Boobs, booze and Muslim feminists


'Spring Racing', by Chris JohnstonWe 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

Ms Savage, your assertion that the hijab may 'in some contexts' subvert patriarchy is laughable.

Qur'an (33:59) - 'Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them...'

It is clear that it is men who are in control. They tell the women how to dress. If the woman wants to dress that way too, well it is a happy conincidence for her. If she does not, the consequences can be as extreme as murder. In both Mulim majority countries and Western countries, Muslim women have been killed for not wearing what is regarded as modest clothing. The control of women in Islam goes further than just modest attire.

Qur'an (2:223) - 'Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will.'

This means that a woman must be sexually available for her husband at all times. Rape does not exist in a Muslim marriage as the wife has not right to refuse her husband's demands.

Until we can name the coercion of women in traditional Islamic society as coercion, women in Islam will remain suppressed.

Ms Savage's article mentions coercion at times but too often sidesteps its full reailty.
Patrick James | 01 November 2009

There is much Western women can learn from their Islamic sisters. Just like traditional Christianity, Islam calls people to modesty and humility, in both dress and manner. Traditional clothing for Muslim women reflect these values.

Unfortunately, for Western women, when modesty and humility is considered 'oppressive', the result is always vanity and pride - and the ugliness that that entails.

Nathan Socci | 02 November 2009

The question of male - female relationships goes much deeper than dominance and subversion - though it may - on the surface seem like that. Relationship needs to be understood as the ultimate good and end. Everything that hinders that relationship is wrong - anything that promotes it is good.

The real problem isn't too powerful men or too powerful women - the real trajedy is the low number of men and women who are committed to relationship and willing to do away with what hinders that relationship.

Men are wrong when their actions, values or beliefs stop the voice of women from finding expression - women are wrong when their actions, values or beliefs stop the voice of men from finding expression.

Because the goal feminism truly seeks [the goal all humans seek] is not power [which is what is under the supremacy-supression argument] but relationship. In as far as feminists promote relationship they're doing the right thing. But feminist arguments can often [unwittingly] do the opposite.

Maybe we can ask - how do Islamic notions of modesty and humility [on the one hand] and Western freedom to do and seek whatever [on the other] promote relationship - and how do they hinder the relationship between male and female from finding full expression and resonance.
Thomas O'Brien | 02 November 2009

She 'feels' compelled. Riiight. Does this mean that if she does wear jeans, she'll 'feel' beaten up - or perhaps even "'feel' honour-killed by her father or brothers? I don't think the word 'compelled' means what Ms Savage thinks it means.
Rod Blaine | 03 November 2009

As always the way forward is with the balanced view, even if we seem to journey on 'ten steps forward and nine back' Thanks,Ellena, for an instance of helping us look 'from both sides now'.
Fr. Paul Goodland | 03 November 2009

Before etiqutte and manners became unsexy both men and women dressed as the occasion demanded,not to 'make statements'.This showed respect for both the function and the hosts as well as self respect.

I am bemused by some outfits worn to weddings both by the bride, groom and guests.I have seen ministers of the Eucharist in strapless and bare tops and short shorts to the altar .
Am I hopelessly old fashioned?

Ann Bristow | 03 November 2009

'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.' This just one of the many unsubstantiated assertions in this article which seems to me to be the victory of ideology over reflective reasoning.
Fr John Fleming | 03 November 2009

Ms. Savage, there IS something wrong with getting drunk and dressing immodestly! Because they are fashionable, doesn't make them right!
M.M. Kerby | 03 November 2009

Patrick, I think you miss the point; I think Ellena is making reference to the hijab subverting patriarchy in the west.

This is because western men and media who like to make women into slaves of fashion and sexual objects can not do this to Muslim women, they become feared and hated because they make themselves unavailable to the western man.

They become despised in much the same way men despised feminist in the 60's and 70's. The shame is that feminism in the west has lost its way, where once women would campaign against pornography and prostitution, now these are seen as somehow being feminist ventures to control men. Andrea Dworkin would be turning in her grave if she could see what has happened to feminism in the west...

Matthew Hevey | 03 November 2009

Hi Ellena
I think that you raise very interesting insights. Whenever the broad Islamic culture is mentioned in the media it is inevitably sensational and normally extreme. I personally find it a challenge to suspend my preconceived prejudices and read or listen to reports with an open mind.

It is great that women want to be seen as more than a sex object for male satisfaction, or as a male appendage of success, like a badge of honour or rank in society. Although I thought that most of these issues have been thrashed out in the seventies, eighties and the nineties by feminist women, in the west, you are probably right to suggest that we as a greater society still have a long way to go to be a truly egalitarian society.

