Veiling in Mideast, hyper-sexuality in West: Equally unappealing

Elba 2007Women in full burqas and niqabs poured into Tehran's streets last week to protest the modern dress of their urban sisters. City women usually nod to the conservative religious dress code by wearing knee-length coats and head kerchiefs in public. But earlier this month, several dared to bare their full heads and faces for a photograph. So, the protesters -- about 1,000 women and men -- appealed to Iran's morality police to better enforce the law, which obliges women to cover their hair and much of their bodies in loose clothing when outside, regardless of their religion.

As I studied the images of the mob of black-cloaked women, I thought we could use more public modesty ourselves. As I see it, the head covering and burqa cloak are symbols of subservience. They erase individuality, represent hostility to girls' education and independence, and press unique souls into one narrow feminine role.

And yet, I wonder whether the same couldn't be said about a culture that turns a Hannah Montana into a twerking, crotch-rubbing wrecking ball.

The anonymity and servility of the burqa have an effect similar to the oversexuality of women in Western society. Only, we don't see our problem as clearly because it's so familiar.

This isn't merely the complaint of a middle-aged woman whose body seems to shape-shift by the season -- although, many days I wouldn't mind relinquishing the work of figuring out which clothing still fits and looks presentable. In many traditional cultures, the dress -- be it an Amish apron, Victorian corset or Orthodox Jewish wig -- has served to defy age and defect as well as conform to patriarchal ideals.

No, I'm more concerned with what our daughters see.

I worry that we are pushing the other extreme in the West, and it's a line that keeps moving further out. Just like head-to-toe draping, allowing women to think their only value is sexual is a way to reinforce lower status.

Both the burqa and Western "sexualization," the term used by the American Psychological Association, disguise a girl's individuality. Magazines show women dressed revealingly -- or not at all -- with body postures or facial expressions that convey sexual readiness. These are the models of femininity presented to young girls, who devour them.

There are thongs for 7- to 10-year-olds, some imprinted with slogans such as "wink wink." One study found that as much as one-third of clothing available for preteen girls at 15 national stores had sexualized characteristics such as push-up bras, string bikinis or Daisy Duke short shorts.

By dressing older, girls receive attention for their appearance, and along with it, popularity and social success. Is there anything more important to a middle-schooler? A favorite app with this set, Hot or Not, lets kids rate each other on "hotness." But can they possibly understand the negative side of too-young, too-sexy?

A sexualized girl will likely be treated as less competent, and that may cause her to limit her ideas about herself, her education and her future. It's not a long journey from there to early sex, pregnancy, abortion or a starring role on "Teen Mom."

Just as a burqa makes a woman invisible, anorexics say they pursue Western ideal thinness to disappear.

The opposition to Western clothing in Tehran may be driven by a desire to control women, but some of that resistance may also be a well-founded fear of Lady Gaga and her imitators. As we look to judge Muslim countries, we would do well to mind our own debilitating excess.

First published in Newsday.