Dress Codes, Women-Only Safe Spaces: This is Feminism?

Is it “feminist” to offer female-only services in the name of safety?

Andrew Stiles | April 25, 2016

Is it “feminist” to offer female-only services in the name of safety?
Dress Codes, Women-Only Safe Spaces: This is Feminism?

Determining what constitutes an appropriately “feminist” position these days can be a confusing endeavor. For example: Does porn exploit women? Or does it liberate them? Depends who you ask. Two “feminists” might give different answers. You might get called a misogynist for even asking the question.

It gets even more confusing when feminism comes into conflict with a seemingly incompatible concept. For example: Islamic dress codes for women. Is the fact that Dolce & Gabbana recently debuted its first ever line of hijabs an “important” (positive) development that “gives the lie to the idea that one can’t follow trends and have fun with fashion while also following a religious dress code”? Or is it, in the words of Saint Laurent Paris co-founder Pierre Bergé, an “obscene” acquiescence to the “enslavement” of women?

For modern liberals, who tend to imagine themselves the true feminists of the world, there is a fundamental tension between their promotion of feminist values on the one hand and their open-minded tolerance of religious Islamic values on the other. Is the hijab a means of female enslavement? Or a vehicle for female empowerment? Which is more important: Seizing the mantle of feminism, or avoiding the shameful label of “Islamophobe”? It’s a question that some European countries, with their rising populations of Muslim immigrants, are struggling to answer.

In France, for example, Muslim headscarves are once again a topic of national debate. The prime minister recently proposed banning them in universities, and declared that “a majority of French citizens doubt” whether Islam is compatible with French values. Meanwhile, some Air France flight attendants revolted after the airline instituted a dress code, including headscarves and long pants for women, on flights to Tehran.

The headscarf, which is mandatory for women in Iran, was a frequent topic of conversation on my trip to the country last year (sponsored by the New York Times). My American tour mates were, for the most part, adamantly opposed to the idea that women should be forced to cover themselves. I talked to Iranian women who agreed, and some who defied the mandate to the point of mockery—a flimsy piece of cloth hanging from the back of the head, hair exposed. Others were covered up more thoroughly, and some women I talked to explained that they preferred wearing the headscarf—not that they had a choice—because it made them feel “safe” from the gawking stares and catcalls of creepy men.

These competing views get to the heart of another fundamental tension regarding what it means to be feminist. Islam is not, generally speaking, a particularly feminist enterprise. Without defending female dress codes, perhaps it’s worth contemplating a charitable explanation of the reasoning behind them, as relayed by my Iranian guides.

It goes something like this: Islam isn’t just a religion; it is a fundamentally different approach to how society should be organized. It stipulates that men are sex-obsessed brutes who can’t control their impulses, and has decided that the most practical solution, in the interest of public safety, is to cover all the women to ensure that these impulses are diminished. It stands in contrast to the secular, Western approach, where women are exposed and objectified and catcalled on the street, their sexuality glamorized and advertised and mass-produced. This is far more harmful to women, and to society at large, than a conservative dress code.

That’s the charitable version, and it’s a view that is by no means exclusive to Islam. We’re not supposed to like it because it’s repressive and unfair to women. Erykah Badu (who is apparently still around and making music) recently got herself in trouble with the feminist crowd for suggesting longer skirts in schools might “keep our girls safe, stop boys from getting ideas and create a good working environment for male staff.”

The feminist wonders: Why should women have their freedoms curtailed to account for the foibles of men? Why can’t men just behave themselves? Why can’t we just have a society where everyone is free and equal and treats everyone else with respect, regardless of sex? These are reasonable questions.

So what are we to make of things like Chariot for Women? It’s a new app about to launch that is essentially Uber, but for women, with only women drivers. The service was conceived with the issue of safety in mind, amid growing concern over the high number of sexual assault complaints filed against male Uber drivers.

Sounds like a good idea, right? But it raises a number of questions. Is it “feminist” to offer female-only services in the name of safety? Or is it a cop-out that undermines the vision of a free and equal society where special measures aren’t necessary to protect women? And if not, what other special measures might we consider taking in order create a safer environment for women?

Chariot for Women also presents a conflict of values—because of our commitment to abolishing discrimination of any kind, the service might have legal problems if it refuses to offer rides to men. Should we have to rewrite the laws because some men can’t be trusted to control their brutish impulses? These aren’t easy questions; even feminists will disagree on how to answer them. If you can tell me what a feminist even is these days.

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This blog post has been reproduced with the permission of Acculturated. The original blog post can be found here. The views expressed by the author and Acculturated are not necessarily endorsed by this organization and are simply provided as food for thought from Intellectual Takeout.