Policing women’s clothing and behaviour in the age of the Rihanna video
A question. Who’s the odd one out in this list? Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, and two unnamed female hairdressers from Morocco?
Answer: Rihanna. Why? Because she’s the only one who hasn’t upset the Moroccan authorities through her supposedly “indecent” behaviour.
Last month a concert from everyone’s favourite Bronx-born-Latino-infused-R&B-singer-with-an-acting-career-second-life performer (aka Jennifer Lopez) upset Morocco’s conservative elements after one of her trademark “raunchy” shows in Rabat. After J-Lo’s concert aired on Moroccan TV there were calls for the country’s Minister of Communication Mustapha Khalfi to resign. The prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane weighed in, requesting that the country’s broadcasting regulator take action against the TV station 2M on the grounds that Ms Lopez’s performance had “sexual connotations” and had provoked the “religious and moral values of the country.” Sensibly, the regulator declined to take action.
Scroll forward a few weeks and we have the equally ludicrous spectacle of a court putting two Moroccan women - both hairdressers - on trial under obscenity laws for wearing skirts deemed “too tight”. They were apparently reported to the police by people in the city of Agadir in the south of the country who objected to the two women’s appearance as they walked through a marketplace (their objections apparently included hurling stones at them). The two women could be jailed for two years for this supposed offence. A verdict is expected on Monday, but as Amnesty’s Liz McKean says about this judicial-moral farce, it’s not the skirts that are flimsy here but the legal case against these two people.
So, checking my online calendar I see that … yes, the year is in fact 2015 and not 1815. Nevertheless, discriminatory authorities in country after country around the world seem to be living in some ultra-sexist, male-dominated past. In Sudan, for example, ten female Christian students in Karthoum have just been charged with “indecent dress” after a dozen of them were arrested by the Public Order Police outside (of all places) an Evangelical Baptist church. They were apparently wearing either skirts or trousers (the latter a clear echo of the infamous Lubna Ahmed Hussein case, the female Sudanese journalist jailed for a month back in 2009 for that dastardly crime: wearing trousers).
Final example (and it doesn’t get much more ludicrous than this one): in Iran the jailed artist and women’s rights campaigner Atena Farghadani is reportedly facing extra charges after she is said to have shaken hands with her lawyer Mohammad Moghimi who was visiting her in prison. An indictment has been filed with a court accusing the pair of an “illegitimate sexual relationship short of adultery” and “indecent conduct”. Moghimi himself has also been arrested (he’s out on bail now after posting £25,000). Hmm, as Theresa May is wont to say, I am not making this up.
The Farghadani case is especially egregious as she’s already a prisoner of conscience serving a 12-year sentence for lampooning the uptight Iranian authorities in her artwork whilst doing some (much-needed) campaigning for women’s rights in the country (join Amnesty's campaign to release Atena here).
Iran’s clerics and conservatives would clearly like the country’s women to be subservient baby-making machines rather than assertive independent women. Remember that ridiculous business of Iran’s deputy culture minister publicly warning the actress Leila Hatami over her “inappropriate” behaviour at the Cannes film festival after she allowed the Cannes president to - gasp! - kiss her on the cheek? A kiss is not just a kiss when it’s viewed through the prism of automatically-assumed male dominance …
But back to our odd-one-out, the irrepressible Rihanna. I hate to think what the law-makers, prosecutors and self-appointed moral guardians of Iran, Morocco and Sudan (and numerous other places) would make of her new Bitch Better Have My Money video. I’m no great fan of Rihanna’s music (actually this was, I must admit, the first thing of hers I’ve ever knowingly listened to: pap not pop, I thought), but I found myself (half) enjoying the OTT horror-panto of the video. Equally, though, I can see that its cartoonish romp through sexualised images of violence and ethnic stereotyping is not just in (presumably deliberate) “bad taste”, but also a mini-minefield of moral yukkiness. I wouldn’t massively wish to defend it as a piece of “feminist” or “black political” art … but, nor would I wish to ban it.
Banning BBHMM would be to align yourself with the bigots of Agadir, Khartoum or Tehran.
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