Stories That Define Us
Part 1 — On Story-lines…
I ran into a news article the other day that just stopped me in my tracks. It stated that the Norwegian women’s beach handball team had been fined 150 euros each by the International Handball Federation (IHF) for refusing to wear bikini bottoms and for wearing shorts instead. The rules insist that the women’s team must wear bikini bottoms to compete, while the men’s teams can wear shorts. The irony is that when confronted about this, the IHF spokesperson said that the reasons for this disparity were unclear and this was being looked at internally, before finally deflecting by saying that none of the other national teams seemed to have an issue with it.
Two key aspects of this story struck me. Firstly, the double standards on regulating women’s clothing or lack thereof are an issue that cuts across many spheres such as fashion, sports, culture, religion etc. In the fashion industry, which has for many years been dominated by male designers, a recurrent trend has been for women’s clothing to cover less and less, normalizing such outfits like micro minis, spaghetti straps, midriff baring tube tops, bum shorts and so on. This trend continues in sports, whose leading executives are also highly male dominated. In this vein, the former FIFA president Sepp Blatter suggested in 2004 that “female footballers should wear tighter shorts and more feminine clothes as is done in volleyball to increase attendance to women’s football games”. Luckily after an uproar from fans and the media, this was never followed through. However, in many sports from athletics to tennis (recall Serena’s bodysuit ban?), there is an emphasis on women wearing less and less, seemingly to perpetuate the objectification of women, as befits the male gaze.
In more conservative circles such as traditional cultures and in religion, the tendency has been to view women’s bodies as ‘enticements’ to sin, hence the insistence on modesty of dress. These views, usually driven by all-male leadership are expressed in decrees on women’s clothing designed to censure almost any view of the female body, with full length outfits such as that worn by reverend sisters and nuns, or even fuller coverings like the ‘burqa or niqab’. More depressingly, in many cultures, whenever women are sexually harassed, molested or outrightly raped, the first question usually goes ‘What was she wearing?’, as if to say her choice of attire may have invited this horrible violation onto her. Adding insult to injury the burden of proof of rape often falls on the woman, resulting in shame and eventually, silence. Recently in the US, a supposedly advanced nation on women’s rights (Ha-Ha! in Nelson from the Simpson’s voice), it was discovered that thousands of rape kit samples submitted to the police for investigations had not been followed through at all, due to apathy or simply incompetence on the part of the police.
Both traditional and liberal views may differ, but seem to have one purpose, i.e., the dictating of women’s attires by male dominated spaces for male dominated purposes. This article could go on about women’s rights or refer to tomes already written about the negative effects of patriarchy on women, but from my view the whole story was incomplete. And this brings us to the second thing that struck me about this story.
The fact that the IHF could not say why such a rule existed in the first place yet felt compelled to punish the women was a smaller, yet in my view, and even more compelling aspect of this story. To any fair-minded person, simply pointing out the discomfort of the women to wearing bikinis should initiate a quick about-face, followed a public apology and finally, a rule change. However, despite apparently having no concrete basis in the rule book for why the women must wear bikinis, there was still the need to fine the brave Norwegian women, because the ‘rule book said so!’
These two contrasting points brought me to the concept of having agency, or more plainly, having a say in why we make the choices and decisions we do. For the first point it was quite clear, the women were unhappy about the longstanding rule to wear bikini bottoms and were rightfully ready to as we say in Nigeria, ‘tear shirt’ over the matter. Although it is curious to know how many other female handball teams are also similarly unhappy with such attires and would likely prefer to dress differently, but don’t feel empowered enough to oppose the rules. Going further, how many other sports have female participants either consciously or not, wearing attires they don’t feel comfortable in, yet continue without dissent?
On this theme, how many of those employed to impose these rules have thought to ask themselves why these rules exist, whom they benefit and why, and what says they cannot be changed? For a start, I wonder if a lot of men who benefit from patriarchal constructs either from religion, sports or culture have never asked themselves how they would feel if the tables were turned and they had some of their agency taken away. Or what if the clothing rules were swapped and men had to cover or expose themselves like women do now? Or do they simply live lives, fashioned by entitlement with zero self-awareness and empathy while reveling in blissful patriarchal ignorance?
These two points summed together indicate that one way or the other, all humans are inadvertently playing semi-conscious roles in all sorts of storylines. Yet humans hardly make large step-outs or variations from the flow of one day to another. This indicates that for humans in general, the concept free will only expresses itself in the ability to have a few exceptions from the general conformance to what everyone else is doing. For example, men can wear anything they want, if it remains within expected norms like shirts, trousers, suits, etc. If a man wears say a suit with heels, it jars with expectations and society reacts negatively. This probably explains why so many don’t question the concept of the storylines we live through, and simply keep things going.
Other numerous examples exist where some This probably accounts for why power dynamics exist and occasionally, numerous members of both sides may not know why the dynamic was created, but continue to play their parts in the story, because that is what is.
Altogether this begs the question, how are storylines created? Who are these ‘conscious storytellers’ that craft the themes which shape public opinion and behavior possibly to the benefit of a select few? And just as important, who are the occasional ‘challengers’ that see through oppressive storylines, call them out and fight for a more equitable society?
 Nigerian slang to describe being highly provoked’.