Best of 2009: Boobs, booze and Muslim feminists



'Spring Racing', by Chris Johnston

First published November 2009

We all know this image: A young, orange-tinted woman, dressed in a pale satin ribbon, teeters drunkenly in soaring heels. She is eating chips, smearing the sauce on her knuckles, and is occasionally yelling obscenities at her boyfriend. We laugh at her, but forgive her, because, well, it's been a long day of drinking at the races. Her boyfriend is just as drunk, and is urinating at a tram stop. But for some reason we don't really notice him.

Although her behaviour indicates she'd rather be wearing thongs and jeans, she feels compelled to dress like a sexual Christmas tree for the Spring Carnival. This compulsion probably has a number of roots, one being an earnest desire to be desired. Another more cynical reason is that her desire to be desired on the terms of the depth of her cleavage is nominated by the designs of the men in her society, and upheld by the women.

Weeks ago, some friends were coming to pick me up to take me to the Muslim festival of Eid in Broadmeadows. One called to remind me to wear something loose and modest. I rifled through my wardrobe, and realised how difficult it is for me to dress modestly, actually modestly, without looking like a loaf of bread. I settled on a long floral dress from the late '60s, which once belonged to my Aunty, and waited in my living room.

To its credit, the Spring Carnival is an excuse for everyone to dress and behave like a celebrity (regardless of what indiscretions this might entail). Everyone gets dressed up, then they get drunk and fall over. This in itself isn't wrong. There are always a few amazing outfits, and a good many awful ones. And some that inspire disgust.

For me, the disgust is not that of a woman's body dressed in a tasteless outfit. What's disgusting is that even in this day, a woman's success, and in many cases her only public interest, is determined by the vulgarity of her outfit, and the social position of her male partner.

Even other women who are not dressed quite so tastelessly are essentially present to facilitate their men; to consolidate their success not only in business and wealth, but also in acquiring attractive female possessions.

In this context, women are not celebrated, but objectified. Australian sporting events are celebrations of boobs and booze. They overlook the important aspects of sport like family, community, and honest achievements.

Being publicly visible is very important for Western women. The liberty for women to bare all has developed alongside a firm set of principles of equity, political and social freedoms.

But if you take the public visibility out of its context, and simply line up scantily clad women and (literally) quantify their worth out of 10 (those ranking a 10/10 are inevitably long, angular and golden), then the women possess very little real worth. Or, their worth is limited to a world where masculine men drink, brag and play footy, and feminine women do nothing much except hold their men's hands and forgive their indiscretions.

While fashionable women strut in the arms of wealthy men at sporting events, Muslim Australian women and their families celebrate their festivals in a very different manner. Even the women who are otherwise secular Muslims dress appropriately for the celebrations: long gowns and layered scarves of hues dependent on their cultural origin (rich and floral from West Africa, dark and sombre from Saudi). Those who resist covering their heads nonetheless observe an austere fashion for a religious festival.

To some other Australian women, the fashion might seem outdated. There is a compelling argument that the hijab, or headscarf, is a symbol of female oppression. Arguments levelled against covered women are that, whether or not they are aware of it, they are submitting to the unreasonable demands of male family members and stronger patriarchal social structures. It is also argued that covering the body is denying its existence, that it privatises women's experiences, or that it is for keeping the body virtuous for her sexist husband.

Sadly, this might be true for many women. However, these arguments can only be levelled from a Western liberal feminism that embraced the body and that must now face a grim reality of a cult of self-loathing and deception built around the body as commerce.

Feminist or not, enforced or chosen, traditional and modest fashion gives a sense of coherence to the Muslim-Australian community. The loose and elegant traditional and modern outfits worn by Muslim women assert that their worth not be determined by the depth of their cleavage, but by other measures.

These two opposing modes of dressing, one exhibitionist, one prohibitionist, both inevitably result from men's expectations of women. On one side of the world, it seems, men want to undress their women, and on the other, they want to cover them up.

In the Western undressing of women, there is an element of sexual design. The most desirable kind of woman in the Western popular media is sexual and available. The alternative, to hide the body altogether, is based upon avoiding design, or leaving it in the hands of the community.

At the Muslim festival, modestly dressed young women and men eat and chat, dance and spend money, as they would at any other festival. Young smokers hide from their relatives who could be anywhere, and flirting is kept subtle. While it might be a religious festival, it's obvious that it's more about community and the Arab tradition of hospitality and celebration than dogma or compulsion.

There's no booze, and no visible boobs, but everywhere, there is pastry. Modestly dressed, loudmouthed women eating pastry.

Are they feminists? Many are not. But that does not preclude the hijab, or alternative fashions from subverting patriarchy in some contexts.

It might do us well to consider what celebrations are really about. There's nothing wrong with booze or boobs, but are they meaningful enough to warrant celebration?

Ellena SavageEllena Savage is a Melbourne writer. She is studying Arts at the University of Melbourne.


