Thursday, May 26, 2011

Too much skin

I live in a country where signs like this are fair game:
Yes, if you are a woman, you can skydive indoors in complete privacy, shielded from the potential or actual sight of unrelated males. There are also women-only hours for swimming pools and gyms and probably other places that I'm forgetting.

The reason businesses offer these kinds of benefits for women is that there is quite the market for it here. There are a lot of veiled women running around the UAE, obviously. Sharjah is especially conservative and I find that I've become very sensitized to immodest dress. Wait, let me backtrack - not even immodest dress. I've become sensitized to clothing that shows one's shoulders, or hemlines that are above the knee, both of which you'd be really, really hard-pressed to find in Sharjah.

Now, in Dubai, in the more western areas, you see plenty of that. Though to their credit, western women here generally don't go much beyond bared shoulders and a few extra inches of leg. GENERALLY. There's always that one random white lady at Dubai Mall (I like to assume she's European, not American) walking around in something so fantastically inappropriate that you can practically feel the stink-eye she's getting from every elderly muhajjiba in the place. (Another thing you can practically feel, unfortunately, are the eyes of every male between the ages of 15-? following such a woman's every. move.)

It's a good thing those elderly muhajjibas don't hang out at the Aquaventure water park at Atlantis. They would have to give up the stink-eye after about five minutes, due to exhaustion. We went there two weeks ago and I don't know who these scantily clad women are (Europeans?), or where they thought they were vacationing (Europe?), but WOAH. I saw more skin in one day at that waterpark than I think I've seen in my entire eight months here put together. And a lot of that skin at the waterpark was partial boob. There, I said it, BECAUSE IT'S TRUE.

It was almost a relief to retreat to good old provincial, conservative Sharjah where I wouldn't have to worry about (European?) women willfully exposing themselves to me...and my husband.

There, I said it, BECAUSE IT'S TRUE.

Discussion question: I'm not trying to bag on women dressing as they please or showing off their dedication to diet and exercise. But I have to wonder - these women know they're offering themselves as eye candy for the rank and file, right? Right?


Sarah Familia said...

Sometimes I wonder what's going on in people's heads. I really can't get over the topless sunbathers in Tunisia. Do they really want to have a conversation with one of the creepy men who prowl the beach A) while he is simultaneously staring at their bare chest; or B) when he was doing so an hour ago while they slept in a beach chair?

Matthew said...

I particularly like the focus of this conversation starting with what is happening in the heads of these various people. The thing is standards of what constitutes modesty, and how that person expects the observer to react are highly relativistic. Those women may not in face consider themselves eye candy at all, or believe that it somehow impacts your husband in an undesirable way. Modesty is socially constructed. There isn't inherent meaning in the amount of skin showing. This is precisely why it is so problematic cross-culturally.

Developing the capacity to understand the thoughts and reactions of the öther"is an acquired skill. There are often massive gaps.

While it is difficult for me to comment since I don't have a first hand view of the facts, I would posit it is quite possible these women don't in fact know they are offering themselves as eye-candy (precisely because they don't think they are). I've certainly known women who wouldn't consider their skin exposure to have that meaning, as well as women who do. Community German swimming pools and FKK ( are a great example of this. The oddly named English garden in conservative Munich really drives that point home.

Now, that doesn't excuse people from the responsibility to be reasonably well-informed on local cultural practices and standards, but this problem is by no means confined to pool-dwellers.

As an aside, it is quite possible that the muhajjiba think the exact same thing about your shoulder as you do about the possibly European sideboob. It is all relative.

That being said, they could also be exhibitionist hussies who are trying to steal your man.

Bridget said...

Excellent point, Matthew. I'm not trying to suggest they're actively bothering my husband - in fact, the weird thing (to me) is that most of these women were with a man at the waterpark. Which doubles my confusion, because what is going through his mind? Maybe I don't want to know.

Sarah, ew. Just ew.

Liz Johnson said...

Matthew - excellent and interesting points. On the one hand, I think a person should be respectful of the culture and customs of a country. But on the other hand, I get all annoyed when women are expected to cover up, lest they be objectified and/or lusted after, as though they are at all responsible for somebody else being unable to control themselves.

I'm very curious - what are the customs surrounding breastfeeding? Are women expected to go into another room and/or cover up in public places? I know the UAE to be incredibly family-friendly... what does that translate to regarding breastfeeding?

Susanne said...

Great discussion and I think Matthew made some good points about modesty being relative to culture. This is why I think devout Muslim women can simply wear long(er) skirts and modest tops and so forth here in the US as opposed to abayas and hijabs which automatically draw attention to a woman in areas where we are not used to seeing "the other" stand out so much. Is this kind of defeating the purpose if you are trying to hide your adornments? It's different if you are purposefully trying to symbolize something. I'm speaking of modesty rather than identifying with a group.

I remember in Syria, I started dressing a bit more conservatively (like longer shirts and baggier pants) because I didn't want to stick out. Yet at the same time, I didn't even think about how my bare arms and head might translate to people who are used to women in their families covering completely. Then again, it was Syria...not a place where every single lady covers completely.

