Women hopped into the spotlight almost from the start of the Water Rabbit Year 2023 in late January. Splashed emotionally wet from hospital to police station to business licence office and all the way up to the august chambers of the Dewan Rakyat, liberally-dressed women stood perplexed as many eyes gazed at their attire rather disapprovingly.
Just a week after the Chinese New Year weekend on Jan 22 and 23, a woman motorist who went to the Kajang police station to report a car accident was denied entry for wearing shorts that were above her knees.
In February, there were three eye-poking incidents. A woman who was watching a badminton game suddenly took ill and was rushed to Kampar Hospital. As she was clad in shorts, she was denied entry. At the Pasir Gudang City Council building, a woman was stopped from entering a lift despite wearing midcalf-length dress. Apparently her dress was see-through from the knee down. A visitor to the Dewan Rakyat was ordered to leave for wearing a skirt with a slit that was deemed too high.
Last month the Companies Commission of Malaysia office in Ipoh turned away a woman whose dress length was slightly above her knees. But if you check the files, you will find complaints filed by women one year ago that, despite wearing dresses ending below the knees, they were barred from entering government buildings in Johor Baru. Perhaps their dresses were see-throughs.
The dress code is a long-standing issue. Twenty years ago, one town authority began the practice of banning female workers in retail outlets and restaurants from wearing mini-skirts, blouses that showed the navel or cleavage, and see-through blouses. The ban provoked fierce reaction from women activists who argued that everyone had the right to dress as they pleased.
Fast forward to the present day, and social activists continue to denounce what they say is a culture of victim blaming that lays the responsibility on women to avoid dressing provocatively so as not to arouse men. To buttress their stand, activists point out that women who are decently dressed with head cover have also fallen victim to rape.
Countering this point, religiously oriented female political leaders assert that when a man is aroused after seeing a scantily clad dame, he may look for a woman or child who is within his control to satisfy his lust. This is an obvious cop-out by politicians who can’t handle the issue of domestic rape and incest, and seek to blame external parties instead of scrutinising the quality of family life and upbringing in many homes.
Is it only in Malaysia that we debate hemlines? No, the dress code is a global issue that has aroused strong comments over many decades. As far back as 1988, a Daily Mail newspaper opinion survey of prominent British women found them divided on the topic of provocative dressing, and we reproduce two quotations here.
Trendy clothes designer Wendy Dagworthy said: “It’s really very stupid for men to get so excited by the way women dressed. Quite pathetic really.” On the other hand, comedy scriptwriter Carla Lane warned: “Men are easily aroused. It is a great risk for a girl to go out at night scantily clad. In an ideal world it shouldn’t matter, but you have to be realistic.”
A survey of American psychiatrists in 1991 that was reported in the Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology found the majority agreeing with the statement: “Female attire that appears to the male to invite direct sex attention tends to increase the risk of sex crimes.” In 2003, a Japanese cabinet minister ignited a furore when he declared that men were “black panthers” waiting to pounce on women who dressed provocatively.
But the minister, Yasuo Fukuda, was right. Tokyo police had been recording almost 2,000 cases of groping in subway trains every year until 2001 when women-only carriages were introduced during rush hours. The victims were mainly schoolgirls wearing uniforms with short skirts. Sexual molesters operating in gangs surrounded the targeted victims to block the view of other passengers. At the next stop, the molesters would get off.
In Jakarta 12 years ago, a mini-skirted 27-year-old woman was raped in a public minivan. The city governor then called on women to avoid wearing mini-skirts when riding on public transport. However, his advice sparked off a street protest with some 50 women dressed in tank tops and short skirts holding up banners saying: “Don’t tell us how to dress, tell them not to rape” and “My mini-skirt is my right.”
Women activists demand that instead of policing what women wear, men need to police their own thoughts. They assert that it is wrong to blame women’s wardrobes for men’s transgressions and women should continue to dress as they please.
These activists are playing into the hands of fashionpreneurs with a commercial motive. What a girl wears is what she buys from the department store, boutique, or some other dress shop. Every line of women’s clothing that you see in these outlets has been placed there by merchandising departments who follow the dictates of fashion moguls. The driving force of fashion has always been to make a lot of money from women. The skimpier the dress, the better the profit.