Topic tags: Ellena Savage, spring racing carnival, melbourne cup, eid, hijab



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Existing comments

What a strange article.

I find myself frowning, somewhat perplexed and indeed not really involved in either of the two worlds described.......both extreme ends of the bell curve.

Any woman who defines herself by men's standards demeans herself and lacks the self confidence to be herself.

I am an old woman who will meet two younger friends today for lunch each of us dressed as we think fit.

None of us beholden to men to set standards or expectations. I rarely shop retail and love op shops as do my family and friends.

None of us celebrating boobs or booze but enjoying long term friendship over excellent food and a bottle of good white wine. Men don't figure in this small part of our lives and neither do they define who we are as adults. They love us for a wider range of reasons and possibilities as we love them for their unique contribution to our lives.
I remain perplexed about this article
Judy | 04 January 2010

When 'Australia' presents 'its' culture to the world, Australia presents Aborigine culture saying 'this is us', however, Aborigine culture is a matriarchal society. Those who present aborigine culture to the world as Australian culture are hypocrites and this very action demonstrates that the colonisers have no culture of their own. It disgusts me, as I'm sure it disgusts all aboriginal people. It's time to wake up and face reality.
Greig Williams | 04 January 2010

Thank you Ellena! How dangerous it is to generalise! I love going to the races - not so much the Spring Carnivals, because the crowds are to a large extent inflated by attractions other than the racing. For most of the rest of the year women and young girls at the races dress 'tastefully'. They are not exhibitionists. Of course they socialise with their partners, boyfriends and girlfriends but just as at Eid there is a core object for being there. In the case of the track it is a punt on the neddies.
Why then do the boobs and the booze brigade get the publicity? Because they are 'news'. They are different from the majority of ordinary run-of-the-mill racegoers.

For me there is one woman I love to see at the races. She wears sensible shoes for walking on grass; a loose ankle length sarong-type dress; and a wide-brimmed straw hat which hides her urchin haircut. She carries a large handbag, where she stores her race book, which she consults frequently, and a water bottle from which she sips occasionally. Before the last race she says to me: 'Come, darling, I'll drive you home. Let's beat the crowd.'
Uncle Pat | 04 January 2010

Congratulation on a well written article and the same sentiments regarding the dress and behaviour of young women as well as those pretending to be young at the Spring Carnival have been expressed by at least two other prominent journalists, one of each sex. But what about the fellows? Shaven heads like Magwitch in the original 'Great Expectations', dressed like yobboswith their shirts hanging out and wearing jeans with a suit jacket. Oh what a terrible visage!!
philip herringer | 04 January 2010

Like Ellena, I am frequently appalled at the poor judgement women often exercise in the selection of clothing for events. The way some clothing designs seek to leave as little as possible to an observer's imagination is probably not new, but what was once worn in rather discrete settings seems now to chic.

I am also frequently appalled by the words emblazoned on the clothes some choose to wear - both males and females.

It has never occured to me that choosing to expose 50% or more of one's boobs, or displaying so much leg that the bum-cheeks show below the skirt counts as a freedom of expression that any sensible woman would take up - yet many seem to think that it shows how FREE they are.

This may seem quaint, but I often think, when I see such outfits, "What would their grandmother say if she saw that?"
John Clapton | 04 January 2010

I think what we should be discussing is not simply about appearances. The essence of difference between the Muslim faith and that of others is that the former seems to concentrate on appearances rather than human values. The believe in God -or some deity- is prevalent in all religions and appearances (although a reflection of values) are simply irrelevant. I agree with Ms Savage that the way some Western women (and men) dress reflects the way they view their world. However, I am reminded that all the goodwill messages that came with the beginning of a new decade also came from their world. Perhaps we should all consider peace more important that the way we appear to others?
Alex Njoo | 04 January 2010

Judy, thank you for your reply. Like you I am also perplexed and you have replied honestly and gently to a young woman presenting a very extreme outlook. And in reply to John Clapton, I say to my grandaughters (aged 24, 17, 11, 8, 5) as they dress as befits their age" You look lovely."I also say the same to my grandsons.
Anne Chang | 04 January 2010

Thanks for a well written and thought invoking article. As a young woman living in Brisbane I'd have to politely disagree with Judy's assessment that Ellena's above description of the races is an "...extreme end of the bell curve." All you have to do is go to the valley on a Saturday night or Queen St mall during the day to see how Western Australia culture has turned every day, every outing of young Australians into a celebration of, if not boobs, then legs or stomach or back. And let me tell you, if think it’s bad witnessing it, imagine being part of that culture? A culture and dress which encourages recognition of a person, not just the packaging, suddenly looks pretty good.
Anna-Claire | 04 January 2010

As an old Australian male approaching 80 I went to the Races on Melbourne Cup day after an absence of 10 years. The Boobs and Booze have had a very marked increase. I still look at women and class them as "yes" or "no" like I always have. A staggering drunken girl has no sex appeal at all. Dressed in fashion or not. Congrats Ellena!
JACK KENNEDY | 04 January 2010

Well said Ellena. Are women really dressing for themselves or to impress others, in the western world anyway. Maybe we ought to say more often who/whom are you dressing for and why??
Rosemary Keenan | 04 January 2010

I agree with much of what Ellena says. I think this treating of people as objects is much wider in our Australian culture than just how women dress.

