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Deciding how women should dress

3rd January 2011

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Covering the face is banned in France while recent report shows that public opinion in Europe is that women should expect to be sexually assaulted if they wear too little.

Rachel is one of a large number of girls who often gets called a feminist for focusing on theories about the inferiority of men’s self-control and emotional capacity in her various roles as advocate of women’s rights. But when she was attacked in the street after leaving a bar in a mini-dress, it took some time for her to realise that it wasn’t her fault; this despite previously having lobbied the government to address the current reality in the UK, which is that most cases of rape will go unreported. 

Perhaps surprisingly, the sexes do not seem to be divided on this issue. Haven’s “Wake up to rape” Report Summary of 2010 shows that women are “less forgiving than men” when it comes to blaming the victims for rape.  It seems women blame themselves by way of course, and so does everyone else.  

Harvard Report also found that “dressing provocatively” was the fourth in the reasons why a victim should take responsibility for the crime.  Interestingly, Rachel was attacked the same day France banned the covering of the face in all public places.  It is hard not to spot the contradiction there: forcing liberty on women by telling them to show more skin, in a society where if you’re raped, it’s your fault for showing too much skin

President Nicolas Sarkozy has said veils are "not welcome" in France for they oppress women.  If this is true, then all the ban does is serve to replace one oppressor with another.  Forcing liberty on someone is an oxymoron, and an almost laughable policy when looked at in the context of the way in which Europe reacts to victims of rape. 

There is a strong argument in this debate that the burka should be banned because it symbolises the idea that the female form is something to be ashamed of.  Historically, Europeans have not been innocent of castigating women for the shape of their bodies. In Greek mythology, it was Daphne’s fault for being beautiful, and if she didn’t want to be raped then it was up to her to turn herself into a tree.  There is no mention of the whereabouts of her pursuer’s self control, much less his compassion towards her, his fellow human.

This attitude is still present in modern policies all over Europe; like in the Italian seaside town of Castellammare di Stabia where miniskirts were banned. In a BBC report the local parish priest, Don Paulo Cecere, was quoted as having told Cronache di Napoli newspaper, "It's also a way of combating the rise in sexual harassment."

This idea is present beyond our continent, too.  In Swaziland school girls were banned from wearing mini-skirts in what was portrayed by the government as an attempt to halt the spread of AIDS.  If girls - young, immature, excitable school girls - stopped showing off their legs then men - teachers, responsible, probably married men in positions of authority - wouldn’t have to have sex with them.

The fact that Rachel was wearing a short skirt does not make her responsible for the attack.   Just as Daphne should have been able to live her life without having to turn herself into a tree, Rachel should have been able to wear a mini-dress to a bar.  Just as Muslim women should be able to express their religion and their identity in a way that does not harm anyone else, because freedom of expression is a universal human right worth maintaining. In Europe recently two very damaging attitudes have met, they have contradicted each other, and they have shown their respective infeasibility and illogic.  


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