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Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World by Mineke Schipper- Review

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Book: Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World

Author: Mineke Schipper

Publisher: Speaking Tiger


Pages: 296; Price: Rs 499

Does a fully clothed person symbolise modesty? Who decides how much covering is enough for a woman to prove her chastity? Why is a woman’s chastity such an important issue in the society? Why is it that covering and hiding themselves is only the responsibility of a woman in most societies? These are some of the burning questions that crop up while reading Mineke Schipper’s book, Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World. The book is extremely relevant for today’s world, as it explains the human history from the time humans walked around naked and occasionally painted and ornamented themselves, to the time when they started to cover themselves up, as a symbol of chastity, with religions dictating how one should be clothed.

It is a well-researched book that is both, academic and entertaining. However, the reader must have an objective mind with a dash of humour in their understanding of the nuances of human nature, for it to be an enjoyable and informative read.

Have you ever wondered if clothing increased morality? Interestingly, the book says, “Unfortunately, according to psychologists, the reasoning that more covering would provoke less excitement, does not fit the reality. Rather, the reverse holds true: more than visible nakedness, clothes increase curiosity about all that lies hidden beneath.”

The book points out the correlation between the rise of the 3 Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the change in the position of women.

For those who are not well aware of religious histories, their evolution and impact on the world, this book is a great commentary on that aspect. One might be curious to know, how and when the concept of purdah or veil arrived in India. The book mentions that, “Islamic invasions from the 11th to the 16th century brought the idea of hijab to India, where it was explained as female ‘dignity’.

Interestingly, the author brings forth her observation of how the 3 Abrahamic religions mirror each other, especially, when it comes to the issue of modesty of a woman. “Tertullian, an important North African church father, passionately concentrated on Christian identity and women’s dress: from puberty, girls should always be veiled outside the house, and this ought to be an obligation in church too.”

Talking about ultra-orthodox Jews, the author observes, “In Israel, most ultra-orthodox boys and girls attend separate religious schools where they get little or no sexual education…In Israel there is even sex segregation on sidewalks in ultra-orthodox parts of Jerusalem, and women are forced to sit at the back of the bus, with the men sitting in front.”

The book also explains the similar terminologies used by Jews and Muslims, for instance, “…The Hebrew word erwah and the Arabic word arwah carry the same meaning: intimate body parts that must remain covered.” And according to arwah for women in Islam, “…clerics have declared the whole body to be an area of shame for women.”

“…Ultimately, a woman can only achieve perfect modesty by being completely unseen and unheard.”

Throughout the book, Schipper has provided engaging anecdotes and historical interpretations that are indeed thought provoking.