I think some western men like their women to look sexy. Trophy wife or girlfriend may not as be far off the mark as we like to think. It perhaps is a status symbol to them to other men: "Hey, look who I'm with!" By contrast, Muslim culture hides women's beauty from most everyone outside a small circle of people.

Samer - my Syrian friend - is currently in Germany and has each summer exclaimed to me why western women show so much skin! He is amazed that "the women wear shorts that are shorter than the men's!" Completely different from Muslim culture where men can wear shorts that cover the knee (although many may not in public) and women have to cover much more than that. I don't know that he understood my explanation about women having prettier legs so people want to see them more than hairy-legged men.

The boob-hanging out stuff has become so commonplace over the last few years, I even see people at church with cleavage showing. I guess it's becoming more culturally acceptable though it's NMSAA. I'm trying to get past the idea that boobs are sex objects...have we moved past this? Or is that,too, relative to culture?

What I really really have a hard time with is super-short shorts. Like the kind where you can see butt cheeks at the neighborhood grocery store.

And I live in a supposed conservative part of the United States! Well, we might be conservative in our politics, but not so much in our dress. And that's a broad generalization because I do know many women who are very modest in their dress. I didn't want anyone to think all southern women dressed like whores. We don't.

I miss my all-women's gym.

Great post/discussion!

Bridget said...

Liz, re: breastfeeding. I've seen maybe two women breastfeeding in public here (super discreetly under layers of abaya, somehow), but never any westerners. In the nicer malls there are baby rooms with lounge chairs where you could go to nurse. It's even a separate room from the bathroom!

Matthew, I keep thinking about your point that my upper arm could be as offensive to someone as a woman's mostly exposed boob could be to me. You're absolutely right. And yet, I don't think the situations are quite comparable, though, not just because it is a matter of degree (I think most cultures could agree that a boob is a couple of notches above a shoulder on the scandalous scale). I didn't mention this in the post, but I'm not talking about middle-aged European (?) women who project the idea that they're comfortable with their body and all its imperfections and there's no need for a person with a healthy sense of self to cover up. I'm talking about young, gorgeous women who have possibly had surgery done in some key areas and then wear bathing suits that only juuuuust cover up the scars. I think that goes beyond a lax or different sense of modesty. I have to believe they know exactly what they're doing - and that's why I wonder what they're thinking.

Take the example of what happened to a friend of ours in Dubai. He was at a restaurant and a car pulled up. Out stepped a woman wearing a SEE-THROUGH DRESS. See-through. Our friend said every male in the place - from the gardener watering the grass outside to the waiters to the other patrons - stopped what they were doing and just stared. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

Which brings in Liz's point. Isn't there a point where we have to take responsibility for our effects on others? I'm honestly asking. Or should we be able to walk into a place naked (or wearing a see-through dress) and be treated with dignity?

Amber said...

A few of the comments by Matthew andSusanne made me think of my experiences with modesty when I lived in South Africa. There were some very different ideas of what was and wasn't considered modest. What I remember most was that breasts were not a sex symbol but thighs were. (I'm talking here about native African cultures, not Westerners). So at the beach, for example, it was not uncommon to see women wearing long shorts going at least to the knee butno top of any kind. By contrast, what we in the West would consider a modest one piece would have been considered highly inappropriate.

Susanne said...

Amber, I have read/heard the same thing about native Africans in certain areas. So glad you were able to confirm it.

Also Bridget's mentioning showing her arms or shoulders, I remember reading of a man who found women's upper arms and shoulders sexy in the way most of them stereotypically like boobs and/or legs and still another told how sexy he found really nice collar bones!

As far as what Liz said concerning women having to cover up so they won't be objectified, at least in Muslim culture the men are *supposed* to lower their gazes. But it seems from Bridget's tales, they don't. Unless all the men following the revealing women's every move are all nonMuslims which I highly doubt.

Liz Johnson said...

I think it goes back to what we consider the purpose of "modesty." On the one hand, I believe modest dress shows self-respect and that you take yourself seriously, and as more than simply a sex object. But if the point of modesty is to make sure that the men can control their thoughts, then I take issue with it. I guess it's more of a choice - you should choose to be modest because you want to be taken seriously, not forced/asked to be modest so that men can keep themselves from lusting after you. If a woman walks through a crowd naked, she's probably clamoring for attention and thus will probably not be treated with respect (because she appears to show so little self-respect), but I don't think she should be forced to cover up just in case a man has dirty thoughts about her.

It's a weird fine line I have drawn in my head. Does that make any sense?

And I agree with you, Bridget - to me, it's really different when women are putting their ginormous boobs out there for people to look at versus somebody who is just doing it because they're comfortable with themselves. But I guess there's no way to know the motivation behind it without asking somebody. So where should the line be drawn? I have no idea. Do we need a fixed line?

That said, again, I kind of feel like you should respect the culture that you're in and understand that if you go way outside cultural norms, you're going to get some backlash for that.


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