ETHICAL DILEMMA: Should Women Wear Pants?

Saman Maydani
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“A sign of moral degeneration in society is pants. Women who wear pants.”

The man’s voice is loud and steady, his tone matter-of-fact, as if he were commenting on the weather. My jaw drops and my cheeks flush crimson as I glance down at my dingy blue jeans. Standing in front of a group of Zambian men and women, I look around the circle, hoping to find another female offender in the crowd. But all the women are wrapped in brightly colored chitenges—vibrant yet modest traditional skirts. The man sits and eyes me coolly, as if waiting for me to respond. I clear my throat and prepare to answer, when suddenly the lunch bell rings. Relieved, I break the session for lunch.

Pants are a sign of moral degeneration?

I am volunteering in Zambia with the Inshindo Foundation, an organization that administers the Preparation for Social Action Program. We train tutors and encourage young men and women to be active agents of change in their communities. On this particular day, I am running a workshop on social action, attended by local community members.

Before arriving in Zambia, I had been told that women do not wear pants, and that wearing a skirt would probably be wise. But I had ignored this advice, and was now, it seemed, facing the consequences.

My situation poses an interesting ethical dilemma: As a foreign woman living in Zambia, and as someone who works very closely with members of the local community, how should I dress? Should I wear a skirt to appease local notions of morality? Should I dress the way that most men and women here believe a woman should dress? Or should I dress the way that I believe women should dress? In other words, should I wear jeans to silently prove a point?

Part of me believes I should just keep wearing the jeans. As a woman with strong convictions about the equality between men and women, I feel I have a responsibility to challenge social conventions that reinforce unequal gender roles.

But another, stronger part of me feels that it is disrespectful to come into a community and wear clothes that deeply offend many people. Plus, I don’t really have this equality thing entirely figured out—I don’t know what "equality" between men and women really looks like. Do men and women have to dress the same to be considered "equal?" For me to impose my own view of this vast, multifaceted matter upon others would seem not only biased, but also extremely ignorant.

A week before, as I was cleaning our front steps, I had been approached by a crowd of neighborhood children who were eager to help me with my chores. Chilufia, a six-year-old boy, reached for the broom I was holding—he wanted to help sweep. His friend Rosie, a girl, grabbed the broom and reprimanded him.

“Boys don’t sweep! Girls sweep!” she shouted.

“But I want to sweep, too!” he pleaded.

But rules were rules, and Rosie wouldn’t let him.

I froze, taking in the reality of the situation. How sad, I thought, that these children have such deeply ingrained notions about gender roles, and that Rosie thinks she has to do all the sweeping. But then I realized that, in this instance, her role afforded her power. She had the right to sweep; he did not. She had her role, and he had his—they were different, but that wasn’t necessarily bad.

In that moment, the significance of her bright little skirt transformed for me. Maybe, I thought, equality doesn’t have to mean “sameness,” but could instead mean a true, deep respect for the different but indispensable roles we all play.

Walking home from the workshop, I pass through the streets of Kabwe, and I have never felt so self-conscious about my beloved pair of jeans. I wonder if everyone I pass thinks I am a moral degenerate.

There’s another training coming up, which I will be facilitating along with an older male colleague. The participants are a group of community leaders from Kabwe, all of them older men.

I arrive home, go to my closet, and start to iron a week’s worth of skirts.
 

Comments

Posted on 7/17/2009 by

Kirby Grey

Kirby Grey

What would I do in that situation? I, as you were, am conflicted on whether or not it would be appropriate to wear what I really want to wear, the pants, or to ‘do like the Romans do” and where the skirt. I definitely see your point, that perhaps each person does have a role to play. Rosie had a role and therefore power. She had the ability to tell the boy he couldn’t sweep, only girls could. Just like that gentleman had the ability to criticize you on your choice of dress… or should I say pants? The only question I am asking myself is this: If those gender roles were not in place and each individual had the ability to make free, unbiased choices, what would they REALLY do? Would the boy still want to sweep or did he want to only because he couldn’t? Would the girl be able to “insert pre-determined male role here”? Or would they maintain what the status quo is as of now, because that’s simply what their heart told them to do? I can’t even answer that question because of the world we live in. We can only know the answer once we allow individuals and community to sincerely investigate truth for themselves. It isn’t enough for me to go into a community and wear pants, thinking I am the SYMBOL for social change, but educate both myself and each community I come in contact with. With education as our greatest tool, together we can empower the individual and the community to decide for themselves what that equality looks like. Equality may look quite different for me than it does from you, Rosie, the boy, or that man. How can I help be such a tool for empowerment? Asking myself such questions has led me to a decision, I would wear the skirt. For now ? Cheers Saman, thanks for allowing me the ability to contemplate the significance of the spiritual truth that all men and women are equal.

