From Bikinis to Burqas, the Feminist Politics of Clothing

Sarah Seltzer

How can so many American feminists have come out against a burqa ban in France? The answer is that singling out the burqa as the only article of clothing patriarchal enough to merit legal regulation is racist.

How can so many American feminists have come out against a
burqa ban in France (as they largely
when the burqa, along with other excessively modest religious garb, appears to
be a classic tool of gender oppression?

The answer is that singling out the burqa as the only
article of clothing patriarchal enough to merit legal regulation – or even
strident criticism – is racist. Critique of women’s clothing, from burqas to
cleavage, is
often leveraged for other purposes, whether they be religious, cultural or
political, and should be called out when it’s faux feminism
, as Aziza Ahmed
argued here on Rewire.

But it’s also true that almost every cultural or religious
group sets standards of appearance that oppress women. Most fashion, from the
corset of yore to the bikini to the FLDS prairie dress to the Nike sneaker
(made by women in sweatshops, marketed to Western women), tends
to hew in some way to patriarchal norms. So the quandary we grapple with, as
feminists, is how to acknowledge that fact
without alienating,
targeting or harassing
groups of women for the way they dress.

Remember the
Manolo Blahnik pinkie toe-removal phenomenon
, which hearkens back to
Cinderella’s stepsisters in terms of the lengths women go to mutilate
themselves on the altar of fashion? Imagine if we outlawed those heels for fear
that some women would shorten their pinkie toes.  In each instance of an oppressive custom of
dress or beauty, it’s right to support those feminists who debate it. It is also
crucial to examine the implications for women and for gender roles of dressing
one way or another – it’s a clear example of the personal being political. But
we have to do that without punishing or shaming women for their choice of
outfit, as the French would seek to do.

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Rather than single out other people’s problematic dress, we
should all be engaged in a robust critique and examination of the way gender
norms inform beauty standards everywhere. In France, a country that many of its
citizen claim is paradoxically so sexually liberated the burqa isn’t welcome, American-style
short-shorts are still a novelty, for instance, likely to garner stares or
catcalls. Women there tend to dress marginally more modestly than they do in
America – except on beaches, where topless bathing is accepted. Evidently, the
pressure to cover up, or to uncover, in various contexts may be stronger than
we think, even in "free" Western countries.

Here in secular/commercialized America, women try to live up
to a prepubescent ideal, buying into a diet industry that’s a racket and causes
eating disorders, using chemical bleaches on our hair, and undergoing
sometimes-painful waxing, peeling or plastic surgeries to look eternally young,
slim and buxom. The beauty myth has always been part of our culture, but as
feminist commentators like Naomi Wolf and Susan J. Douglas have noted, the craze
for ever-smaller female bodies coincided with women taking up a more space in
the workplace. Some women claim that restrictive fashion trends, obsessive
calorie-counting and makeup make them feel great, but both women who love it
and those who loathe it are spending money and energy on their looks in a way
that most men simply don’t have to. The
Daily Show played with this idea last week:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Burka Ban
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day


And yes, in conservative communities of all denominations
(and non-religious ones as well) modest dressing restrictions treat all women
like jezebels, so unendingly sexual and distracting that their figures must be
kept out of sight. Such garb – even if it has different meanings for different
wearers – reinforces a misogynist ideal that puts the burden on women to cover up
rather than men to avert their gaze.

This isn’t meant to equivocate between all patriarchal
fashion or grooming trends – (certainly, styles that are restrictive or unhealthy
are worse than those that are just silly), but to point out that they exist on
a spectrum. Feminists stand up for women at either end of the spectrum even
when both ends do have pernicious
aspects. Yes, we criticize "porn culture" at the same time as excoriating the
"modesty movement." But then we should also support women kicked off airplanes
for wearing outfits deemed too skimpy – and rush to defend women denied jobs
because they choose to wear the hijab.

