Farah Ghuznavi draws on her experiences as a development professional for inspiration in her writing, and remains an unrepentant idealist. She has worked for NGOs in Bangladesh, Britain and Africa, as well as with the United Nations, and the Grameen Bank, famous for its collateral-free loans to poor women. Her work has been featured in magazines and anthologies in the UK, US, Singapore and Bangladesh. She is the editor of Lifelines: New Writing from Bangladesh, which is available from Zubaan Books and Amazon. A version of this article was originally posted in The Daily Star and is re-posted with permission.
Some time ago, I found myself laughing out loud while reading an article about how French MPs were considering overturning the ban on women wearing trousers in Paris. I hadn’t even known that such a ban existed! And it was only now that they were going to discuss removing that prohibition? Talk about being behind the times – apparently, trousers are even considered mandatory attire for modern-day policewomen in the city.
Ironically enough, this curious rule was first introduced in late 1799 by the Police Chief of Paris, and it stipulated that any woman wishing to “dress like a man” had to seek special permission from the city’s main police station. Given his evident prejudices, one can only wonder what that long-deceased gentleman would make of contemporary policewomen’s uniforms.
In 1892, the law was relaxed due to an amendment which permitted the use of trousers as long as the woman wearing them was holding the reins of a horse; in 1909, the lawmakers’ generosity went further, extending to women who were either “on a bicycle or holding it by the handlebars”! In 1969, the Paris council asked the city’s Police Chief to invalidate the decree, but he refused to do so on the grounds that “unforeseen variations in fashion” might lead to a resurgence of anti-trouser attitudes. Given that the archaic law has survived repeated attempts to repeal it, one must wish this initiative better luck than its predecessors.
But if such absurd laws seem laughable at times, the reality of police attitudes pertaining to women in many parts of the world – and not just with respect to their clothing (though this is an important issue and one that we will be returning to later in the article) – is all too often a more serious matter. Saudi Arabia’s strict laws against women driving, for example, are enthusiastically enforced by the members of its police force. Perhaps more enthusiastically than actually required, as evidenced by the case of Shaima Jastaina, who got behind the wheel to protest the law and became a symbol of the country’s harsh treatment of women who refuse to conform to its regressive policies. She was sentenced to a punishment of ten lashes for her “transgression”. Read more