Disclaimer: I have not seen the movie “Barbie.” I’ve read and heard enough to get the general idea: A plastic doll rebrands herself as a feminist icon while still holding on to her blond, pink vibe.
But the pink message has reverberated with women who want to ride the red rail, to step into the new tram cars dressed for Tel Aviv summer and to sit in the nearest empty seat they find. For these self-styled “Barbies,” the machismo “Kens” are part of a white-bearded, religious establishment that tells women to cover their shoulders and knees, wants women to sit at the back of the bus, and stops the trains a full three hours before the start of Shabbat. Their furor was ignited by an incident in which girls headed for the beach were sent to the rear seats and told to cover their shoulders if they wanted to ride on the bus. Suddenly, nearly every secular woman was reminded of the times they were told to change seats on a bus or plane so a Haredi man could sit without accidentally touching her, or her daughters were instructed to dress modestly – even in their secular high schools. At the time, we were told not to make a fuss.
Like the Barbie in the movie, our right to dress as we please has become an iconic symbol of our resistance to male attempts to dictate our choices, in appearance or otherwise. When religious men and secular women share a tight space, we are asking, who gets to set the dress code – the rules of conduct – inside that space? Who gets a seat, not just on the bus, but at the table?
Nearly every secular woman was reminded of the times they were told to change seats on a bus or plane so a Haredi man could sit without accidentally touching her
Either we all own the public space inside the cars of public transportation system, and it serves the needs of all the county’s citizens; or the “needs” of religious men take precedence over those of everyone else. To borrow a metaphor from another summer movie, “Oppenheimer,” it seems our core systems are on a collision course, and the big crash might not be in front of the train, but inside it.
Before it begins to tell us how to dress, our government and its public services would do well to take note of two clothing rebellions that have occurred in our region.
The first took place in Turkey. Kamal Ataturk, the Turkish leader who wanted, in the 1920s and 30s, to reshape Turkey into a modern country, forbid the wearing of traditional headgear, including the fez for men and the hijab for women. Even if they still clung to old ways inside their homes, the citizens of Istanbul would at least look European outside on the streets. In time, he thought, with a new Latin alphabet and a new set of clothes, the people would begin to upgrade their thinking, as well.
In Turkey, covering one’s hair became a sign of resistance. It was a way for women to publicly embrace their “Oriental” Muslim beliefs and flaunt the laws intended to remake them in a Christian mold. The alphabet stayed, but Islamic dress for women ultimately became optional. Modern Turkey is now decidedly Islamic, and certainly not liberal-democratic, but the women of Istanbul still have relative freedom to dress as they please.
The second is more recent, and it is taking place in Iran. Women are risking their lives by publicly removing their head coverings and waving them in the air. By revealing their hair, they are exposing the roots of over forty years of religious repression. Protests over the deaths of young women arrested for “indecently” appearing in public with uncovered hair rocked the entire country for weeks and threatened the stability of the government.
In Iran, Barbie is a “Western evil,” and the dolls, themselves, have been banned there for the past decade. If playing with Barbies gave Western girls complexes about their bodies, which could never attain the dolls’ inhuman proportions, the Iranian government had a solution: Cover it all up, hair and mouth included, with enough drapery you would never know they had a body at all. It would be interesting to see a movie in which an Iranian doll went out into the “real world” and attained feminist enlightenment. What would that “Barbie” look like? The Iranian women asking that very question have been arrested and silenced – for now.
All religious leaders know that clothing is a potent symbol. It can be means of control, keeping believers in line by dictating the length of a woman’s skirt or sleeves, the way she wears her hair. Clothing can define a group, setting it against others who dress differently. And, in the case of Iran, it can be a means of keeping tight reins on an entire population.
But as any Barbie can tell you, clothing is also a powerful means of resisting.
Here’s to the women – Barbies, Batshevas, Zahras and Zinas – who ride the train in sleeveless dresses, shorts and tank tops, hair loosed and legs unsheathed.
And Haredi men? Get out into the real world. No male is there struck down if they accidentally brush trouser legs with a woman’s. And if you can’t hack that, we’ll make room for you at the back of the bus.