Just because feminists acknowledge the problematic roots of
a practice doesn’t mean that we can, or want, to bully it away. The way humans
dress is an extension of our self-expression, our identity and an indication of
how we align ourselves in terms of community norms and expectations. Attacks on
individual clothing or grooming choices often feel deeply personal and can put
people on the defensive.

The truth is, rarely will clothing choices not be loaded,
complex and full of contradictions – here in the US we have cheerleaders and
beauty queens in suggestive outfits who wear chastity rings, and religious
women who accent their modest clothing with perfume and Botox while toting a
copy of Gender Trouble. Oppressive
mainstream beauty standards may make modest clothing appealing, while
puritanical religious customs may spur women to express their sexuality by
stripping down. It’s not so easy to reject patriarchal standards in their entirety
– if we didn’t shave, wax, or wear makeup (or at times, conceal the fact that we don’t) in strategic ways, we may well have a
much harder time taken seriously by the world (except if the world were a
hippie commune).

Open, nonjudgmental discussion of these complexities may
lead some women to turn towards comfort and away from custom–ditch their high
heels or experiment with less modest clothing. But at the end of the day,
different women have different reactions to what they wear. The feminist group Ni
Putes Ni Soumises and other
Muslim women have taken a convincingly strong stance against the burqa

while some burqa wearers say it’s
a choice they make freely
. Many women get a rush of happiness from high
heels while other women curse them and wish their workplace was more accepting
of less chic footwear.

That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and refuse to
examine the meaning and history of clothing styles and fashion expectations – we
should. It’s important to note which styles of dressing get women rewarded in
patriarchal societies and why. But when we do delve, we should delve holistically,
not focus mono-maniacally on habits-literally-of other women.

Reproductive rights advocates strive for a society where
choice means getting rid of social and legal obstacles to reproductive health
access instead of criticizing women’s individual reproductive decisions.
When feminists talk about clothing we try to focus on getting rid of the
gender, race and class expectations that feed into the way we dress and how we judge
women’s appearance.
We need to continue to target the pressure, coercion,
and legal and social compulsion that affects women, not women themselves. And
imposing laws that regulate clothing does not accomplish that goal, but curtails
women’s freedom even more seriously.

Analysis Law and Policy

With Tribal Jurisdiction in the Hands of the Supreme Court, Native Women Rally for Their Rights

Kanya D’Almeida

While protesters on the courthouse steps were united in their resolve to speak out against sexual assault and affirm tribal nations’ inherent ability to protect Native women and children, the feeling inside the building, observers said, was much more uncertain.

When she was 26 years old, Diane Millich suffered an abusive relationship. A member of the Southern Ute Indian tribe, she lived with her non-Native partner on a reservation in southwest Colorado, where in the space of a year she endured over 100 incidents of being “slapped, kicked, punched, and living in horrific terror.”

She made 20 attempts to leave the man, calling every authority she could think of to come to her aid. Again and again, her plea for help came up against the same answer: There was nothing law enforcement personnel could do to protect her, a Native woman, from her white husband. The Southern Ute tribal police lacked authority to apprehend the non-member, while the La Plata County deputy sheriff had no legal grounds for assisting her on tribal lands.

This legal quagmire, she said, fostered in the couple the notion that the husband was above the law. Time and again law enforcement personnel responding to domestic violence calls in her home would leave, having done nothing but explain that their hands were tied. On one occasion, she said, “after a beating, my ex-husband called the county sheriff himself to show me that no one could stop him. He was right; two deputies came and confirmed they did not have jurisdiction.”

Millich initially shared her experience back in 2012, in a House briefing regarding reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the federal law that seeks to improve the criminal justice response to violent crimes against women. This past Monday, she picked up the threads of that story outside the Supreme Court of the United States, where more than 200 people gathered in protest over a Court hearing that advocates say threatens to roll back years of established tribal sovereignty.

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Addressing a crowd on the lawn across from the high court, Millich explained that even when her husband tried to shoot her with a 9mm gun at a federal Bureau of Land Management site where she worked at the time, authorities were unable to prosecute him. In fact, the issue of who had jurisdiction over the shooting was so unclear that investigators used a measuring tape to determine the precise spot from which the shot had been fired.

