Category Archives: Clothing

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Since moving from a study abroad participant to a leader of trips abroad, I have had some recalibrating to do.  There is a difference between the risks I’m willing to take myself and those I’m willing to allow my students to take.

This came rushing to the fore last summer when I was walking at night in Havana with the majority of our students, and at least one of the Cubans with us was stopped by the police for walking with white women while black.  It is important to note that this is a significantly worse offense than walking while black, although that’s an issue in Cuba as well.  The reason is not only due to racism and history, but also tourism, industry, and hegemony.  While I find the term “tourism apartheid” a bit strident, there is more than a nugget of truth to it, and the way it plays out in Cuba is that it’s somewhat acceptable if the white woman is visibly into it, but otherwise all young black men are assumed to be harassing your tourist dollars away.  Of course, not once has the policia ever showed up to stop genuine harassment (to my knowledge).  And the component of hegemony: when it comes down to it, some lives are deemed more worthy than others, and white skin and our little blue books protect us.  Somewhere in the 20th century, it became unacceptable for an American to lose their life abroad.  It’s cool at home, especially if they lost their life to a legally purchased gun, or if they are not white and middle class.  But that’s a whole other thing.

But back to the story, and the risks involved.  This was probably during what most people would call my time off, but it was nonetheless immediately obvious to me that I was in charge and it was my job to keep my students safe.  This is because regardless of what time of day or night, my state of mind, whether I’m with friends, coworkers, clients or students, or how undesirable the task may be, when something needs to get done, I see it as just doing my job.  This is because I have a pretty broad definition of my job, which goes beyond the things for which I am paid, things done in a cubicle, or times when I am expected to watch how I dress, speak, or act.  In my mind, my job is to keep everyone safe, and increase justice and knowledge whenever possible.  Literally all of the time, for the entire time I’m alive.  I’m off the hook if I’m sleeping, but if someone wakes me up I’m right back in it.

So this leaves me with some dueling priorities.  Number 1, I need to make sure nothing happens to my students, who are likely best served by calmly walking away from the cops questioning their friend across the street.  Number 2, I know why the cops are talking to their friend, and I know it’s bullshit.  I know we have more pull than they do in this scenario, but I also know that if I (or my students) screw up, we will not face the consequences.  The Cubans will.  And then there’s the guilt.  If these guys had been doing their own thing, without a giant pack of white women to whom they were nothing but polite and friendly, no one would be talking to the cops right now.  Oh and number 3, none of my students have any clue that the cops are questioning him for no good reason, or that they have played any role in all of this, or that they could do serious damage by trying to help.  Or rather, I thought this had occurred to none of them.

I get the high sign from one of the Cubans, and a couple of people (who I didn’t realize were intoxicated) translate my message of “keep walking, wait for me at the end of the street, and don’t cause a fuss,”  into something loosely resembling, “holy shit we got that guy arrested!  and now no one can have fun and everyone should scream!”  Somehow everyone instantly became belligerent and less logical in that moment, but eventually they reluctantly followed instructions.  I’ve written before about this, and about how strange it was the next morning to hear 22 different versions of the same night.  But after they left was the real trouble.

After they left was the real trouble because that’s when those students from before, the ones I didn’t count on understanding precisely what was happening, remained.  And they did what I would have done.  They asked the other Cubans what would fix it, and they did their best to follow through.  It didn’t work, but they’re good people for trying.  Meanwhile, I got to be someone I never imagined being: the callous authority figure, giving them instructions that would protect them but not their friends.  Normally, I would have been the one going over to talk to the cops.  Instead, I was the one with a plan for how to get their US passports here before they could potentially be taken to jail.

Luckily, my students were fine, although those who remained till the end were certainly hurt in an irreparable way, the way that only powerlessly watching complete injustice from a place of informed privilege can make you feel.  The guy who the police brought away in cuffs had to pay an unimaginably high fine for a Cuban salary, but he was a free man the next day.  I was of course fine too, as my students and I never wore cuffs and didn’t have to pay a dime, but I was left wrestling with the idea of choosing the safety of one group of people over justice (and potentially safety) for another.  When it comes down to it, I am responsible for my students.  And I don’t know them as well as I know myself, so there is a greater unpredictability to their risks than mine.  But finally, when I take my risks, I can really only take them when I travel on my own, when I am not endangering anyone but myself.  And therein lies the downside of being in a group: a risk for one becomes a risk for all, whether we mean it to be or not.

So yes, I tell them not to swim  off the malecon, but I also don’t say a word when I know they’re doing it.  I told my kids in Greece they better not go to protests, but I was pissed I missed them myself, and Sarah knew without my asking that the first thing I wanted to see in Cairo, other than her gorgeous face, was Tahrir Square.  I count their heads and make them promise me that they’ll use the buddy system, and I tell them they’re not allowed to scare me like that when they get back to the bus late or have too much to drink.

