When we think of women being harassed on the streets we often think in terms of sexual harassment: harassment that is based on the objectification and overt sexualisation of women. Another form of harassment that women experience in public spaces that we tend to speak about less often is, harassment on the basis of perceived deviance, especially as it relates to gender cues.
I use the word ‘deviant’ to underpin the fact that stepping outside a gender-based dress code is all too often regarded as a personal (collective) insult and threat to society as opposed to mere clothing choice on the basis of one’s own identity. When women are deemed to behave or dress in un-womanly ways (different from classist notions of un-ladylike behaviour) such choices are met with society-wide sanction.
Sometimes it appears in the form of innocuous-seeming questions along the lines of “Why do you wear men’s shoes?” However, all too often, deviance isn’t met with nonchalance: quiet aggression is all too commonplace and sometimes physical or verbal violence – depending on the space you’re in and the extent of perceived deviance.
“I don’t wear men’s shoes” or “We need to stop gendering clothing”
I don’t understand why we gender clothing. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it as far as I’m concerned. But given that it’s a thing that happens, what especially irks me is the attempt to gender clothing on the basis of anything other than the stated gender of the wearer. Gendering relies on the possessive form, which then suggests that the gender identity of the person who owns it is all that matters. However, the usual gendering of clothing relies on a yardstick external to wearers and serves to reinforce the binary norms of society.
These posit that there are only two genders, that there are set ways to perform these two genders and that failure to adhere to such performance standards will (rightly) lead to disqualification of gender identity. Anything that suggests something to the contrary is deemed deviant and society has an obligation to police and harass what it perceives to be perversion until conformity is performed or anarchy will ensue.
My shoe choices are apparently extremely deviant. As a lover of brogues, combat boots, really – all cool shoes, I am often told that I wear men’s shoes. Further, on those days that I whip out my bow ties, collared shirts and blazers, some people seem to have a hard time admitting that I am an extremely dapper woman wearing women’s clothing and it seems unfathomable, that I am not playing dress-up or trying to ‘be like a man’. Instead there is often a lot of discomfort. Apparently my lace-ups have the power to call into question my entire gender identity. It is distressing to me that we are comfortable with the idea that how we perceive pieces of clothing has the power to vitiate someone’s stated gender identity. Further, should you opt to ignore shops’ clothing segregation, you’re more than just a little bit strange: you’re opening yourself up to murmurings…and harm.
Policing clothing for deviance is something that we do quite often, and it’s often wrapped up in ideas of propriety and respect. Sometimes it goes further than that. For example, parts of Zimbabwean society seem to have really mixed feelings about women wearing trousers, because of what they think this symbolises. It seems that the maintenance of a clear gender binary, and clear boundaries of approved gender performance is really important to the patriarchy.
The ‘no trousers when you visit kumusha’ rule
There are some places that are clear trouser no-go areas. For most women, wearing trousers kumusha is the remit of really little kids, certainly not women. This rule isn’t really applied at my kumusha given that my aunts, in cahoots with their murooras, led a rebellion before I was born. However, there remains an un-stated preference for lack of trousers amongst certain quarters as a symbol of womanhood.
The trouser rule is well-entrenched on the basis that it is an indicator of respect of indigenous culture and the gender status quo; good womanhood is characterised by the knowing of one’s place. That is to say, the wearing of trousers is often deemed to be a symbol of ungovernable women who attempt to usurp the natural order of things, often spurred on (it is thought) by their Western ideals. Wearing trousers is conflated with wanting to extend womanhood beyond the remits and boundaries set up by the patriarchy.
Policing trousers as a response to changing gender relations
The trousers debate isn’t limited to the rural areas. In Zimbabwe’s very recent past, trousers were subject to much debate, as a symbol of changing gender relations since women combatants returned from the bush after the war of liberation, some decked in trousers, many expecting definitive changes given their contributions to the armed struggle. There was even a debate about whether the woman on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier should wear trousers (as most women combatants had done) or whether she should be given a skirt. The latter position won out because apparently no one would otherwise be able to tell it was a woman.
Fast forward to 2015, and we’re still policing gendered clothing, because any variance is regarded as a threat. A couple of weeks ago I sat through (then angrily participated in) an active discussion on a kombi about how women who wear trousers are leading (and had led) to the degradation of society through their ‘manly’ ways and refusal to be submissive to men. It was also voiced that women who wear trousers are morally bankrupt. Apparently casual trousers-wearing is also an indicator of a soul in jeopardy. Further, women who wear trousers are all sex workers, and sex workers are the spawn of the devil – Jezebels if you will.
We no longer expect to hear such opinions in urban settings, but it is clear that in imaginings of a glorious age of perfect (patriarchal) gender relations, clothing is one of the means of enforcement of the gender binary. Fluidity in performance or presentation of gender continues to be regarded as just cause for harassment and harm. I am over it.
Main image from shopsecret.com.ua