Lourdres Garcia-Navarro is a Peabody award winning journalist who works for NPR as foreign correspondent. She recently relocated from the Middle East (where she had been covering the Arab Spring) to Sao Paulo, Brazil — a move she thought would be a relief because, after years spent living in conservative countries and dressing hyper-modestly, she was finally moving to a "land where less is more — and it was wonderful to put on whatever I wanted."
Unfortunately, her relief never really came. Garcia-Navarro quickly discovered that the expectation to show off more skin that she encountered in Brazil also came with its own brand of oppression.
In "Which Place Is More Sexist? The Middle East or South America?," Garcia-Navarro writes:
A semi-naked woman in a sequined Carnival costume. A veiled woman with only her eyes showing in a niqab. Two stereotypes of two vastly different regions — Latin America and the Middle East.
On the surface, these two images couldn't be more diametrically opposed. What could the two have in common, right? What a woman wears — or what she doesn't wear, in Brazil's case — is often interpreted as a sign of her emancipation. The veil, for many, is a symbol of female oppression; the right to wear a bikini, one of liberation.
But underneath the sartorial differences, the Middle East and Latin America's most famously immodest country both impose their own burdens on women in the way they are treated and perceived.
Garcia-Navarro delves into Brazilian culture, explaining how, while the president of Brazil is female and women make up a major part of the workforce, there still exists a deep and dangerous undercurrent of sexism. Brazil has the seventh highest rate of violence against women in the world, it leads the planet in the annual number of vaginal reconstruction surgeries and is second — only to the good ol' U.S. of A, of course — when it comes to the annual overall number of plastic surgeries. Brazilian women (much like American women) are heavily pressured into conforming to a practically unobtainable cosmetic ideal.
As Garcia-Navarro points out:
This juxtaposition of sex and violence isn't new, according to Rosana Schwartz, a historian and sociologist at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in Sao Paulo. Brazil imported more slaves than any other country in the Americas, and slavery was only abolished in 1888.
"The female slaves were used as sexual objects to initiate the master's son's sexuality or to satisfy him. And the result has been that until today, Brazilian women are seen in a sexist way, in a more sexualized way, because she was used as a sexual object for so long," Schwartz says.
The legacy still affects women of every class and race here.
That's not to say that dressing up in a revealing Carnival costume is absolutely disempowering, nor is it to say that all women who wear veils are oppressed. Garcia-Navarro does, however, point out that no matter where you go in the world, women will be expected to conform to certain ideals and standards of beauty and refusing to comply comes at a cost.
"Which place is more sexist?" does not have an easy answer if it's even answerable at all. Nearly every place in the world has its own culture and history of sexism, making it a lose-lose scenario. No matter how you dress, no matter how you behave, someone will perceive you as wrong.
Image via Getty.