A few months ago now, two events coincided. I went to a Sikh event in Bristol, which meant conforming to certain dress requirements, i.e. head covered (which I’d remembered and brought a long silky scarf with me), and no flesh on display (I slipped up a bit on this, it was summer, I was wearing a dress and sandals, so I ended up feeling rather self-conscious about my bare legs throughout the ceremony). As tradition dictated I sat on the floor on the left, with the women, while the men sat in rows on the right.
Also that week – I think the night before – there was a ‘Slutwalk’ in Bristol. I couldn’t attend as I had a party meeting, and was in two minds whether I should or not. The idea behind Slutwalk is that women should feel free to dress how they want, without being seen as “asking for it”, triggered I think by yet another male judge’s comments at a rape trial? There was some debate at the time as to whether Slutwalk was the best way to protest about this, with some participants dressing how they’d normally do to walk down the street and others dressing up as ‘sluts’. Some thought that ‘reclaiming’ the word slut and adopting the stereotypical attire of sexual objects was unhelpful, and that it detracted from the point being made that women wearing ‘normal’ mini-skirts, tight tops, skinny jeans, high heels, etc should not be seen as willing targets for unwelcome male predators.
During the meal at the Sikh event – there’s always food – I’d got into a conversation with a member of the community who was expressing his dismay at the sexualised culture of today and its impact on young women. He was I suppose being old-fashioned in his views, but he wasn’t being misogynistic; his concerns about the pressures on today’s teenagers, and the dangers they were exposing themselves to were valid, although he was perhaps rather judgmental about young women’s choices and not judgmental enough about the way young men – and not so young men – behave. He’d have been horrified by Slutwalk.
In a way there’s some common ground. In Luton a decade or so ago there was a graffiti campaign in Bury Park, the predominantly Asian area of the town, where billboards featuring undressed women in provocative poses were spray-painted over or ripped down. It caused controversy at the time, about whether ‘the Muslims’ were seeking to impose their values on the rest of the town. And yet it could so easily have been feminist campaigners doing the same thing.
The big difference of course is that the anti-billboards campaign was led by men, and a feminist campaign against them would have been led by women. And women (or male feminists) protesting about the objectification of women isn’t the same thing as men (or women of similar views) thinking that women displaying some flesh is indecent. But the Sikhs at the temple and the Muslims who defaced the posters would say that their concern is about ensuring respect for women, as would the Slutwalk campaigners. They’d all, to take another example, be opposed to a restaurant like Hooters, a branch of which opened in Bristol a year or two ago.
I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this. I’m just throwing it out there for discussion…. Is it possible to reconcile these two viewpoints and have a shared agenda promoting women’s rights? And how should a feminist respond when cultural practices don’t match her own beliefs? I’ve been to other events, at mosques, where most of the women are in a different room, but the non-Muslim women, by virtue of being special guests and usually there to say a few words, are in the same room as the men. This makes me uncomfortable, but then again, as an atheist, so does attending Christian religious services or events such as Remembrance Sunday and having to join in with the prayers and hymn-singing – but if that’s the only way you can show your respect to the war dead then that’s what you do.
So is it about respecting others’ beliefs or is it about compromising your own? Is it hypocritical? Should I, as an MP, be making a stand? Or would that be disrespectful? Doesn’t representing a constituency of diverse interests mean you have to put personal views aside to an extent and take people and civic traditions as you find them?