Because of an amendment to VAWA passed in 2013, Native women can bring criminal charges against domestic abusers in tribal courts. But today, the warren of laws regarding tribal jurisdiction that kept Millich from prosecuting her abuser is in danger of being weakened even further, as the nine justices of the Supreme Court consider the merits of a case known as Dollar General v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a dispute that arose when a tribal minor alleged that an employee of the company repeatedly molested him in a store on Mississippi tribal lands in the summer of 2003.

The boy’s family sued for damages in tribal court, a move the corporation has fiercely resisted on the grounds that tribal courts lack jurisdiction over non-Natives. A total of five lower courts upheld the tribal court’s right to adjudicate the case, leading Dollar General to appeal directly to the Roberts Court, asking it to define once and for all “the scope of tribal authority to adjudicate tort [civil] claims against nonmembers.”

For decades, tribal courts have exercised the right to do just that, largely as a result of exceptions laid out in the 1981 Montana v. United States ruling, which allows tribal adjudication of tort claims when it comes to consensual relationships and situations that “threaten the political integrity, economic security or the health and welfare of the tribe.”

“This case falls squarely under Montana, as every single [lower] court has recognized, including the tribal district court and the tribal supreme court, as well as the federal district court and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals,” Mary Kathryn Nagle, an attorney at Pipestem Law Firm who sat in on the oral hearings Monday, told Rewire.

“Ever since 1981, the Supreme Court has had numerous opportunities to say definitively that tribes cannot exercise civil jurisdiction over non-members, but it has not done so. It has never categorically eliminated civil jurisdiction altogether and that is what Dollar General is asking for today—they asked for nothing less than the complete elimination of all civil jurisdiction, because according to them it is simply unconstitutional to make non-Natives answerable to any tribal court jurisdiction when they willingly decide to enter tribal lands.”

Thus, advocates charge that a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the corporation could have devastating consequences, particularly for Native women and children.

Organizers of Monday’s protest, including the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, and the Indian Law Resource Center, said that a positive ruling in favor of Dollar General would block the few remaining channels through which Native women seek recourse for domestic and sexual violence at the hands of non-Natives.

Even by conservative estimates, rates of sexual assault among American Indian and Alaskan Native women are staggering. Department of Justice data suggests that Native people “are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races.” Approximately 34 percent of Native women will experience rape and 61 percent will likely be assaulted in their lifetime. The fact that an estimated 86 percent of the perpetrators are non-Native men, according to Amnesty International, heightens the stakes of the impending Supreme Court ruling.

In a stark visual representation of the scale of the epidemic, participants in the protest wore or carried squares of cloth sewn onto shawls bearing the stories of sexual assault survivors as they marched in a circle chanting “Shame on Dollar General.” Later, they laid them down in the lawn across from the Supreme Court building, forming a vast quilt of red and purple fabric.

One of thousands of quilt squares that carpeted the lawn across from the US Supreme Court on Monday reads "It's Not My Fault".

One of thousands of quilt squares that carpeted the lawn across from the US Supreme Court on Monday reads, “It’s Not My Fault.”

“So far we’ve collected over 1,200 quilt squares from survivors around the country, and displayed them 25 times for tens of thousands of people to see,” Rebecca Nagle, co-director of the Monument Quilt Project, told Rewire on the sidelines of the demonstration.

“By stitching our stories together we create and demand public space to heal and we also build public understanding of the United States’ culture and policies that create the current crisis of rape for Native Americans, including the government’s policy regarding tribal jurisdiction,” she said.

In her public address, Nagle said that as a survivor she is tired of being told that she is “broken.”

“I am not what’s broken,” she said. “What’s broken is a racist legal framework that allows violent people to prey on Native women and children with no consequences, the fact that whenever I’m in a group of Native women and we start talking about violence and sexual abuse, every woman in the room has a story … What’s broken is a society built on domination and greed where a corporation’s bottom line is more important than justice for a child survivor of sexual assault.”

