It’s those noisy high heels

25Jun08

I’m supposed to be lesson planning, but this article caught my eye.

Women in a northern Malaysian city ruled by conservative Islamists are being urged to forsake bright lipstick and noisy high heels in an effort to preserve their dignity and avoid rape.

Kota Baru, the city in question, is part of Kelantan, a state that has been run by the Islamic Party of Malaysia since 1990. The ruling party is notoriously socially conservative and has spent many years trying to impose some strict interpretations of Islamic Law on the population. Headscarves for women are mandatory, entertainment centres are limited, and sex segregation – from beaches, to public benches, to supermarket queues – is widespread. So an attempt to “preserve the dignity of women” by restricting their appearance shouldn’t really be surprising.

It is true that these new restrictions aren’t compulsory. Unlike not wearing a headscarf, or sitting too close to someone of the opposite sex in public, failure to comply is not punishable by government. But by advising women not to do certain things, the government legitimises social pressure to conform that may come from family members, friends, or other people. Attempting to limit women’s appearance and actions in this way is upsetting enough on its own. To do so under the guise of ‘protection’ is even more unpleasant.

Suppose a woman is raped in Kota Baru. And it turns out, during the investigation, that at the time she was wearing both lipstick and high heels. Anyone misogynistic enough to believe that it was her fault anyway now has support for their belief. “She was asking for it! The goverment says so!” It isn’t hard to imagine the sort of sick, twisted man who abuses woman targeting people with make-up or heels, because they see the government pamphlets in some way justifying their behaviour. “It’s ok to abuse women in heels, because they’re not taking enough measures to safeguard themselves.” Or worse “She needs to be taught a lesson”.

These guidelines aren’t about protecting women. They are about limiting their behaviour. And, sadly, mindsets like this aren’t limited to religious social conservative groups of people. It has, sadly, become routine to hear about rape victims being questioned about their dress, behaviour or prior sexual conduct – as if in some way that influenced her assaulter to commit rape. In the USA and Canada, rape shield laws do not permit the disclosure of such information, but as yet there do not seem to be equivalent laws in the UK.

I don’t understand the mindset that thinks that women changing their appearance or their behaviour will have any effect on whether they are raped or not. I very rarely wear lipstick (I don’t like it) or high heels (I’m 5′ 8″). On the rare occasions that I do, am I really more vulnerable to sexual assault? Am I to suppose that, for some reason, makeup and shoes will drive someone to commit rape, when their absence would not? Perhaps it’s only that that marks me out as a woman and therefore a target. The guidelines in Kota Baru, after all, specify “bright lipstick” and “noisy high heels”. So women are safe if they’re not noticeable or audible? I usually wear trousers and very little makeup, but I haven’t been mistaken for a boy since puberty.

An even more disturbing facet of the “she was asking for it” mindset is how it seems to absolve the perpetrator of responsibility. Even if someone accepts the hypothesis that “women are some way be responsible for their rape” (and for the record, I don’t, at all), why should the attacker be allowed concessions because of this? If I were to steal a car tomorrow, whether the car was locked, or whether it was left unlocked with the keys in the ignition, I would still be guilty of car theft. Why is rape any different? Women’s bodies are not, ever, the property of others, and it’s inherently misogynistic to think otherwise.

Not to mention the fact that men aren’t mindless automatons driven entirely by their genitalia. It’s an offensive stereotype to them too. There are many men who would never commit assault, and to suggest that this is only because of a lack of lipstick is insulting. And there are men who want to abuse, and hurt, and rape women, and these men will do that regardless of whether women are wearing bikinis or burqas. And if there are men in the middle, who could come to believe that women’s actions and behaviour in some way invite assault, then they are the ones that need educating, not women.

Rape is an incredibly difficult crime to police, because it really does often come down to one person’s word against the other. But attitudes towards women like the ones shown in Kota Baru, and to a subtler extent in other parts of the world too, don’t even come close to protecting women. They just make it easier for those who would do harm to do so with fewer repercussions. And they have the added effect of policing women’s behaviour, which in itself is repulsive. A better campaign to protect women’s dignity would be to educate everyone that rape is a crime, no matter what the victim does.

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