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Getting Naked – Tennis, the Hijab and the Struggle for Equality

posted by:Valerie Steeves // 11:59 PM // August 01, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX

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Last week, I spent 6 hours in a mall. For those of you who don’t know me well, you probably don’t realize how unusual that is. I hate shopping and my first thought as soon as I get into a store is how quickly I can leave. But the object of the trip seemed simple enough. We needed to buy some tennis shorts for my teenaged daughters - loose enough to be comfortable, with big pockets to hold tennis balls. After six hours, we had come up empty. We couldn’t find anything other than the low-cut, spandex, pocketless, extremely short shorts LuLu Lemon knockoffs that masquerade as girls sports wear. But what really struck me was how we managed to pick up seven tennis shirts and four pairs of tennis shorts for my son, without even looking.

You may be wondering what this has to do with privacy, but I’ve been thinking a lot about an article I read in the Toronto Star back in June after 17 men were arrested on terrorism charges. The story talked about what their wives experienced when they attended a set-date court appearance. The article started by saying, “They live by a different code. A code of modesty and privacy that was clearly violated at the Brampton courthouse yesterday as they arrived to catch a glimpse of their loved ones.” The media blitzkrieg that greeted these women as they stood in line to enter the court was likened to racial profiling and Tarek Fatah of the Muslim Canadian Congress defended the women by saying, “We know these are extremely private people... The merits of leading a secluded life is a separate debate altogether and is not done with cameras in these women's faces.”

I’m not so sure about that. In fact, this might be an excellent context to examine the relationship between privacy, power and identity. The hijabs and niquabs worn by the accused’s wives are as contested as my daughters’ sports wear. Advocates of the veil argue that it protects women from the male gaze and allows them the freedom to move about in public with anonymity. Its detractors argue that the hijab forces women into a private sphere structured by patriarchal violence and the disempowerment of women. Revealing women’s sports wear, on the other hand, can be said to liberate women’s sexuality from the strict codes of modesty that constrained them in the past, or to objectify their bodies as sexual property in any public context, in effect robbing them of power through public exposure. As far as privacy and publicity are concerned, women’s clothing is a red button topic.

But the newspaper coverage of the Brampton court date adds a new thread to the debate - privacy as political identity. The wives’ desire to avoid publicity is something they share in common with almost all family members of persons involved in court proceedings. But the claim that an extremely private life can justify a withdrawal from those most public of elements of the rule of law – a free press and an open trial – is an intrinsic claim to a special and unique identity. In this sense, seclusion of the feminine becomes a form of social power.

The fact there is a relationship between privacy and power is old news. The wealthy and powerful often use their influence to protect their private lives from public scrutiny. However, I find it interesting that the claim was made with respect to these women’s bodies, their physical appearance at the courthouse, and yet it was not made with respect to the publication of their blog entries in the Globe and Mail. One could argue that the publication of their images – or the small parts of their bodies that were exposed to the public eye that day before the courthouse – is far less invasive than the reprinting of their comments about jihad or their hatred of Canada in a national newspaper. But their bodies are what is contested – not the bodies of their male partners or friends but their bodies, as women. The jarring note that comes out loud and clear in the article is that the exposure of these women’s bodies in public implicates them in some way. As one of them was heard to say at the scene, “Even if they don't see us, they will know we're here.” Ironically, the claim to privacy through hijab makes them visible in a way that Western clothing could never do, but it is a vulnerability their men do not share. They are vulnerable as women.

On the other hand, my daughters’ shopping expedition drives home the ways in which Western women’s clothing is used to structure and discipline girls’ bodies by exposure. I often laugh when I hear people talk about the incredible variety available to teens in the marketplace. One of my girls wore ripped jeans for ten months because she couldn’t find a replacement pair that weren’t so low, she couldn’t sit down in them without exposing herself. For her, women’s clothing is inherently political – the extent of exposure is tied directly to her sense of identity and her potential for empowerment.

Our shared ability, or lack of ability, as women to determine if and when we reveal our bodies in public underlines how the relationship between privacy and identity is a gendered one. And it has everything to do with power. It’s no surprise to me that my daughters – like Rosalind and Viola before them – solved their tennis dilemma by going to the men’s section and buying boys sports shorts.

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