I’m not totally convinced however that women in some of the Islamic societies around the world, truly have a free and just life.

Thank you for raising these issues and the debate that is generated is always worthwhile; after all as the remnants of Christian culture, we are called to love each other [women and men] fairly and justly.

peter Igoe-Taylor | 03 November 2009

Thank you, Ellena - a very interesting and balanced reflection. I'm a bit surprised by some of the posts that seem to think Muslim women are all spineless terrified victims. Australian Muslim women I know certainly are not - if they wear the hijab it's because they see a point in it.

They've probably been helped in their reflections on this by criticism from outside, which may have compelled them to articulate their own beliefs about their style of dress.

Maybe that's what's needed by some of the women who seem almost totally focussed on looking beautiful and sexually attractive at their male partner's celebrations. It's fine if it is just at the Brownlow awards or the Cup - but spending all their free time throughout the year planning and saving and living for on these events? What's that about? I do think it's linked with the 'pornification of girlhood' that is so obvious these days.
Joan Seymour | 03 November 2009

Thank you Ellena for the comparison you have made.

Something I have learned from experience is that a person is usually treated as they expect to be treated. Sometimes I have been very surprised when this has happened. In the olden days I was able to get every man in a large government department to open doors for the women simply by pushing in front of them then thanking them with a sweet smile. It is sad that Western women often don't feel able to demand the respect that is due to them. It is also sad that they forget to acknowledge that respect with thanks when it is given.

Don't worry if the person looks at you as though you are insane. Many never experience acknowledgment of the good things they do. Each one of us (both female and male) can contribute to moving us back to balance by supporting and encouraging the people we come in contact with.

Unfortunately the media gets its kicks from polarization, something we do well to resist.
Margaret McDonald | 03 November 2009

I can't imagine not being able to strip down to bathers on a hot day with little concern about how I look and without having to wear something that would be obscure me from head to toe and maybe even cause me distress swimming. Likewise with running,cycling and many other activities I enjoy. Practically speaking I know which form of dress I would rather. Who thinks about subverting patriarchy in such circumstances.

I think we should be able to cut ourselves a little slack. The catholic church has had such an anti body discourse for so long and continues to oppress women in leadership perhaps our only recourse is to look pretty and buy lots of things. Patriarchy and in particular the catholic church still rules the roost.
Roslyn | 03 November 2009

Hi Elli, great to see you continue to break intellectual ground. Wonder if you remember me arguing that high heels are the singularly most oppressive item of truly restrictive clothing that limits and restricts the feet of Western women and their movement. Far more constraining than the hijab!

By the way, I'm off to the races in Geelong on Saturday with a group of five women. Not a man between us, definately flat heels and no cleavage! Maybe we truly will look like "old bags" in our sack like coverings fit for Eid celebrations as well as the Spring Carnival.We go for the fun of it & our love of racing and a good day out.

Mind you, one of the reasons I stopped going to the Metropolitan Spring Carnival Race meetings was the number of drunken young men, less than half my age attempting to chat me up or generally making nuisances of themselves. Anyone who attempts to cramp personalstyle or hamper my freedom of movement at the races is an encumbrance I can do without! Lecherous men, high heels and cleavage!

Here's to many more fantastically stimulating opinion articles Elli.
Looking forward to hearing you on Geraldine Doogue!

Fiona Ludbrook | 05 November 2009

As a 60 year old Christian, my friends at lunch yesterday agreed we are embarrassed by cleavage and drunkenness at Melbourne Cup. Surely there can be high fashion without this, like some of my family who attend the Cup, although they wouldn't appear on TV in their "ordinary" clothes. The Media has a lot to answer for, as it portrays an image that is sensational and desirable. The portrayal of the thin blonde image can also have consequences of severe dieting in teenagers to look like one of the supposed beautiful ones. We are also a beach culture which seems to have crossed over into everyday dressing. Mix immodest dress with over induglence in alcohol, little wonder men get the wrong message. I'm not a prude by any means. A glass of champagne, a home cooked meal, a sweep, all profits going to charity, laughter, dressing up in our finest with a beautiful ha, amongst my Church friends - that was my Melbourne Cup day. Yes, I'm 61, maybe past my prime and a different generation, but bring back modesty and alcohol tolerance if alcohol is to be involved.
Lynette Dunn | 06 November 2009

A well constructed piece, based upon some observable realities. It is all about context and of course the over-revealed cleavage is also an example of oppression. Internalised perhaps but behaviour designed to attract (obey) men it is.

