What I wear is my prerogative

17 January 2016 - 02:00 By Aspasia Karras
Aspasia Karras.
Aspasia Karras.
Image: Supplied

Last week back in holiday prehistory, I ran every morning on the beach in Keurbooms, barefoot, in a running crop top and a pair of shorts. Some fishermen and a couple of surfers roundly ignored me. But the same outfit caused consternation last year while I was running on the Greek island of Samos.

The image of refugees landing on Greek islands has become freighted with tragedy as the numbers of drowned children and people at the mercy of human traffickers prevail in the media. But back then in the summer, it was all still new and strangely hopeful. Angela Merkel was about to welcome everyone into Germany. And I fear that I, on my morning run, was the first person the refugees saw as they took their first steps on European soil. Things are much more organised now - the Red Cross welcomes them.

It became obvious that I was an object of fascination and commentary. The large groups of mainly young men would look just as astounded to see me as I was them. They stopped me and asked for selfies, ran some part of the way with me, offered me figs from the trees and seemed slightly perturbed that a woman would be running alone and in such a state of undress. The hijab-wearing mothers would discuss me with their kids who would point fingers and laugh, and the young women, many in a pair of damp jeans from the crossing and a simple headscarf, would cheer me on.

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I thought about this peculiar clash of sartorial civilisations this week as reports about the attacks on hundreds of women in Cologne and other European cities on New Year's Eve raised the spectre of co-ordinated, sexually violent attacks against the hard-won freedom of independent movement that women in Europe take for granted. An artist, Milo Moiré, stood naked in the square and protested her right not to be molested by a man regardless of how she was dressed (or, in this instance, undressed). The conversation quickly became polarised between the fear of appearing racist and inciting hatred for the refugees and the equal need to ensure that women are not violated for the way they dress or because they are out and about at night without male protection.

In a perfect universe, all women would be able to wear exactly what they want. Conservative Muslim women should have the right to wear whatever they want to (even in France). And miniskirts should not invite attacks by misogynist taxi drivers in South Africa. Moiré's sign in Cologne is the point: "Respect us! We are not fair game even when naked." But it is the grey area where men feel compelled to make judgments and, in some cases, laws about what women can and cannot wear and in what quantities that worries me.