I recently saw a meme on Facebook that caught my attention. It read “A man should respect a woman, but a woman should give a man something to respect.”
The “words of wisdom” represent a direct allusion to how a woman should dress, speak and carry herself overall. People were clamoring about how “real” and “true” that statement was and how more women these days should give men something to respect.
This did not sit very well with me.
Then I saw a different Facebook friend make a post that read, “Modest dress forces one to appreciate a woman for who she truly is.” It should be noted that this particular person already has very strong views on what women should and should not wear based on his belief in Islam. Naturally, I disagreed with him.
Before I begin, let me start by saying this is not an attack on Islam. Arab culture is not synonymous with Islam. It is among the world’s largest religions and is practiced in varying countries and cultures. While many Arabs are Muslims, all Muslim people are not of Arab decent or culture. This is an important distinction to note.
Some of my cousins are Muslim and I know how beautiful the religion is firsthand. I also know that his post was a bit of a contradiction because the MOST aggressive behaviors, disrespect, and violence towards women WORLDWIDE stem from cultures where they are MOST covered (Arab culture being one example). This information is easily accessible online and comes from statistical data and numerous Arab female activists who fight for women’s basic human rights. In my rebuttal to my Facebook friend’s declaration, I used supporting evidence in the form of graphs and reports of violence that proved my point. Dress does not dictate if a woman is valued or respected. Nor does it protect her from being violated. Of course he took my responses as personal attacks on his cultural beliefs, but that was not the case.
The truth is that if dress dictated how women were seen or treated, you wouldn’t have such high rates of mental, emotional, physical abuse and rape found among the most modestly dressed women in the world. A woman can be wearing a bag and a man will still see her, undress her with his eyes, think about how that ass jiggles and what her breasts might look like. So if a man wants to see you for who you really are, he will see it regardless of what you are wearing. He will not disrespect you based on how you choose to express yourself. The only variable is the man and how he operates internally and externally regarding women.
I know this to be true because on the flip side, there are many Latin and West Indian people that celebrate Carnival. It’s an event where nudity and semi-budity are embraced as being part of the culture. In those environments, you find that men seem to have more control over themselves and a higher level of respect for the women who participate. For the most part, they treat women as people and not objects.
I have been half-naked at Carnival with hundreds of people and not one man disrespected me, touched me inappropriately, or called me out of my name. But as I walk down the street in Chicago with a hoodie and loose jogging pants on—you know, modestly-dressed attire—I hear all types of disrespectful remarks about my body or what they would “do to me” if given the chance. The latter is an everyday reality for many women no matter HOW they are dressed.
Now don’t get me wrong, I do understand the world we live in. I won’t say that dress does not affect perception, but it should not impact one’s level of respect for a woman. No one looks at a man with his shirt off and assumes he is of low character, is a negligent father, or is promiscuous. No one automatically feels justified in blatantly disrespecting men they do not know, simply because of how they appear. Yet, it happens to women everywhere all of the time and is even encouraged in some cases.
Brothas, judging a woman based on her appearance is no different than how you feel when you are being racially profiled. A racist cop is going to disrespect you and see you as a suspect whether you obey the law, are a respected professional, or looking like a corner boy. Why? Because they have already decided you’re nothing more than a criminal.
Do not decide that a woman is not worth respecting simply because of what she has on. The respect of women has nothing to do with dressing modestly. There are plenty of modestly dressed women in this world who get treated like trash while “ill dressed” ones—whatever that means—are treated like gold.
There really is no such way to dress to reduce unwanted attention. We can’t help how our bodies are made, how large our breasts are, or how wide our hips are. We don’t control who finds us desirable. Disrespectful interactions happen to us no matter what. Most of us had to deal with predatory comments our entire lives from the time our bodies matured. Many of us had to overcome various body related issues because of how we have been treated throughout the years thanks to physical attributes we cannot control. So a lot of women have simply come to the realization that people are going to look and say things regardless, so we might as well wear what makes us feel good, modest or not.
I look forward to the day when we simply let women “live” without policing their bodies. I look forward to the day when we stop putting the responsibility on girls and women to “not get raped” or disrespected. I look forward to the day when we simply teach others how to deal with being told “no” and to not rape or disrespect folks. Being covered empowers some women, while being uncovered empowers others. But all women should be respected equally.
Neffer-Oduntunde A. Kerr, affectionately known by her nickname ‘Boom’ to many of her readers, is a freelance writer and blogger based in Chicago. Neffer has written for Ebony, JET and ChicagoNow. She is currently working on her first book and you can keep up with her on Instagram @itstheboomshow.
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