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At first, I wanted to talk about this article because of the language of this white woman on a mission to “rescue” women in Pakistan. (This language was even reproduced in the MMW Friday links – come on sisters, we can do better than that!) Don’t we have a long enough history of images of civilised, benevolent, liberated Europeans going to save people in other parts of the world? Painting the British-Pakistani young women in the article as victims in need of rescue, and the British diplomat as a woman whose full-time job it is to save them, fits nicely into pretty much every other image that ever makes it into the media here in North America, but is certainly an oversimplification of the context, and does no one any favours.
(Before I move on, I’ll say some good things, to balance out my cynicism a little bit. The article does make a distinction between arranged and forced marriages, and it emphasises that forced marriages are not condoned by any culture or religion. The British diplomatic unit it talks about works with the support of local authorities, and responds to women who ask for its assistance, rather than making assumptions about what these young women need. Helen Rawlins, the main subject of the article, makes it clear that she doesn’t “force anyone to do anything,” even if she disagrees with their decision. At least from what the article reveals, it looks like this unit is operating in ways that are possibly rather useful, and at least much less problematic than the “mission of rescue” language led me to expect.)
What I do want to focus on is the incredible emphasis on people’s clothing. Now, I can understand trying to paint a visible picture of what’s happening; descriptive writing is a good thing, and there’s nothing wrong with describing what people are wearing. But this article is a little out of control.
For anyone who lives under a rock and is unsure how to read the hints we’re being given when clothing is mentioned, here’s a quick guide:
Western clothing = liberated
Pakistani clothing = oppressed and/or oppressive
(The one exception to this is the security guard who accompanies the “rescue” team and wears a “flowing white tunic.” But it’s possible he had just left his Western business suit at home that day.)
For example, we’re told that in Britain, “women dress, date and marry as they please,” while in Pakistan, “women cover their heads.” (Head-covering as one possible manifestation of a woman dressing as she pleases isn’t looked at here.) When the team shows up as “strangers in Western clothes” to the home of one young woman, we’re specifically told that her brother wears a salwar kameez, and the girl is in a headscarf and tunic. This is (supposedly) the clothing of the imposed traditional culture.
When they meet another young woman, she is wearing “a black niqab that [covers] everything but her sad brown eyes.” Her desire for freedom is articulated in conjunction with the writer’s note that the girl usually wears jeans. (Oh, jeans, the magical saviour of women and guarantee that we will be free from abuse.) It is only when she is able to “[lower] her niqab enough to reveal her long, dark hair and pretty earrings” that we can hear more about her. The tired image of needing to go behind the veil to know more about Muslim women rears its (presumably liberated, uncovered) head once more. The article is peppered with clothing reference that become markers of other-ness and oppression.
Let’s move to look at how Helen Rawlins’ appearance is described. First we learn that she manages to “[look] cool in a proper navy blue suit, despite the near-100-degree heat.” (Take a minute for yourself to think about what is meant by “proper” here.) Then we learn that “Even her haircut makes sense — close-cropped in the intense summer heat.”
So, let’s get this straight. We should admire her for wearing a suit (and even pulling off a cool-looking façade) despite the heat. In addition, we should admire her for having a sensible haircut because of the heat. Anyone else seeing a double standard? Never mind that the “loose-fitting” and “draped” clothing that the Pakistani people in the article wear is never given any credit for potentially also being suited for the climate.
I’m not saying that the writer of the article was making any of this stuff up, or that clothing should never be included in descriptions of people. But we all know that what an author chooses to include or not include in their descriptions of people can tell us a lot about the lens that the writer is looking through, and can help shape the internal assumptions that readers make. Moreover, the links that the writer makes (freedom with wearing jeans, head-covering as an imposed tradition) create clear distinctions of who has power and agency.
So when people are reading this article, what are they learning about folks who wear South Asian clothing? What are they learning about people who wear Western clothing? What assumptions are they going to make when they see women dressed in various ways on the street or on the bus?
And what possibilities are allowed for the many women whose lives are so much more complex than what can be read from their clothes?