But sometimes it gets trickier, if you can believe it.

I take cabs and walk alone, I dress how I want to dress.  No, I will not tell my female students they can’t wear a mini-skirt to a club on a Friday night.  First of all, I wouldn’t believe in doing that even if it would help.  But second, I know for a fact it won’t do anything to keep away the cat calls and the groping.  Driving and walking alone is harder.  I think in general, everyone is safer with the buddy system.  But I also know it drove us to insanity in Cairo when for six weeks we were basically never alone.  It’s why I would hide in the lobbies between floors reading, or insist on wandering museums alone.  When I could have my independence, I took it.  There’s also something to the idea that if a guy doesn’t have a buddy, it’s not a huge deal.  If a girl doesn’t have one, whatever happens next is her fault.

I don’t want my students to be alarmist, and I sort of read one the riot act when she claimed last summer that her roommate was not only certain to be raped in Havana’s most crowded, safe, zero-violent-crime neighborhood, but that it would be the roommate’s fault, and how dare that roommate scare her like that.  I hate the pearl clutching and the victim blaming and those who would scare us into never leaving America or our hometowns or our kitchens, but I also count heads compulsively.  I always know where the exits and the cops are.  I waited behind because one of them ran off at night to get his fifteenth sandwich of the day, and everyone going home without telling him was unacceptable.

So I let them hate me for not “stopping” or “letting them stop” their friend from getting arrested.  And I do my best not to get into arguments about the futility and misogyny of dress codes as safety measures.  I want them to know street harassment, sexual assault, political violence, corruption, all of these injustices, they happen all the time.  But that shouldn’t keep them home or moving around in air-conditioned vehicles in knee-length baggy skirts in groups of ten or more.  The world is simultaneously more terrifying and more kind than they’ve ever imagined.  I just don’t know how to tell them that.

Cover Up

Say it’s for respect, say it’s because of religion, say it’s just a rule and don’t ask questions, say it’s arbitrary and sexist.  Just don’t say we need to wear high necklines and low hems so that we are not sexually harassed.  Don’t do it.  Don’t victim blame, don’t lie.  In harassment-heavy countries like Cuba and Egypt, I have seen anecdotally that the amount of clothing is irrelevant.  Cuban guys say piropos to all women, regardless of clothing and almost regardless of age.  White women get slightly more commentary, but no amount of clothing will make me less of a gringa.

In Egypt, it has been found that women believe they get harassed less when they cover up more (more being even more than we do in the West, since it includes the abaya, the hijab and the niqab.)  However, these same women actually self-report higher levels of harassment when they are more covered.  It’s just an instance of intense cognitive dissonance, egged on by years of messaging from men, women, harassers and victims alike claiming, as if in some desperate plea for relief, that if only we could wear the right amount and combination of clothing, they would just leave us the hell alone.  But they don’t.  Women in full abaya and hijab get raped in public.  Women in jeans and modest shirts are assaulted all the time.

To say that I can stop (or even stem) harassment by changing my clothes is an indictment of women and men alike.  It says men cannot control themselves and thus need to be prevented from seeing that which entices them so.  It says women who get harassed must not have dressed properly, it must be their fault somehow.

It still boggles me that otherwise-progressive people fall into this trap.

You Are Not Smart Enough to Look Like Hell

I know it’s been said before, and it’ll be said again, but come conference I’m always reminded of the importance of appearances.  How is it that we can spend months on research, carefully choosing every point, motion and agenda item, focusing on even the strategic implications of introductions, and yet still find so many in our number who look like slobs?

I go to a co-op school.  We work in real, professional environments, and even have a class where they have us come in with sample outfits.  How are we not better than this?  Even basic stuff, like running a brush through the hair and slapping on a smile can make a huge difference.  Everyone, whether  they’re chairing or a delegate, is being watched constantly.  Perhaps we should occasionally look like it.

I get that being smart is what matters.  But if you’re a good enough delegate to be around the table at Nationals, you know that how you couch somehting, the window dressing, the rhetoric, matters.  And in the Arab League, it matters in a very big way.  So why doesn’t the same principal apply to our bodies as to our national policies?

It just reflects poorly on you.  It distracts from your message; it detracts from your credibility.  You wouldn’t swear in committee, so why are you so disheveled that it’s vulgar?  Bust out the good vocabulary as well as an iron, and you’ll make a better impression.  Wear comfortable shoes on the long days and more fanciful things on the shorter ones.  Cover all the bits your grandmother or boss should never see, and treat your body like it’s more than just a vessel to carry your massive brain and/or ego.

