Sania Mirza's Clothes: What’s really going on here?

Sania Mirza's Clothes: What’s really going on here? September 29, 2005
Sania Mirza

“Every word I speak, every skirt I wear is discussed and analyzed… Wherever I go, people look at me. That’s why these days I prefer to stay at home. I have to learn to live with all this. It is quite disturbing that my dress has become the subject of controversy; I don’t want to say anything on this.” – Sania Mirza

“When she talks of the pressure she faces at home, her infectious smile disappears. And it will only get worse as her ranking rises. One can only hope she finds a way to ignore the criticism.” – Miami Herald

Sania wears the short skirts that are the norm in tennis internationally. Now, short skirts are not considered modest clothing in any context, Muslim or non-Muslim. A short skirt is not considered professional attire in business or academic circles. Short skirts are provocative. I don’t want any teenaged daughter of mine to wear short skirts. You hear my obsessive repetition of short skirt, and you get the idea.

On tennis courts, however, short skirts and short sleeves are the norm. There is an entire industry to blame for this, rather than a mere eighteen-year old Hyderabadi girl. There is also the issue of being able to move freely. Full-length pants will make you hot and please, a boho skirt on a tennis court? Sania is functioning on the tennis court as she is expected to as a professional tennis player according to the current norms.

In the absence of Sania’s parents’ objections to her clothing, strangers who happen to be Muslim have taken on the task of monitoring her behavior. It is not wanton sexual behavior that Sania is taken to task for: it is merely clothing. Sania’s fame, her place in the public eye � this guarantees that her unknown critics will attack her for being both famous and skirt-clad.

For whatever my opinion is worth, I repeat, short skirts are provocative. I’m also secretly envious that other women can wear them. But consider Sania Mirza: she is publicly Muslim, though she’s from a secular, predominantly non-Muslim country that has been in the grip of Hindu fundamentalist sentiment for some years now. In a country where it is cool to be a biryani Muslim, rather than a religious one, she talks about prayer. She’s an enormously popular Muslim in a country where we saw crowds close in on Ayodhya and a massacre in Gujrat involving women and college students.

She’s a positive Muslim celebrity. No one can be everything. And you do not demand this of Muslim men.

Sania is by no means the only Muslim in the world breaking traditional Islamic rules in public. The sexual escapades of Muslim politicians, superstars, and sportsmen, whether Egyptian, Turkish, Indian or Pakistani are old news. Saudi and Qatari princes are routinely involved in salacious practices in assorted vacation spots. Child abuse, drug smuggling, and drunken and disorderly behavior far surpass a teenaged sportswoman playing tennis in a dress.

The problem with Sania is, she is a young woman rather than a man.

A man is a free agent, free to break rules, religious and social, free to make mistakes, free to act as an individual. Boys will be boys, after all.

Women are symbolically made to bear the burden of protecting the collective honor. Every step she takes, every move she makes, is monitored for its impact on the community. She has just realized that in a patriarchal community and society she is not free.

Sania may be a tennis star, but she is not an individual. She is working fulltime. “Our women” uphold the community’s honor. In the line from the Urdu poem:

Ae maao behno betiyo duniya ki izzat tum se hai
(O mothers, sisters, daughters, the honor of the world derives from you)

Sania’s clothing is an issue not because Muslims are concerned about modesty. If they were, there are plenty of other cases of public personages�mostly men�dishonoring the community through acts of immodesty and sexual abandon everyday.

Sania’s clothing is an issue because women are still seen as property. “Our women” should not be viewed by others, not because they are women but because they are “ours.” It is the same reason why Sher Bano is killed outside the court and Saima Waheed is taken to court by her father for marrying someone on their own and women are killed by husbands for not bringing sufficient dowry.

This is not mainly a religious matter. It’s a worldly one. It’s about ego.

To state the obvious, Sania’s critics do not apply the same burden of modesty to men. This attitude is the unconscious manifestation of a belief system that assumes that women are the root of all social disorder and therefore should not participate in public life at all (except for the favorite Islamist female professions: gynecology and elementary school teaching.) This absolves men of their moral responsibility and infantilizes them, and women.

The problem is that no one lives fully by these idealized petit bourgeois social norms anymore. In fact, the people who preach the loudest are upper middle class types whose lives are the remotest from this ideal. How many of these critics are willing to toss their satellite dishes to keep out “Baywatch” or Indian movies? Do they picket Punjabi movies? Do they refrain from watching movies with explicit sex scenes?

But if this whole issue is indeed about ownership of “our” women and denying them their right to be individuals (as men are allowed to be) rather than modesty–then the behavior described above is not contradictory but consistent.

Why are women expected to be sinless, while no one bats an eye or writes impassioned letters to the editor against the leering, groping and sexual harassment that is the norm in so many Muslim societies’ public spaces? Why are women not even safe in outfits that fully cover their bodies in Cairo or Lahore or even – and this is truly tragic – in the Holy Mosque in Makkah?

As a Muslim woman who definitely does not wear short skirts, I say this:

Sania Mirza is not your property. She is an individual, free before God, His servant not yours. You imagine that as a Muslim woman she upholds and destroys the community honor – but you can use Muslim men for that purpose instead. Muslim women have other work to do; we do not “protect” your honor anymore. Do it yourself.

Shabana Mir is a Ph.D student who resides in Washington, DC.  You can read more of her thoughts at her weblog, Koonj.

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