Why do her clothes matter?

Published: February 5, 2015

Similar things happen to female dignitaries, whether from the US or from Pakistan. PHOTO: AFP

The only thing we know about First Lady Michelle Obama’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia is that she wore no headscarf. She and her husband, President Barack Obama, probably discussed many worthy issues with the new Saudi King, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, but to the Western media, what mattered most was what Michelle Obama wore.

The First Lady wore a long sleeved shirt and pants but no scarf upon arrival at the airport in Riyadh. Her unveiled dress code sparked controversy on social media almost instantly and Twitter was flooded with tweets about Michelle’s dress code. Sure, it was an official trip for the First lady but it was official for President Obama too. If a Saudi dress code was applicable to her, why didn’t the self-righteous Twitterati wonder why the president was not wearing an Arabic Thawb?

If we were to compare the criticism faced by Michelle Obama for her dress (or lack of headdress) in Saudi Arabia with the public discussion of a male leader’s clothing we will witness what women face on a daily basis – sexism. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the talk of mainstream media and social media for the suit he wore when Obama visited India. While the premier chose to wear a pinstriped suit with his name plastered all over it, the discussion centred mainly on the cost of the suit and not Modi’s lack of adherence to a dress code.

Similar things like Michelle Obama’s incident have taken place with other female dignitaries, whether they have been from the US or from Pakistan. Remember when Hina Rabbani Khar, the then Pakistani foreign minister, visited India in 2011? She landed in India to discuss issues between both countries but the media took greater interest in her Hermes Birkin bag, pearls necklaces and Cavalli sunglasses. A newspaper headline in India read,

“Pakistan puts on its best face.”

Another paper’s headline read:

“Pak bomb lands in India.”

On returning to Pakistan, Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said,

“You don’t want the attention to focus on the frivolous.”

She rightly pointed out,

“A guy in my place would never get such attention; nobody would be talking about his suit. I refuse to be apologetic about it; I will continue to be who I am.”

Sexism is not limited to just one region or society.  In the Western world, for instance, Google’s demographic report, released in May 2014, shows a striking deficiency of diversity in their own company, which is said to be the bastion of modernity and progress. According to the report, white males dominate the IT industry and barely 30% women are employed by the internet giant Google.

In African countries, women are the biggest victims in war zones; whether it is tribal warfare or terrorism by Boko Haram, women and young girls, regardless of their religion and tribe, become the victims of rape and kidnapping.

It would be naïve to blame sexism solely on region and religion – we need to understand and accept the fact that sexism is not a result of ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘extremism’ – it exists as a problem in its own right and can’t be clubbed with another. It is all societies and all genders responsible for looking at women only through the prism of their gender.

Sexism has many manifestations and several ways of reinforcement. It can be seen in the idea of putting women in skimpy clothes for commercials advertising men’s razors or ads for manhood medicines. Why do we only see female receptionists in all offices? Some restaurants highlight the shapeliness of their waitresses more than their menu.

In 2011, an American burger chain openly acknowledged in their press release that:

 “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don’t sell burgers.”

It is time to stop objectifying and judging women, whether it is the First Lady of the United States or some unknown young girl from Africa, on the basis of their attire or body shape. As Andrea Dworkin pointed out in one of her books:

“Woman is not born: she is made. In the making, her humanity is destroyed. She becomes symbol of this, symbol of that: mother of the earth, slut of the universe; but she never becomes herself because it is forbidden for her to do so.”


Farheen Rizvi

The author is a supporter of the MQM, has a Bachelors in business management from Iowa and a Masters degree in international management from the University of Maryland. She works for US based charities like IMHO and SUN while based in Virginia. She tweets @farririzvi (twitter.com/FarriRizvi)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht

    Have no idea what a tawb is? Not that it matters. Obama is lame duck.
    The hindu hindutwa brigade will be descending on this blog. Like flies on s*
    Not many will give a doozy what Khar wore in 2011. Due to short attention
    span of hindu trolls.Recommend

