Catherine Dorion's Halloween pic

Can the Quebec government stop telling women what to wear?

This latest bit of fashion policing, on the heels of Bill 21, is another black hole for misplaced outrage and sign of systemic misogyny.

Quebec Solidaire MNA Catherine Dorion was recently barred from the National Assembly’s Salon Bleu because her clothing was deemed inappropriate. 

Radio-Canada journalist Sébastien Bovet justifiably pointed out on Twitter that the cotton hoodie she was suspended and reprimanded for wearing had been worn by her a few months earlier without any complaints.

This isn’t the first time Dorion has been the subject of controversy because of her clothes. The young MNA has often been chastised and criticized for her too-casual fashion choices. She can often be seen wearing jeans, t-shirts, hoodies and Doc Martens boots while sitting in the National Assembly. 

This Halloween, Dorion decided to “dress up” and took a tongue-in-cheek picture sitting on the main desk of the Salon Rouge, wearing formal and conventional business attire, consisting of a skirt, a blazer and high heels. She posted the picture on her Facebook page and it quickly went viral. 

I, too, shared the picture, having enjoyed and understood her lighthearted yet sneaky jab at the criticism she often receives and the clear statement she was making about how forced business attire for someone who doesn’t remotely dress like that in her everyday life was, in itself, a “disguise.”

Discussions ensued on my page about society’s tendency to “police” women’s bodies and the entrenched sexism in our world that dictates how women are socialized and often shamed into wearing what is considered “appropriate.” A fellow colleague and friend commented: “As a female professional who chooses to present in a more masculine way and who has had a thousand people tell me how I ‘should’ dress since I was 11, I feel this deeply.” As someone who writes 90 per cent of my columns wearing sweats, I did, as well. 

Of course, the predictable backlash quickly followed. Some MNAs argued that it challenged the authority of the National Assembly’s speaker and his role as the “guardian of the dignity” of the institution, which sounds overbearingly pompous when one considers the childish yelling and finger-pointing that often occurs in those rooms. 

The Liberal party — perhaps suffering from collective amnesia over their years of rampant corruption and a public inquiry over it that cost Quebec taxpayers millions — filed an ethics complaint over Dorion’s “lapse of conduct.” 

National Assembly rules call for MNAs to dress themselves in way that “will contribute to the decorum of the venue.” 

Decorum… Respect for the institution… Protocol… 

I saw a lot of those terms angrily thrown around on social media by people outraged that she was “debasing” or “insulting” the public role of politician. You would, of course, think that people would be more concerned by politicians who are corrupt, liars, opportunists or xenophobic racists. But clothing seems to be where our battles lie and what angers some constituents and media pundits, judging by a recent column by Quebecor columnist Denise Bombardier, who treated Dorion as a prostitute and a “sulphurous muse of the crazy and feminist left” (don’t ask, I don’t know what to make of that phrase either) for wearing a business suit. 

Dorion dresses down, she’s attacked for being too sloppy. Dorion dresses up and she’s attacked for being too sexy and provocative. It’s almost as if Dorion isn’t the problem here at all. It’s almost as if these double standards and the expectations that women are constantly saddled with have less to do with them and more to do with patriarchal gatekeepers who try and keep them in check. 

The minute I found out that Dorion was barred from the National Assembly because her clothing was deemed inappropriate, I immediately thought of Egyptian-American feminist writer Mona Eltahawy, and a recent talk she gave on the subject of decorum during a panel discussion on Australian TV show Q&A.

“This idea of respectability, this idea of civility… […] decorum… who invented those words: those words were invented by white men for the benefit of other white men in systems of institutions that were always designed to be for white men. And they weren’t designed for women like you and me and so many others, people of colour and gender diverse people. They never imagined us in those spaces and then we show up and we ruin it for them.” 

In her latest book, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women, Eltahawy writes, “Patriarchy punishes women for profanity because it wants us to forever remain within the straight-jacket of niceness and politeness, despite the violence it subjects us to.” 

