted, not slut shame them for their dressing.
Our bodies are not something to be ashamed of.
We have no reason to hide it.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.