  • Parvez

    No one bothers about what Angela Merkel wears…….Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    Almost everyone owes her money from when she took them out of debt. And everyone wants to be on EU’s good side. Also by the looks of her , I think she can throw a nasty punch, wouldn’t want to meet her on a dark night in a back alley. so as far as insulting her looks or wardrobe goes, NO THANK YOU SIR! I AM FAAAYYYYEEENE with whatever she wears.
    P.S I am cool with whatever anyone else wears too. Although Obama would most probably would have been mistaken for an Arab in a tawb, hence his reluctance to wear one.Recommend

  • Parvez

    The author made a great point by saying that the fault is in the beholder, who should not judge on clothes alone.
    I simply pointed out a case……where the lady is always correctly but simply dressed and is a super star of a politician.Recommend

  • UltimateTruthSeeker222

    truth is sexist by nature and facts are offensive,learn to live with it, and by the way i totally agree with that burger chain infact i Respect them for atleast being honest despite all the societal pressure,”Ugly models don’t sell burgers”, i hope pseudo-feminists and pseudo liberals accept itRecommend

  • Gulchand Mehta

    Michelle Obama is from Chicago. From a tough neighborhood.
    She is smart, sharp, tough, savvy and well educated. A lawyer to boot
    Use to work in a very prestigious law firm in Chicago.
    She is the one who wears the pants in the family.Recommend

  • نائلہ

    Kindly find yourself a job. This is getting too repetitive. Recommend

  • KlingOn2K

    If clothes don’t matter would the fashion industry be worth 100s of billions of dollars? Of course, they matter.Recommend

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht.

    Thanks so much for your kind concern.
    Doing very very well, thank you. Have my own business.Recommend

  • Queen

    I hope the day comes soon when a person is recognized by his/her talent and not because of his/her looks or clothes.Recommend

  • Hala Syed

    truth is sexist by nature? why? that does not even make any sense. facts are not offensive. rude people are offensive. if you think people should have to live with sexism, why should you not have to live with people criticizing sexism.Recommend

  • L.

    Yet you still find time to do indian/Hindu hating? What do you achieve from it exactly? Recommend

  • Maximus Decimus Meridius

    to be honest I agree with him on the burger chain part. its not sexism, its just being drawn to beauty.Recommend

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht.

    True. Not much is gained. Just very recently discovered
    this website. A Pakistani lady mentioned it in passing.
    Behold! Discovered this constant tsunami of hindu hate.
    Washing over this ET. At times feel like the boy with his
    finger in the dyke. Heard that story? Dutch. An analogy
    By the way, business is well managed, and operated by
    my extremely competent managers. It’s not based in the
    Land of the Pure. it’s in the Land of the Free.Recommend

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht.

    True. Not much is gained. Just very recently discovered
    this website. A Pakistani lady mentioned it in passing.
    Behold! Discovered this constant tsunami of hindu hate.
    Washing over this ET. At times feel like the boy with his
    finger in the dyke. Heard that story? Dutch. An analogy
    By the way, business is well managed, and operated by
    my extremely competent managers. It’s not based in the
    Land of the Pure. it’s in the Land of the Free.Recommend

  • L.

    So do you visit the states often? Have you met and gotten to know any Hindus there? Have you bee able to notice the stark contrast between the ones you hear from on ET and the ones you have befriended? Recommend

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht.

    Er,..it’s the other way around. Live in the Land of the Free.
    And visit Land of the Pure. Ancestral connections. Period.
    Yes, must admit that. Vast difference between the two sets
    of hindus. However, sadly, it comes across as a Jekyll and
    Hyde Syndrome. Nice when outside Bharat, nasty when
    in Bharat. For want of a better description, momentarily.Recommend

  • asy ma wail

    This is what makes me think a lot. The people I saw in the West and the middle East, I can never expect from them that they will jump on their keyboards as soon as they smell something worthy for trolling and posing as if “there is nothing left in India which is imperfect” – although, like thousands I ignore them as that is what they deserve. You are a bit too nice that you even debate them :)Recommend

  • نائلہ

    Nah im only nice to those who deserve it. Basically anyone spreading hatred- against any one, should be condemned. Recommend

  • nishantsirohi123

    When a woman not wearing duppatta offends you more than lack of education, poverty and corrupt police around you, i am sorry, you need to set your priorities right in lifeRecommend