I’m trying to imagine a different world. One in which a female mayor of an Olympic city, writing in a legitimate publication, would celebrate the presence of "half-naked" men engaged in a sporting event — synchronized diving, perhaps? — and comparing their bodies, with a lascivious wink, to those of animals.
The world I live in is not that one. It’s the one in which Boris Johnson wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph titled “Here’s 20 jolly good reasons to feel cheerful about the Olympic games.” Number 19?
As I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalised by Canaletto. They are glistening like wet otters and the water is plashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers. The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers.
Normally, I wouldn’t pay much attention to this. The discussion of women's beach volleyball attire has become an Olympic trope almost as tired as the up-from-adversity back stories that aim to get us all misty-eyed every four years. Each Olympiad, the players say something like "for us it’s like other people’s office clothes," and each Olympiad, the nudging and snickering continues.
You’d think that people would get bored of all this. But they don’t. As a matter of fact, the question of how women dress is as fraught as ever. At this Olympics, officials contemplated making women wear skirts for their inaugural appearance in boxing, purportedly so that they could be distinguished from men. (To which 17-year-old Claressa Shields of Flint, Michigan, memorably responded, "But we got different names! Women got breasts! We got butts! Can’t you tell which one is who?") On the other end of the spectrum, officials first denied a Saudi woman’s request to wear a hijab when competing in judo, then changed their minds.
What happens at the Olympics is just an echo of what happens on city streets around the globe, where women's everyday clothing can be just as contentious. But out here in the world, the consequences are measured in the real lives of women and the restrictions of their access to public space.
The perception of women’s bodies as public property to be commented upon and regulated is one of the universal undercurrents of urban life, no matter what we are wearing. Covered or uncovered, women are targets for judgment, appraisal, and harassment. We’ve got breasts. We’ve got butts. That’s enough.
I wrote last week about Rana Jarbou, a Saudi blogger who's been documenting her experience wearing the niqab in her home city of Riyadh. Her "Faceless Experiment," as she calls it, raises questions about female identity in a country where women still don’t have the freedom to drive themselves around town or use most forms of public transit.
Right here in my hometown of New York City, the DOT removed a bike lane through a mostly Hasidic neighborhood of Brooklyn after receiving complaints about “scantily clad” women on their bikes. Scantily clad, in this context, could mean sleeveless shirts, or shorts.
The truth is that what a woman wears, or doesn’t wear, can’t protect her against the all-pervasive perception that women are there for the visual enjoyment of others, usually men.
Sometimes, the desire to exploit this universal truth can have some humorous consequences. Like the amusement park in Guilin, China, that offers half-price admission to women wearing mini skirts. The offer created a business opportunity for vendors who sold skirts outside the gates to women who wanted to change back into pants once inside. Their prices were just low enough to make the whole package worthwhile.
But too often, that enjoyment crosses the line from visual to physical – which is why many public transit systems in places like India, Mexico, and Japan, have women-only options.
Of course many women feel that segregation – whether under a piece of cloth or in a protected train car – is a poor solution. As Jarbou told me, "the only way to protect us from potential harassment is through law, and not a piece of cloth." In countries where such laws exist, the difficulty is encouraging the respect and enforcement of them.
The grassroots anti-harassment organization Hollaback! is dedicated to just that. It encourages women, girls, and LGBTQ people to share their stories of street harassment using mobile devices, and has trained activists in 17 countries around the globe. The idea is that by calling out the offenders and reducing the social isolation of victims, norms can be changed.
One recent submission at the Hollaback! Delhi site highlights why segregated transit is not a perfect solution.
A woman writes that when she boarded a mixed-gender car, a man started crowding her suggestively. When she asked him to step back, he replied, "Why are you here? You should be in the women’s coach." She asserted her right to travel on the mixed coach, and things escalated. Another man stepped in and got into a fistfight with the first one. The other passengers started yelling at the woman, blaming her for the problem. It was her fault for being there. Simply by being female in a public place, she had caused violence. She needed to go away.
The shaken woman ended her account this way:
I’m AGAINST the separate coach for women. It is the most ridiculous solution the government came up with to ensure women travelers’ safety. Segregating men and women will never help anyone develop tolerance and respect for others’ PERSONAL SPACE.
The key words are right there: personal space. That’s what women ought to have. In every city of the world.