Ironically, ABC is now investigating whether the episode breached editorial standards after receiving several audience complaints about the language and ideas expressed on the show; brilliantly — and perhaps inadvertently — proving the exact point Eltahawy was trying to make. Once again, the style and not the substance seems to affect some people the most. Once again, “decorum” is used as a silencing device, a smothering tool for inconvenient truths or non-conformist behaviour. 

What Dorion is accused of now is also a sort of profanity, an unwillingness to go along with stereotypical notions of what a woman should look and act like challenges the status quo and the boys club, which the political world still clearly is. To many, it’s anathema. Women are still saddled by unrealistic and restrictive notions of femininity and female archetypes and paradigms of virgin/whore continue to profoundly affect our lives. 

Some might say that men, too, are subjected to societal norms of proper attire and business suits are obligatory in the National Assembly and the House of Commons. That is true, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that women and men suffer the same suffocating standards with regards to their behavior and appearance. Women, by far, are much more subjected to the public scrutiny of what they look like; particularly women in politics and the public eye. They will forever be too young, too abrasive, too emotional, too angry, too frumpy, too ambitious, too fashionable, too uninterested in fashion, too beautiful, too ugly, too old. Women in the public eye will forever lose because the goal posts keep changing, and the people they bother want to keep them in line. 

Put your misplaced outrage aside and tell me: what is so incredibly wrong or offensive about a young female politician challenging the status quo and saying out loud, via her clothing choices, “What does it matter what we wear, as long as we do our jobs?” 

Why are people so invested in the fake decorum of public office, when some barely bat an eye over accusations of corruption, racism, nepotism and sexual harassment? Does their outrage begin and end with Dorion’s tight skirt? Why am I supposed to be more upset over an orange hoodie when most corruption and sexual harassment in government has been committed by impeccably dressed men in expensive suits? 

Dorion was elected democratically by constituents in her riding who weren’t hoodwinked into voting for someone they didn’t know. They knew her and they liked what she stood for — cotton hoodies and all. If democracy is about representation than it should represent all people. And some people, frankly, find Dorion a breath of fresh air and relatable and a way for young people and more young women to become more interested in politics. 

Having this debacle play out in Quebec while Bill 21 is preventing women who wear the hijab from holding down government positions adds insult to injury. It’s one more contradiction and reminder that, despite Quebec’s insistence that we are a society that values gender equality, women continue to be told and policed into what some amorphous majority considers “appropriate” and that appropriateness is always arbitrary and always decided by others. 

In some societies, women are ridiculed and shamed for wearing too much, and in some societies, they are ridiculed and shamed for wearing too little. In all cases, the decision is rarely up to them and they must conform in order to please via threats of social ostracism, prison, job losses, or even death. If they do not, their behaviour is seen as obscene, unattractive, lacking class and decorum, provocative and offensive. 

Women who wear the hijab “provoke” according to Islamophobes. Why can’t they be like other women and just take it off? Women who wear a t-shirt and jeans at the National Assembly “provoke” according to Bombardier and her crowd. Why can’t she be ladylike and dress “more feminine”? Women who breastfeed in public “provoke” people who have sexualized our body parts. Why can’t they go someplace private and feed their babies? Women who wear sexy clothing “provoke” catcallers and rapists. Why can’t they be well-behaved and cover up? 

Every time a woman veers from societally imposed norms, gets out of line, she’s seen as a troublemaker provoking common sensibilities. Maybe, just maybe she’s living her life and you could try living yours. Maybe, just maybe, the only decorum worth maintaining in the National Assembly is the one that focuses on the value of politics as a vector for social change and its ability to alter people’s lives for the better. Whether a politician chooses to wear Converse sneakers or Jimmy Choo’s is largely irrelevant to me. What they do with the power I entrusted them with matters much more to me, and it should to you, as well. ■