Stop judging women by what they wear

Do women invite rape by the way they dress? It's time to stand up for what's not right

School assembly talks are usually snooze fests, but not the one last week that our elder child couldn't wait to tell us about.

"Ms T talked to us about the dress code," she said.

Life would be so much simpler if public schools here had uniforms, like they do in Singapore. Instead, kids can wear whatever they want, so long as they don't violate a basic sense of decency by showing their tummies, brassieres or buttocks.

Good luck enforcing that, given the season's cropped tops and hotpants.

Indeed, the dress code must have been violated so many times that the principal saw the expediency of speaking to the student body about appropriate clothing. Unfortunately, instead of appealing to their respect for school rules, she fell prey to the idea of good taste.

"She said," our daughter's voice rose in pitch, "that there are some girls who shouldn't be in short shorts. She said,'You wouldn't want to see ME in short shorts now, would you?'"

Budding feminists' jaws dropped in unison.

When students were invited to give feedback, one 15-year-old girl stood up and noted that neither she nor any other female student should be made to feel ashamed of their bodies.

Drawing attention to how girls look in clothes simply contributes to their objectification, she argued.

I agreed: The principal had missed the point.

She could have taken the chance to impress upon her students how their choice of clothing says a lot about them, and their attitudes.

You don't dress the same way for work as you do a beach holiday, for instance, and school deserves your dressing in a manner that connotes respect.

Instead she got called out - and for the same reason that has led hundreds of girls and boys to walk out of their high schools all over the country or deliberately break the dress code, this summer.

The walkouts were in protest against the tendency to judge girls by what they wear, enshrined in school policy, as well as in unequal treatment. Boys are far less likely to be sent home for dress code violations than girls.

A leaflet in one school in New York said: "Instead of shaming girls for their bodies, teach boys that girls are not sexual objects."

There must be hope for the world if youngsters can see through this fallacy that is perpetuated almost universally.

For too long, women have been blamed for inviting unwanted attention and violence upon themselves because of how they act and what they wear.

Because of this lie, women in some repressive regimes are made to hide their bodies, not out of their own desire to be pious, but because they might be tempting to men.

Or victims of sexual assault are made to feel that they somehow asked for it.

One of those trying to change such thinking is Slutwalk, the group under whose auspices protests have also been held in Singapore. Its list of pointers on how to prevent rape comes down to one sardonic tip: Don't commit rape.

Others are sending the same message.

This week, California became the first state to pass a law requiring every college to have a sexual consent policy or risk losing funds.

That means that anyone engaging in a sexual liaison on a campus has to have explicit consent from the partner. The girl (or boy) has to say yes. Silence will not do.

It's a blunt tool and manifestly imperfect. But the worse scenario is that one in five women is reportedly assaulted in college.

Men such as sportscaster James Brown are also calling for their fellow men to take responsibility for their thoughts and actions.

Football season began last month, dominated by the story of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice knocking out his fiancee during a quarrel earlier this year.

The powerful National Football League did little to punish Rice until the scandalous videos were leaked of him punching her and then dragging her unconscious body out of a lift.

In the CBS pre-show before the first game, Brown reminded a watching nation how three women in the United States lose their lives every day to domestic violence.

It was time, he said, for comprehensive education of boys on what healthy, respectful manhood is about.

Furthermore, men must stand up and be accountable.

"Give help or get help, because our silence is deafening and deadly," he said.

Brown's words ring true not just on this issue, but also everywhere there is repression and intimidation.

They could, for instance, apply to how the white majority race should repudiate the treatment of black people, who are still routinely targeted by law enforcement officers simply because of the colour of their skin.

Our friends told of how their son, an undergraduate in Georgia, had rented a car with four friends to drive to Florida for spring break, but got pulled over and questioned by police because they were young black men.

I had imagined my friends would be exempt from such treatment, as they are Duke- and Harvard-schooled professionals. But no matter who you are or what you do, to be African American means to be under siege in your own country, said my friend. It's time for white people to stand up and say, this is not right, added my friend.

The same thing could be said of straight people on how gay people are treated.

You don't have to approve of homosexuality to accept that all individuals have the right to live freely, without harassment.

Often, our fears and perceived threats are made by erroneous beliefs and assumptions.

Would there be more like my daughter's school mate, or the state of California, or a sports journalist named James Brown, who speak up so that truth might prevail.

sharonl@sph.com.sg