She said one survivor even wrote on her quilt square, “Dollar General, your attack on tribal jurisdiction is an attack on my body.”

While protesters on the courthouse steps were united in their resolve to speak out against sexual assault and affirm tribal nations’ inherent ability to protect Native women and children, the feeling inside the building, observers said, was much more uncertain.

Mary Kathryn Nagle, author of the NIWRC amicus brief on the case, said that the arguments made on Monday were “incredibly difficult to listen to.” Far from focusing on the experience of the survivor, she said many of the judges seemed more interested in Dollar General’s arguments that a non-Native corporate entity could be stripped of its constitutional right to due process by being forced into a tribal court.

“But even when Justice [Stephen] Breyer asked the Dollar General representative to explain what was wrong with tribal courts, they could not provide a single answer, or give an example of an American citizen whose due process rights have been violated in a tribal court,” she said.

She said the notion that tribal courts are somehow inferior to state courts is both offensive and inaccurate, given that tribal systems of government, particularly the Iroquois Confederacy, predate all other forms of government in this country and provide the basis for the U.S. Constitution itself.

Court transcripts further revealed that much of the hour-long hearing was devoted to the question of consent—the cornerstone of the first Montana exception—with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Kennedy, and others debating whether or not the corporation expressly consented to tribal jurisdiction, despite the fact that Dollar General, in leasing land from the tribe to operate the store on the Mississippi reservation, agreed in writing to be governed by both tribal and federal regulations.

“Never once did a justice ask, ‘What about that little boy? Did he consent to being sexually assaulted on his own tribal lands?’” Nagle said.

Other legal experts called the entire proceeding “dehumanizing and racist.” Sarah Deer, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law who also heard the arguments, said they revolved around the myth that tribal juries—or what Dollar General referred to as “All-Indian” juries—are inherently unfair. “It’s important that we keep our framework around citizenship,” she said. “Because it’s not ‘Indians’ who sit on our juries; it’s citizens of our tribes.”

“The whole thing, the images and the protocols, struck me as being very patriarchal,” Deer told Rewire. “The theme was corporations and their rights—not tribal power or the victims. Granted, the centrality of this case is a mechanical jurisdictional question, but to have no humanity in over an hour of discussions is hard to wrap your head around.”

Significant bodies of scholarship dedicated to the issue of sexual violence against Native women have acknowledged that this very process of dehumanization has contributed to a feeling of impunity among perpetrators that then feeds a pattern of abuse.

In its 2007 Maze of Injustice report, still widely cited given the dearth of current statistics involving Native women, Amnesty International traced the roots of the current rape crisis back to the founding of the United States, when sexual violence was used as a tool of conquest, right up to 1968 when a federal appellate court ruling (Gray v. United States) “upheld a statute under which an American Indian man who committed a rape in Indian Country received a lower penalty if the victim was a Native woman.”

Such legal frameworks that posit Native people as somehow inferior, and which Native lawyers and advocates had assumed were a thing of the past, now threaten to reemerge if the Supreme Court’s June ruling goes in favor of Dollar General, experts say.

“It feels as if all the things I thought had been settled back in the 1990s are back on the table like nothing’s changed,” Deer said. “The abortion battle is starting again, and now this—it’s demoralizing.”

One participant at the rally, a representative of the Cherokee Nation who gave her name only as Cinema, told Rewire that she came to the protest because she could no longer be silent. “I see this case as just one other way in which capitalism and sexism interact, with corporate greed threatening to tear away at our basic human rights. It’s very familiar in terms of how this country was formed—around genocide and the stealing of resources, including people, for profits.”

 CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Diane Millich’s name.

