The Common Good

'Indecent' Clothing and Abusive Control

Over the past couple of months, I've followed the unfolding story of Lubna Hussein, the Sudanese woman who was arrested for wearing pants and who decided to not be quiet about her arrest. The facts of the story are that Lubna Hussein and 12 other women were arrested in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, in July for wearing pants at a local café. Sudan's penal code states that up to 40 lashes and a fine should be assessed of anyone "who commits an indecent act which violates public morality or wears indecent clothing."

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Most of these women quietly paid the fine and received their lashings, but Lubna Hussein decided to plead not guilty. She sent out invites to journalists to attend her trial and dared the Sudanese authorities to whip her publicly so the whole world could see how Sudan treats its women. She was eventually sent to jail, but was released after a government official paid her fine in order to remove her voice from the spotlight.

To Hussein, this was not just about wearing pants. The law is unevenly applied, and in some areas of the country women wear pants without fear of punishment. The pants were merely a symbol of the trend to suppress the voices of women. And as even her critics have pointed out, this wasn't about gaining simple political advantage for women, for in Sudan women have won the right of equal pay to men, and occupy leading positions. Specific instances of equality matter less than the general atmosphere women have to face every day. As Hussein points out, the indecency law "targets just women--I've never heard of a man arrested for indecent clothing, and furthermore the law doesn't even define 'indecent.' It's left up to the police officer's whim." Women's bodies are shamefully being used against them as a means of control.

Having experienced the conservative Christian version of this obsession with so-called "indecency," I too have witnessed how clothing is simply a pretense for control. I've been disciplined for wearing the "inappropriately casual and therefore indecent" choice of a denim skirt and Keds at church camp. I've been on the youth trips where more time is devoted to discussing what sort of swimsuits and tank tops are allowed than to Bible study. I've had my youth pastor give me the long lingering look and tell me to go home and change because if it rained my white t-shirt would be too indecent. And I've heard students at Christian colleges within the last few years brag about how relevant their school is now because women can wear jeans to class. I've also read of the communities in the U.S. that pass laws banning clothing styles common in African-American communities. Or schools that insist on dress codes where all students must look like middle-class white men stepping off the golf course in their khakis and polos.

In America, we are not strangers to controlling people through rules about clothing. We may not physically beat people, but if there are people that we want controlled -- be they women, or youth, or racial minorities -- we have no problem fining or otherwise punishing them for their personal choices. Often, this has very little to do with any real indecency, but is simply an excuse to silence the voices we might fear. Lubna Hussein found herself in a position where she could challenge that use of women's bodies as a means to control them. Unlike Hussein, most women didn't have the legal and monetary resources to stand up to the government, so she became their voice. The pants were merely a symbol of a larger issue.

It is disappointing but not surprising that the Sudanese government decided to avoid dealing with this issue. It is easy to let specific instances slide as long as they can retain the right to forcibly control women when they desire. And it is easy to think that issues like these are restricted to other religions or other countries. But the use of fear and shame to control others still runs rampant in our country as well. Women all over the world remain silent daily out of fear of what men may do to them. When even their clothing choice can be punished by a fine or lashing; by a stoning or a rape; or simply by the reminder that they are less important than men or even that they are merely objects that men can use; it is easy for their voice to dwindle away. So I applaud women like Lubna Hussein who get at the roots of injustice and challenge even the small parts of a system that deny women a voice or full personhood.

Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at julieclawson.com and emergingwomen.us.

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