Posted on 7/24/2009 by

Emily L

Emily L

Saman, this is great. It's such a nice illustration of how experiences across cultures can provide an opportunity for us to reflect more deeply on our values and their implications. What does the equality of men and women mean in practice? Maybe we in the West don't have a monopoly on understanding of that essential principle; maybe it takes the entire diversity of human experience to reflect on its implications. Maybe, as you suggest, it does not mean sameness, but rather valuing responsibilities and contributions of each, and perhaps that does imply to a certain extent gender roles. An important question, then, is why are caring activities, such as maintaining the home, raising children, educating children, caring for the sick and the elderly, so undervalued when they are so crucial to the maintenance and progress of human societies? What assumptions about the purpose of life, the value of the human being, and the means of contributing to society are obstructing the appreciation of activities and qualities typically associated with the female gender? I think these are things you are perhaps directing us to question in sharing this experience, and I appreciate that. Thanks. Your article also made me think about things I have been recently reading related to power. Your comment that Rosie had power over the boy in preventing him from participating in a certain activity made me think. Such an assertion is perhaps based on the common held notion of power as 'power over' someone else. In many parts of the world (perhaps all), men can be said to have 'power over' women in limiting and undervaluing their participation in the affairs of society. Should we then celebrate moments when women can be said to have 'power over' men? (Not that this is necessarily what you were doing, but I think that in some movements this is indeed the goal.) Alternative notions of power that I have read about suggest conceiving of power as the ability to act. So that the empowerment of one group does not hinder the well-being of another, instead it contributes to it...

Posted on 7/24/2009 by

Emily L

Emily L

(Sorry, word limit...) ...And within this vision of power, we don't have to see everything in terms of one group exercising power over another. Perhaps the fact that most women in many parts of Africa wear skirts is not best interpreted as men having power over women in dictating their manner of dress. Not that this is what you were claiming. But I do think that the diverse cultures of humanity have a wide array of practices, and these will have to be weighed according to certain common values, such as the equality of men and women, though the outcome may not be what we expect. Perhaps in a future Zambia that enjoys the reality of equality of men and women, women will for the most part continue to wear long skirts. I don't know. But I think there is something invigorating about the possibility that the enactment of such principles as the equality of men and women will depend on the contributions of people and cultures marking the entire range of human diversity, meaning that we don't know exactly what it can look like. And I think this is what you have given us the opportunity to think about with this article. Thanks again.

Posted on 8/06/2009 by

Steven Davis

Steven Davis

This is a fascinating article that really pushes us to think not only about other cultures, but also our own. We should use articles such as this one to question not only the customs and values of other cultures but also our own cultural lense and never forget that our opinions are often influenced by our own culture. My thought regarding whether a woman should wear pants in a culture where this is not generally accepted is that we should contemplate the outcome we wish to achieve and how we think this action will be interpretted by the local culture. There are many ways to transmit a message, and creating shock value is only one of them. What if your idea of wearing pants is to communicate your belief in equality and yet the local culture thinks that you're gender confused? The message and your efforts will not have been received correctly. As an America, what would you think if a male professor walked into a classroom with a dress on? What does your cultural lense see compared to the statement he thinks he is making? We should also think carefully of the potential consequences of influencing locals to rebel against the strict traditions of their local culture. How would the father react if his son were to grab a broom and start sweeping in front of the neighbors because we said it's ok. How would this impact the son? While it is our responsibility to support movements as important as equal rights, we must also exercise tolerance and be sensitive to local norms and equally aware and strategic in our actions and how they will create the most positive impact.

Posted on 8/06/2009 by

Go Scranton

Go Scranton

I wonder if the issue is really pants, or pants without a long top covering the private parts. The author does not articulate but I think this is an important point. For example, in Pakistan the 'shalwar kameez' is the norm---a long tunic over pants. Were those same pants to be coupled with a waist-length shirt, it would be socially unacceptable. Just as we respect the right for a non-smoker to say 'no smoking in my house,' I think we must respect the right of a given society to say 'no clothing that reveals the figure' in our midst.

Posted on 9/08/2009 by

Saman Maydani

Saman Maydani

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8241894.stm

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Posted on 10/28/2009 by

Jessica Goodman

I like how you blend your thoughts into the issues the people who met raised. Good, clear argument. I struggled with some of the same issues as part of my preparation for studying in Qatar. The one fact I used to balance my discomfort with so clearly gendered clothing was that, when I wore it my first time there, I had a much richer experience than when I tried to force myself apart from my fellow students by the way I dressed. I see study abroad as a chance to truly walk within the shoes of my fellow global citizens, which is difficult when I judge them sartorially :-D. Here is my post, in case it helps: http://feelingelephants.wordpress.com/2009/08/11/how-to-dress-for-success-in-qatar/ My one caveat: while I decided I could wear long-sleeves and modest hem-lines, the one gulf trend I could not abide was sparkly shoes. My and my ratty sneakers have been all over the world, and to a different norm I cannot conform.

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