One of the problems with our employment laws is that people who are employed have ceased to be people. They are merely units of labour which can be added to, or dispensed with. We see this particularly in the prevalence of casual work where people cannot get a life, borrow money, plan for the future, simply for the convenience of employers, and the advantage of shareholders.

Most employers tend to think of their employees as non-people ... that is to say, the fact that they have families, mortgages to pay, etc does not count, in terms of any obligation that employers may have to them. Like cheap Biros, in many cases, employees can be used and thrown out.

Eleanor's comments, in my mind, reflect this depersonalisation of human beings ... a woman simply becomes handbag with large cleavage and fashion clothes ... she is useful for a time to enhance a bloke's ego ... she is a non-person, just like a discarded employee.

In considering Eleanor's article, and what I've said above, I'm concerned that we define each other purely in terms of "usefulness" or dollar value.
Robert M | 04 January 2010

'Aborigine culture is a matriarchal society.' Sorry Greig Williams but where did you get this idea from? please explain...

Personally I think 'fashion' has destroyed much of the world, its cultures and environment for starters. What a waste of resources so you can be sexually appealing, that should be appalling. But hey, that's Melbourne for you.

Rod from Hobart, no fashion in sight!!!
Rod Shearing | 04 January 2010

Thank you Ellena for shining a light on an important cultural issue. Recently, I had an interesting conversation about female attire recently with a Moslem girl wearing the veil and working in the cosmetics department of a city store.

She was surprised to learn that modesty has traditionally influenced Christian women's dress (and men's) and that ordinary women in developed societies dressing like prostitutes, at the races and everywhere, does not reflect the values of Western Judaeo-Christian culture. I assured her that this phenomenon reflects a pervasive, sexualised “pseudo culture” that ignores the Christian values of human dignity and personhood and that adversely affects even young children (as writers Melinda Tankard Reist and Maggie Hamilton have highlighted recently). I also assured her that Christians are called to go against the grain of society by challenging the status quo and that the “new feminism” that Pope John Paul II launched is one sure response to this and other challenges facing women.

When I told my Moslem sister that many Christian women believe it is possible to dress both attractively and modestly, she seemed pleased; we parted warmly for having shared a mutual concern.
Virginia | 04 January 2010

"one being an earnest desire to be desired". That's very honest.

And the strategies for being desired are different among different social and cultural backgrounds. Australian (western) style is to show and the Easterners think to hide - to be attractive and desired.

Feminists? They misunderstood.
And now some scientists think female may suppress "biological inner male".
Well, as you are a female, do what you think you may be desired - perhaps with self-style - if you can resist the storm of boobs culture. Actually males like them - ask them if they do like so when it comes to their females but omit the Hollywood from it.
AZURE | 05 January 2010

well said Judy.

Ellena, time to get off your soapbox.

I agree that women should not dress as pieces of meat or whatever you want to call it, but you're treating the issue as if all western women do it. It's an important issue, but this article is a bit extreme.
Carolyn | 08 January 2010

I agree with the criticism of women's dress, or rather undress. However, too much of the "blame" for this is attributed to men.
The scantily dressed women choose their attire for fashion and for approval by other women. Women are their own most demanding, and demeaning, judges in this regard.

I do not deny the sexual aspects that influence the styles, but please also blame the women who accept, support and promote the styles. It is in their power to change this, and, by the way, to change their behaviour. They are not victims except to those of their own gender.
John Garrett | 08 January 2010

It's no wonder most of the negative comments on this article come from older women who are still trying to convince themselves that the movement they pioneered is as morally superior as they believed it to be 40 years ago.

Here's news for you: I am the young man who meets your daughters and granddaughters while they are out at clubs. The things I see them do will shock you. The way they dress can only be described as tasteless. And you're kidding yourself if you think they are virgins past the age of 17. Chastity is dead.

There are a lot of fantastic young women out there who are determined to break the mould, but the vast majority seem content to subject themselves to the most degrading behaviour known to mankind.

The concept of modesty in a woman being desirable may have been one that old men created, but they created and encouraged it to protect their young daughters from the most dangerous beast they knew: young men.
bobby | 20 January 2010

Nice to read something which is not 'black and white' on this sort of thing. I don't know what the spring carnival is, but can imagine. Many thanks for sharing this. Subversion comes in many flavours
Chotrul | 30 January 2010


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