Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Academic Burqa

You've all seen it - it's granola, straight out of an L.L. Bean catalog, colorless, baggy, and not at all skin revealing. No makeup is the standard pairing. It's the typical attire of a female college professor.

I choose not to wear the academic burqa.

Perhaps it's unfair or wrong logic to call that style of dress a burqa, but I see some connections. Both stifle the display of sexuality and are adopted in response to cultural norms that dictate that style of dress. If you depart from that norm you'll get publicly admonished, strange looks, and some comments from those "who mean well."

In academic culture, it seems to be the case at SLACs anyway, female college professors wear clothing that is drab and seemingly designed to repel men, or at least, not attract them. I also know a lot of academic women, professors included, at SLACs who have a difficult time dating. The pool of attractive men is small, perhaps because smart women want smart men (just like every other woman on the planet) and the most attractive men are either uninterested in a "relationship" or are taken. Many people find mates at the workplace, so why not dress to impress there? Women in other professions do it all the time.

Maybe women adopt the academic burqa to avoid harassment. That's one purpose of the burqa. If you don't give them anything to gawk at, they won't gawk right?

I have certainly caught a few male students checking out my legs, breasts, and butt - but rather than hiding behind baggy clothes and head to toe covering, I go on about my job and wear what I like. If some guys look a little, where is the harm? I'm not offended by it. And, maybe some of them will pay better attention. Studies have shown that students (male and female) pay more attention to attractive teachers. We are, to some extent, wired to attend to people who are attractive. We also have enough self-control to stop ourselves from looking.

I am reading the book "Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an" by Asma Barlas, a professor of politics at Ithaca College. Though the writing is far from smooth, and that is why it is taking me so long to slog through it, I have picked up some insight about Islamic culture. One of those concerns the burqa.

Interpretations of the vague wording in the Qur'an about women's proper attire have been taken by conservatives (Islamacists, Saudi culture, and others) to mean that women should cover their bodies so as to not reveal womanly curves. They should not decorate their faces with makeup, so as to not entice men who are not their husbands to look upon them as sexual objects. They should similarly not wear nail polish - that's a sexual signal too.

They would have us believe that to display one's body in such ways is to invite sexual advances from men who cannot control themselves. They would have us believe that men can only be kept in check and women can only be protected from sexual harassment (and worse) by effectively "disappearing" women from view.

Now I don't know about you, but I have more faith in men's self-control than the patriarchal readings of the Qur'an and indeed, our own culture, imply.


AmandaMay said...

You should check out the book "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi. She has some interesting thoughts on the burqa and academia, with her experience as a professor in Tehran. It is very interesting.

Field Notes said...

Oh yes, I am familiar with that one. I read it a while ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.