Before I begin, I’ll just comment that this “Lighter Side” post actually has a serious point – although I hope to make it in a light-hearted way.
Since I’ve gotten back to the U.S., one frivolous lawsuit has stood head and heels (and other body parts) above the rest. Debrahlee Lorenzana (photo on right), a former Citibank employee, is suing for employment discrimination. She claims that – get this – Citibank executives said she was dressing too sexy and had requested that she “stop wearing turtlenecks, pencil skirts, three inch heels or “fitted” business suits.” When Lorenzana pointed out that other females wore way more revealing clothes, she was told those “women’s shapes were different from mine, and I drew too much attention.”
Of course, rather than go quietly into the dustbin of frivolous lawsuits, this has become a media circus. However – now comes the serious part – this whole incident has challenged my stereotypes of Islamic law. I’ve been reading Michael Peletz’s book Islamic Modern (book review coming shortly), which discusses Shari’ah courts in Malaysia. Of course, for women’s rights activists, Islam’s injunctions that women wear headscarves (hejab), pray behind men, and generally sequester themselves from unfamiliar men* all serve to repress women. However, many Islamic scholars argue that these precepts, far from oppressing women, in fact serve to protect them from men’s weaknesses.
Reading about Ms. Lorenzana, I couldn’t but help view Citibank’s actions in a similar light. Like those controversial provisions of Shari’ah law, Citibank justified its chastising Ms. Lorenzana as necessary to compensate for the weakness of male employees in the office. Like many rights activists critical of Islam, Ms. Lorenzana argues that she as an individual should be entitled to wear whatever she wishes – within bounds. The major difference is that Islamic injunctions apply to all Muslim women, whereas Citibank directed its criticism solely at Ms. Lorenzana, on the grounds that other women didn’t have the same “shape.” I suspect this distinction will play a critical role in the outcome of the lawsuit.
Nonetheless, this whole incident forced me consider Islam’s attitude towards women in a different light and made me wonder whether, in different circumstances, high-powered Western businessmen would really be all that different from Muslim clerics (or at least Muslim businessmen)!
* I realize that these are gross generalizations of Islamic law, but do at least describe the perceptions of many non-Muslims.