This work has helped me soften my negative view of modestly dressed muslim women.

Oppression is a human condition. Reigion is just one expression of the diversity of humans. Not wrong, not right, just an expression.

Thank you for this challeging piece
Muzz | 06 November 2009

Christianity also recommends modesty (see how the nuns dress), also look how fashion and clothes change overtime and maybe in few years we may end up with cloth-less people in the street or with bikini. In Islam Hijab is something from God, it is not a man made thing or an action that a man should enforce. It is a decision a women can candider if she likes to follow God commands. A husband/Dad can just advise, but normally husbands who prefer wives to be without hijab, marry the ones without hijab, others marry the ones with hijab. Referring to verses of the Quran without knowing the broad picture or interpretation, is wrong. Which one do you prefer: a woman who her body and beauty are for everyone or a woman who keeps her beauty for her partner. Why shouldn't we compare the divorce rate, single dads, single mums, depression rate, DNA tests to trace real dads and then see the results and write another report. All of these factors are the result of exposing the women to her body without being modest. It is acceptable in the Western societies that men/women can dress clothes that detail/show their bodies. They also tries so many partners before getting marriage and even after. Well, you can see free beautiful detailed/exposed sensitive body parts everywhere you go specially in summer and you can easily enjoy them (free of charge) specially once become drunken, but for us as Muslims, this is disgusting. The Bible for people who still believe in God has the same teaching as the Quraan, but we simply ignore, because Jesus will forgive everyone, or there is no God, so let us do everything. If you do not feel shame, then do whatever you like. Ms Savage, Why do you have a fridge?
Amoon | 06 November 2009

Have some Western women failed to realise, or have not been taught as a child, that they have an inate sexual beauty.

This overt sexuality we see on the media, may be an indication, some women (for whatever reason) have a very low self esteem.

Our Western sexual permissive culture, may be very hard for other cultures to accept.
Bernie Introna | 07 November 2009

How muslim women cope, with the way poor western women, need to flaunt their sexuality for all to see , I can't imagine.

Why do reporters give women them time of day, when they are obviously indecent. Why do we tolerate absolutely lewd behaviour on our t.v.and movie screens. Eg. the latest so called singer dancer from America, who is so talented she can't sing and dance at the same time, and must resort to mime.

Many Western women do nothing to uphold the beauty of the femmenine body.No wonder some non western cultures, may see us as quite depraved.

Does the West's obsession with sexuality, create havoc for world leaders in their search for real peace?

Have some Western women lost their feeling of self-worth. Have they failed to realise that every woman has her own inate sexual beauty, no matter what she wears. What a gift we have!
Bernie Introna | 07 November 2009

Dear Bernie Introna, would you please enlighten me as to how the West's obsession with sexuality affects efforts for world peace?

I am open to hearing your line of reasoning. However, in all the reading that I have done on various conflicts, I do not ever recall any serious historian saying that one people went to war against another due to its depraved and permissive sexual culture.
Patrick James | 08 November 2009

I have recently moved to a neighborhood with a very visible Muslim population.

Having previously primarily lived in the city I was surprised to discover the judgment that I have felt from Muslims towards me with respect to what I wear.

If it is a hot Aussie day I think shorts and a singlet are a sensible and uncontroversial choice. Indeed, while many Muslim women in my suburb wear layers of dark-colored tent-like robes their husbands are not so modest - wearing comfortable shorts and t-shirts.

I, for one, usually dress for comfort however I have no problem with doing and being 'sexy' - WHEN i feel like it.

Moreover, contrary to Savage's view, I do not feel this is an expression of me participating in a patriarchal 'cult of self-loathing'. It is fun, liberating and creative.

It also does not mean that I am not worthy of respect or that it is an invitation to be sexually harassed or assaulted. At least Western cultures have finally recognized that male sexual aggression against women is the fault of men - regardless of what we are wearing - unlike the shocking subjugation of women in Muslim states who do not conform to 'modest dress' (ie, the recent incident of a Sudanese woman who was publicly lashed for women pants underneath her niqab). I'm rather surprised Savage did not address this point!

For too long women have been judged on what we wear - too much too little - and it frankly needs to stop. Most non-Muslim women are never going to wear what Muslim women wear and vice-versa. Personally, I only feel oppressed when I am judged and denied choices by others who feel they know better. Just leave me alone.
jezza | 24 January 2011


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