The “dress as you please” movement is engineered to increase profits for the industry at the expense of female safety. Hence, women activists should avoid hopping aboard the micro-mini bandwagon, as their influence is persuasive in ramping up sales.
The bare skin trend remains a hit at the biannual Fashion Week events, with designer collections of torso-baring crop tops, micro-minis, and high-slit dresses. The biggest fashion magazines feature them on their covers, stores order them, influencers flaunt them, and the ladies rush for them. Women consumers just fall in line with a decision that has been made for them. But with black panthers on the hunt, just remember that sexy attire is safe only in ballrooms.
About 20 years ago, alarm was expressed in London over the sexual clothing offered by fashion stores to girls as young as six. “This whole drift is towards sexualising girls at a younger and younger age,” complained Sandra James, a member of the Royal College of Nursing ruling council. “Fashion retailers … are sexualising young girls and they need to put a stop to it,” Sandra campaigned.
Mothers in America, too, worried for their children’s safety and lamented that dress stores were selling tiny shorts that barely covered the bums of their teenage daughters. Mothers argued: “That dress is too short,” but their girls retorted: “Mom, this dress is too long.”
Stores saw where the money was, and the skimpy tide washed up on Malaysian shores as well. As early as 2009, children’s talent shows in Kuala Lumpur were featuring 9-year-old girls dressed in mini-skirts and spaghetti-strap tops. Some were in T-shirts revealing belly buttons. Educators expressed worry that girls were being displayed as sex objects to attract audiences. Girls who dressed skimpily got more job offers in sales promotion and modelling.
Soon, international magazines were showing concern at the sexual direction of fashion design. Psychologists wrote that one effect of skimpy clothing was a loss of self-esteem, as girls now rated their own value in terms of the extent of tantalising skin exposure. Girls and women are showing more skin because that’s how the fashionpreneurs want it. And what these moguls design, the stores push to the consumers.
Hemlines should not be a point of debate between Muslims and non-Muslims. The tussle is between contextual norms and commercialised fashion. In 2014 Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, in giving his opinion, wisely said: “Modesty in dress is required only if bodily exposure poses a temptation. The context and intent matter.” In commercialised fashion, the intent is to use sexual allure to sell a line of clothing. This may put the wearer’s safety at risk.
But in the context of sports participation, revealing outfits are perfectly acceptable. In 2015, dress conservatives kicked up a fuss over gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi’s attire at the SEA Games. Malaysian Gymnastics Federation secretary-general N. Shanmugarajah said in her defence: “Gymnasts move a lot during their routine. If they wear the wrong attire, it will restrict their movements. Athletes wear leotards as it smoothens their movement and performance as a whole.”
Similarly, hospitals and police stations cannot impose a dress code on women as turning away emergency cases and crime victims shows lack of sensitivity and failure to prioritise needs over niceties. Furthermore, enforcement of a dress code may expose hospitals and police to litigation.
There is currently a push in Europe and America for less skin exposure in daily attire, and our Government should take advantage of the swing to introduce a more widely acceptable solution. Instead of policing the women, authorities should police the fashion stores. Instead of throwing women out of buildings, throw the book at retail shops selling uncouthly designed clothing.
Regulate the types of fashion that dress stores can or cannot sell. Make it a condition in the business premises licence that skimpy attire and see-throughs can only be displayed on shelves marked “For home and sports use only.” Skirts and shorts that are sold for general wear must be at least knee-length. Blouses and shirts must be sleeved. Spaghetti straps and tube tops must come with an advice to wear along with a cardigan.
In Europe, a push began two years ago to revive the folksy long skirts and ankle-length blouses. In China four years ago, the meme “Clothes are the foundation of culture” started taking hold and many women fancied wearing a modernised version of the traditional hanfu with its long skirt and sleeves. India is seeing the popularisation of sarees that cover the midriff rather than expose it. And there is now talk of reviving the peplos, a dress with an overfold that allows you to lower or raise the hemline above or below the knee.
With climate change inducing prolonged heat waves, the other extreme of heavy dressing to cover all skin except the eyes is equally unsuitable, as your skin desperately needs to breathe. Go for lightweight and light-coloured clothes (preferably cotton or linen). Dark-coloured clothes actually absorb the sun’s ultraviolet rays and can make you feel hotter.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ipoh Echo