Buy clothing that fits.  Don’t wear a backpack over your suit–it’s really just killing the image.  Take even a small fraction of the time you used to prepare your research or your team, and use it to make yourself look as good as you will sound.  And for crying out loud, don’t be the millionth person in identical navy or black clothing.

My Perfect Souvenir

I try to make the most of what I buy.  I’m generally pretty frugal, with occasional bouts of Target, Old Navy and H&M madness.  I’m also secretly a hoarder.  As in, at almost 22 years of age I still own clothing from middle school.  Now that I finally can’t fit into it all anymore, I’m actually starting to get rid of it.

So how does an aspiring minimalist (I can hear the eye rolling from here!) buy good tokens from abroad, especially if she makes it a habit to travel?  Well, here are my guidelines for giving travel gifts to yourself.

  1. Give yourself an experience and a memory, instead of a thing. Riding on horseback through the Sahara, Hidalgo-style, at an ungodly hour of the night was one of the bets things ever.  We sang, we laughed, we fought, and we huddled around a great bonfire in galabiyas.  Some scoffed at how much we were spending (I don’t remember how much–apparently it wasn’t too tragic) but it definitely cost me less than all those extravagant dinners some of the scoffers were eating every other night.  I wouldn’t trade that night for the world.
  2. Stay away from tchotchkes. They are cheap, expensive and prone to break.  They also mean basically nothing, other than being proof that you went there.  Or to China, where they were made.
  3. Buy decorations. I’ve always wanted to be one of those cool adults who have a house full of foreign awesome, like Dan Hanson’s house.  His parents have all this great artwork and sculptures from far away lands, filled with stories and mystery.  How much cooler is that than a plastic Eiffel Tower statuette?  Besides, you’ll be able to use that decorations longer.
  4. Buy clothing and jewelry. I’ve gotten so many miles out of my bootylicious Egyptian skinny jeans, and I love being able to tell people where they’re from.  “Cairo,” just has a much better ring to it than “The Gap.”
  5. Go handmade, go local. People can always tell my stuff from Benin.  The crazy patterns are a dead giveaway, although strangers assume it’s from Ghana.  I love that my dress was custom-made, just for me, and I was able to stimulate the local economy (even if it did involve child labor.)
  6. Get something that everyone around you has. In Paris, that meant an ultra-cool black jacket.  In Cuba, it was an Industriales shirt, for Havana’s baseball team.  It means something to you, it can often be a bit of insider knowledge
  7. The unexpected things. One of my favorite souvenirs is a ring a stranger gave me in Cairo.  She and her boyfriend happened upon us: five hot, tired, thirsty, lost Americans.  With everyone’s language skills together, they took it upon themselves to bring us to a great local koshery spot.  They sat and talked with us, and even brought us around to a juice bar.  They knew we were from out of town and made it their personal mission to give us an amazing day.  So when she took a ring off her finger and put it on mine and said “it’s yours,” in Arabic, I made her repeat it just in case I misunderstood.  We all exchanged hugs, pictures and a few more tokens, and I will never see her again.  But that ring is a reminder of the attitude of the Cairenes I met, and how welcoming and sweet they can be.

What’s your perfect souvenir?  Do you even buy them?

WebLove Wednesday

Here’s a great list of 100 awesome signs from the Sanity/Fear rally.  I particularly love the Dr. Horrible, the moderate muslims arrow sign, and all the people repping bears.  Via WorldHum.

TSA, always terrible and rarely useful (by its own admission!) is now going to grope you, or threaten to, to make you get in the big, naked body scanner.  Well, you don’t go in naked.  But there’s suspicion that they may as well know you in the biblical sense by the time they get through with you.  Fun times.  Funnier story

This lion is awesome.  And I want one.

I wish I were good enough at packing to bring only check-in luggage on a long trip, or even better, to do the No-Baggage Challenge!

And my perennial favorite: women’s clothing.  This time, from the perspective of a reporter covering the Middle East extensively and spending a lot of time in Saudi Arabia.  Well worth the read, and such a great perspective.

Finally, in light of the litteral bell-ringing last night at Model NATO, a typographic animation of a poem that champions speaking with conviction.  I will say, we are more aggresively inarticulate than he knows: at conference as in real life, people become uncomfortable with a certain level of certainty.  I find it is best and easiest to gain their trust and seem “normal” or “likabley unapprised of anything in particular” by adding likes, ums, uhs, justs, and ya knows.  This window dressing is even more important in instant messenging and emails.  The same people who tell me I sound smarter without “like” in my speech also feel I am angry whenever I email without such verbal static.  And that’s coming from the smart kids. Via Open Your Eyes and the Rest Will Follow

Veil Vocabulary

I know it can be overwhelming as an outsider to understand all that is going on with Muslim women’s clothing, so here’s a little glossary to get you started.  If anybody has additional terms or corrections, let me know!


