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22 May 2008 00:00
A woman on a city street is assaulted, stripped naked, doused with alcohol and sexually abused. The attackers say she must be “punished” for wearing a miniskirt.
A crowd of more than 100 onlookers jeers and chants in agreement.
Police say they have information suggesting this type of assault has been going on at Johannesburg taxi ranks for more than eight years.
Women’s bodies have long been singled out for scapegoating in times of social unease. Single mothers, pregnant teenagers, welfare mothers and sexually expressive women have all, at different times, been marked as the source of moral decline, disease and disorder. But what does the miniskirted woman “mean” that she should be a magnet for mob violence? What is it about her that suggests to strange men that they have social permission to tear off her clothing and insert their fingers into her vagina?
The miniskirt has, after all, been a ubiquitous fashion accoutrement for close on 50 years. In 1962, when the mini appeared in Mary Quant’s London boutique on the King’s Road, she was credited with democratising fashion for the masses. The mini, she claimed, was designed for women “to dance, to move, to be”.
The miniskirt became an emblem of social change in the 1960s, so much so that when major designers introduced “midi” and “maxi” skirts around 1967, in London, New York and Paris men and women demonstrated, calling for the return of the mini. Mid-length skirts were cast as “anti-woman” and, in Britain, a “Society for the Preservation of Miniskirts” was established in response to the House of Dior’s 1968 ankle-length skirts and coats.
That was then. What does the mini signal when it is worn at Noord Street taxi rank in Johannesburg in 2008? One answer is that it is an emblem of women’s empowerment in a context (mass unemployment, social inequality) where men feel emasculated. In order to reassert a sense of agency, power and control, so the argument goes, men beat, rape, humiliate and kill women. Violence against women is an attempt to control women. An upsurge of violence against women might be taken to mean, then, that women are perceived as being particularly unruly or out of control and in need of being brought back into line.
Women’s clothing has been a focal point of discussion in the literature on gender-based violence. The emphasis has been on the role played by clothing in making women vulnerable to violence, and on the assumption that particular kinds of choices with regard to clothing can make women culpable in their own victimisation.
Less developed is a literature on women’s clothing as resistance to domination, as a visual discourse that serves to subvert accepted mores. For some women at least, to wear a mini is an expression of power, a celebration of sexuality rather than an indication of sexual availability. To wear a miniskirt as a mechanism for attracting men’s desire would be to signal acceptance of the view that being desirable to men is what gives women their validity as social actors.
The outpouring of vitriol against miniskirt-wearers on the part of the hawkers and taxi drivers suggests their awareness that this is not the case. To say that “they are provoking us” is to indicate the realisation that women are precisely not signalling their availability when they wear micro-minis. What makes the sign particularly disturbing is that, as these men are well aware, it has to be read in an overarching context in which a discourse of women’s rights and empowerment is politically dominant. In one sense, then, the wearing of a mini can be read as emphasising a new set of rules of the game that is not as overtly favourable to men as the terms of the old gender order.
The miniskirt is well placed to play this role precisely because of its inherent association with whoring and because the control of women’s sexuality is central to patriarchy. There is no doubt that the miniskirt is inescapably a sexually charged sign. But rather than this fact foreclosing the possibilities for what the wearer might signal by clothing herself in it, it is precisely the fact of this inherent meaning that opens up the possibilities for subversion.
Because the inherent dominant meaning of the sign is widely recognisable, to disrupt this meaning is to communicate an equally readily understood message. The disruption here, moreover, is an important and fundamental one. It refuses the reduction of women’s sexuality to the virgin/whore dichotomy, suggesting as it does that it is possible for women to celebrate, express (flaunt, even) and enjoy their sexuality while refusing the “whore” approbation. It also insists on women’s ownership over their own bodies in the public as well as the private sphere, refusing the insistence so central to patriarchal domination that women’s bodies are men’s property, to be handled, touched and appraised like any other consumer good.
Women in minis who do not wish to be touched and leered at seem to be insisting that a distinction be drawn between their bodies and consumer merchandise. Unlike the latter, the body on display, along with its sexuality, is—these women seem to be saying—not to be read as being advertised or to indicate saleability or availability. It is a refusal to take responsibility for the male gaze by “covering up” and an insistence that the gaze itself be seen as problematic; a rejection of the familiar complaint that it is women’s bodies that are problematic: leaky, provoking, unruly, the cause of male immorality.
For the most part, the message that the mini is intended to communicate is not part of a conscious or articulate political or feminist strategy. But occasionally it is, of course, as was the case with those who deliberately and consciously clothed themselves in what the media described as “revealing” clothing in order to demonstrate the right of women to dress as they wish when boarding a taxi in central Johannesburg.
There the miniskirt was donned as a form of battle insignia, a deliberate sign of how the wearer wished to be positioned socially and politically, and in full knowledge of the fact that this would be viewed as controversial and provocative. The deliberate collective wearing of miniskirts as a message of protest contests the isolation of the victim, which is the hallmark of gendered violence.
To use the miniskirt as a signal of protest against gendered violence subverts what is usually encoded in “feminine clothing”, namely the weakness, dismemberment and sexualisation of women’s bodies. This is an important political moment because it articulates as a collective injustice what many of the participants had previously processed as an individualised experience.
The disruptive power of the miniskirt-wearing woman in urban spaces might go beyond the conscious intention of the wearer herself, however. Part of why the image is often read as so disquieting arises from the fact that the city is conceived as a masculine place—the place of work and business from which women, the feminine, the decorative, the pleasurable, the frivolous are ritually excluded. The figure of the miniskirt-wearing woman disrupts the comfortable binaries of work/pleasure; masculine/feminine; public/private.
The title of the popular television show Sex and the City is attention-grabbing for the same reason. The contrast between the symmetrical, hard lines of the city’s architecture and the soft curvaceousness of women’s bodies serves to accentuate the disparity. Ritualised masculine violence against this highly visible emblem of feminine intrusion into urban working city spaces is part of a continuum of male practices including “girl watching”, wolf-whistling and cat-calling, which act as a mechanism for the attempted re-establishment of the orderliness of masculine control of these spaces.
Louise Vincent is an associate professor in the department of political studies at Rhodes University
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