“O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies (when abroad) so that they should be known and not molested” (Koran 33:59).
I have invented a new item of clothing for women of faith: a Security Suit™. This suit consists of three-quarter length black leggings, a black camisole with shelf bra, and a black nylon, sleeveless shell over the camisole. My Security Suit™ should get most Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and other women of faith through most airport security without being groped, poked, and prodded for secret wires and plastic devices that, purportedly, women could conceal. While many women, including myself, will find the Security Suit™ lacks the public modesty our faith recommends and for which we yearn, it will provide more coverage than, for example, the little blue paper gown we wear in the doctor’s office and, if used correctly, a slightly briefer period of public exposure than walking down the hall from the doctor’s office to the X-ray lab.
Modesty in dress is often central to women of faith. Whether the veil of Islam, the Jewish forms of head covering, or the Christian nun in habit, the tradition of modest dress runs deep in the Abrahamic religions. Reasons for modesty vary and can cause passionate controversy, but it reflects a deeper, mystical sense of sexual vulnerability that Wendy Shalit so beautifully documented in A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. We do not have to agree on the particulars to agree that, for millions of women throughout the world, modesty in dress expresses a religious value essential to our sense of dignity.
For myself, I opted long ago to dress in skirts — not because I thought blue jeans and polyester pants were immoral, but because I had spent years “dressing like a man” and found the return to a more traditional, female style of apparel liberating and fun. My husband likes my skirts, too, whispering his appreciation in my ear when we find ourselves in a sea of professionals wearing business slacks, male and female alike. I recognize that many women are completely comfortable in pants and do not experience a sense of immodesty or masculinity dressing in traditional male attire. It is a choice that, again, we do not have to agree on, so long as the choice of millions of women whose attire tends toward a more traditional, feminine style receives the same respect.
Lately, such traditional choices in attire have not only been punished, but the wider public has been forced to publicly gawk at these women as they are subjected to humiliating body searches because they choose more modest dress. Women are enlisted to humiliate other women. Men must stand silently by while the most private areas on the bodies of their wives and daughters are touched and examined by hand.
I am too familiar with this procedure and its fundamentally bizarre rationale. Because I wear skirts and dresses, over the last few years I have been routinely subjected to a “secondary search” after passing through the primary airport security. This means that I pass through the detectors without setting off any alarm but am nevertheless detained for a body search.I travel a great deal and accepted this secondary search procedure as a consequence of that travel. As uncomfortable as I was being “wanded” from head to toe, I was still able to limit the intrusion and, more than once, warned a security agent that she had placed the wand as far up my inner thigh as I would permit.
Recently, however, the secondary procedure has changed and is now being conducted by hand and with direct contact on the inner thigh, the genital area, and across the breasts, including running a finger under the bra. If you attempt to limit the physical intrusion, you will be warned and then told to leave the airport.
Subjected to this procedure once, I determined to avoid it again. Flying on Wednesday before Thanksgiving this year, I wore a lightweight travel skirt with pantyhose underneath. As I feared, I was waved into the Plexiglas holding cell for a “secondary search” because “you are wearing a skirt.” When the agent came for me, I confirmed that my skirt was the issue, removed it, and handed it to her saying, “There. Now you can see I have nothing under my skirt.”
The agent refused to proceed, confining me again to the holding cell while she summoned her manager. I handed my skirt to the supervisor and asked that I not be subjected to the secondary search. “No,” he replied, “you are required to put your skirt back on and proceed for a hand search, or you will not be permitted past the security area of the airport.”
My husband and my teenage sons, who have been amazed at the frequency with which I am searched, then gawked in embarrassment, horror, and helplessness, unable to protect me from the long, detailed, public poking I then received. I closed my eyes because I could not bear to look at them. I determined then and there that I would redouble my efforts to avoid this public humiliation.
Thus, I designed my Security Suit™ over the Thanksgiving holiday and put it to the test on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I put on the suit and pulled my dress over it. I sent my husband and sons off through a more distant security line. As I approached the final moment, I lifted my dress over my head and placed it with my laptop, Ziploc baggy, purse, shoes, sweater, and suitcase on the security belt. The agent glanced oddly at me but nodded me through approvingly. I sighed with relief and immediately put my dress back on. It had worked. Like an old-fashioned ladies swimming suit, my Security Suit™ provided just enough modesty and protection to get me across the beach and away from the sharks.
Frankly, I mourn this development in the world’s war against terrorists, which has made women of modest dress suspects and villains, even as terrorists design new innovations to attack airplanes that have no relationship to skirts, burkas, or dresses. I wonder, if these terrorists are men mostly of Islamic faith, how they will like to see their women in my Security Suit™ — women who, like me, are now casting off our outer garments so that, when abroad, we are not known and molested.
Image: Associated Press/San Diego Union Tribune