(1)this is the most basic piece, and is a scarf worn around the head.  Accompanying this can be skull caps, pre-style pieces etc., sometimes in ornate styles or coordinatng colors.  The face is fully visible, but the hair and neck are not (if it’s styled correctly).

(2) Hijab is also the concept of overall modesty.  Often you will heasr women refer to their overall modest mode of vestments as “my hijab.”  For men, hijab is the belly button to the knee.  For women, it’s open for debate but is generally considered to the ankles and wrists, with covered hair.


This is the “hood” that covers the whole face and leaves eye-slits.  It often comes down to the middle of the upper arm, and is worn with an abaya.  Another version just covers the front of the face, and can be tied on before a hijab

Chador (sometimes called chador namaz):

This is a one-piece that covers the hair down to the ankles, but leaves the face exposed.

Mantau chalvar:

With mantau coming from the French manteau, this is basically a knee-length coat worn over loose pants and accompanied by a hijab


This is the basic dress-like garment that is warn over clothing.  Depending on the crowd you’re with, many women will take off their various outer garments when alone with each other.


The oft-discussed garment is a head-to-toe covering, often accompanied by elbow-length gloves.  It has a full-face veil built in, often with mesh over the eyes for viewing/protecting purposes.


Many women, regardless of whcih level of modesty and ornamentation they prefer, add other bits as well.  These can include gloves, additional neck/collar bone covering, the skull cap to insure that if a hijab comes loose nothing will show, and little coverings (perhaps tights?) for feet, so that ballet flats may be worn without exposing skin.

In Egypt, I saw many garments that combined a few of these together.  There are also great variations–in some countries or neighborhoods (the Gulf, anywhere that tends to be more conservative and more poor) will feature more covering, and darker garments with little to know ornamentation.  In Egypt on the other hand, there were hijab-friendly bathing suits, sparkles on everything, and skin-tight long-sleeved shirts with revealing shirts over them.  There are also numerous fashion lines and shows for hijab-friendly customers.

i <3 Boston Fashion Week

While I’m home, I’m writing a series of posts about Boston, Massachusetts, and New England at large.  Because you can always be a tourist, and because if going abroad doesn’t give you a fresh perspective on your home, then what’s the point?  You can see all the posts in the series here.

I love that in Boston, Fashion Week is affordable, inclusive and green-minded.  Unlike New York, where everyone keeps making a big deal about fashion bloggers going to shows like it signals the apocalypse, our style bloggers in Boston have quite a hand in things.  It’s great to see groups of friends supporting each other and meeting new people.  I’m also glad that swaps are becoming mainstream, since they’ve been going on formally for years, and informally ever since girls realized their friends also have closets.  No need to feel ashamed about being frugal, or wearing something used, ladies: it’s just Sustainable Fashion!

I think because fashion and design are emerging industries/tastes in Boston, and due in part to our overall feel as a city, everyone is much kinder in fashion.  People are just so excited that someone else is into the same thing as them that they don’t feel competitive.  There’s a great collaborative atmosphere–the tide raises all boats–and it’s a trait that will always make me pick Boston over austere, competitive, back-stabbing New York.

I only went to one event this year, the BFW Swapaholics Sip&Swap, but it was great.  For 10 bucks I got to sample a few different wines, unload some gently used clothing, hang out with friends and meet some new ladies.  A few of my favorite style bloggers were there as well, including Julie from Orchid Grey.  I came out of it with three dresses, two skirts, some jewelry and accessories.  Not bad for ten bucks on a Thursday night in the ‘ville.

The swap was definitely different from our typical swap among friends–it was closer to the running of the brides.  Some people literally grabbed everything in sight, although everyone remained polite, even if they didn’t want to.  On the other hand, our swaps are usually casual, with wine, apps (food, not stupid cell phone junk) and dessert.  Ladies only, shades are closed, and a very collaborative, fun, empowering movie montage-style try-on and dance party ensues.  VERY different from a large, professional swap.  I enjoy both styles, and Sip&Swap was definitely more of an Event.

After my first little sample of fashion week, and watching the Gossip Girls NYFW Fashion’s Night Out episode (why did Serena’s dress match the walls?) I can’t wait for next year’s events to roll around.  And they’ll be even better, because they’re in Boston!

And did I mention that clothing swaps are a great way to save money for travel?  No?  Take it away, Lillie!  Travel requirement, I consider you met.