News Law and Policy

California Requires Crisis Pregnancy Centers to Tell the Truth

Teddy Wilson

The Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency Act would require licensed clinics that provide family planning or pregnancy-related services to provide a notice to consumers regarding their reproductive rights.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a bill Friday that would require crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) to offer pregnant people information about state programs providing reproductive health-care services, including abortion.

CPC groups reacted to the new law, which is scheduled to take effect on January 1, by filing a lawsuit Saturday to block the measure, reported the Sacramento Bee.

AB 775, known as the Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency Act, would require licensed clinics that provide family planning or pregnancy-related services to provide a notice to consumers regarding their reproductive rights.

The legislation targets CPCs, requiring them to inform patients that California has public programs that provide immediate and free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services, prenatal care, and abortion, for eligible women.

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The bill would also require CPCs without medical licenses that advertise and provide pregnancy testing and care to post a notice saying they have neither a license nor licensed providers on staff. CPCs, supported by anti-choice lawmakers on the state and federal levels, have been found to dole out misinformation about abortion. They are often staffed by people dressed in lab coats offering medical advice to pregnant women.

There are more than 300 CPCs in California, according to the Heartbeat International directory.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement that CPCs are “ground-zero” in the fight for reproductive freedom.

“Gov. Brown and the California legislature can be proud of leading the first successful statewide effort to ensure that no woman is tricked into walking through doors of a CPC to be manipulated and shamed again,” Hogue said. “This is the kind of change that 7 in 10 Americans have been clamoring for—to expand access, not reduce it.”

NARAL Pro-Choice California last year sent undercover investigators into CPCs to document common practices. A report released in March found that CPCs strategically misinform and deceive pregnant people, always with the same underlying message: bring the pregnancy to term.

Ninety-one percent of centers visited by NARAL doled out misinformation about the effects of abortion on a person’s physical and mental health, saying that having an abortion would increase the risk of breast cancer, infertility, miscarriage, and/or depression that results in suicide.

“She told me that for some women, [abortion clinics] dilate them too fast and they might miscarry a lot because the cervix might not close up all the way,” said one investigator, whose name was concealed. “So I might have a lot of miscarriages if I aborted the baby.”

In another instance, a CPC employee mistook an investigator’s intrauterine device (IUD) for a fetus during an ultrasound, telling the investigator that it was “her baby.” CPC employees told undercover investigators that going through with an induced abortion is unnecessary, because the chance of a spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage, is 30-50 percent.

The lawsuit filed by the Pacific Justice Institute on behalf of two religiously affiliated CPCs, the Woman’s Friend Pregnancy Resource Clinic in Marysville and Crisis Pregnancy Center of Northern California in Redding, claims that the law violates the organizations’ First Amendment rights.

The Pacific Justice Institute is a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation for conservative and religious organizations. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the institute as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.

The complaint states that the law “unconstitutionally compels (the clinics) to speak messages that they have not chosen, with which they do not agree, and that distract, and detract from, the messages they have chosen to speak.”

The bill was passed with large majorities in the Democratic-led California legislature. The senate passed the bill in September with a 24-14 vote, and the assembly approved the bill in May with a 49-26 vote.

Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Inglewood), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told the Sacramento Bee that bill is about ensuring women are fully informed of all of their reproductive health-care options, regardless of where they seek that information.

“It’s hard to understand how those who claim to care about women find it so threatening to inform them about accessing affordable health care,” Burke said.

Opponents of the legislation have claimed that it is intended to “bully” CPCs and that it infringes on freedom of speech and religious liberty.

“You may not like the message that these people are putting forward, you may not like what they have to say, but they have every right under our Constitution for freedom of speech just like anyone else,” said Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), reported the Sacramento Bee.

A coalition of more than 100 religious leaders signed a letter supporting the bill, and encouraging Brown to sign the bill.

Sara Hutchinson Ratcliffe, domestic program director for Catholics for Choice, wrote that the legislation does not violate religious freedom. “It respects the definition of religious freedom—freedom of and freedom from—by allowing women of every faith, and women of no faith, in California to access affordable health care,” Ratcliffe wrote.


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