Class dons jumpsuits for social experiment
Students donned orange jumpsuits, black mesh veils and handcuffs this week as a social experiment in professor Jennifer Fluri's Gender, Space and Islam class. For the experiment, which began last Wednesday and will continue until Thursday, students go out to four different public places and act as they normally would, but while wear the orange outfits.
"The point of this project is to understand what it feels like to be physically marked," Samantha Sheppard '07, a student who is taking the class, said. "Our class is [comprised of] primarily white females. When they go out, they don't know what it feels like to be marked."
Sheppard pointed to various historical and social examples of groups that were physically marked as she praised the project.
"In Amish communities, they purposefully dress differently," Sheppard said. "In Nazi Germany, they put stars on Jews. Race also marks people and so does the use of the veil in Islam".
Fluri, a geography and women's and gender studies professor, said she wants this project to make her students question how physical appearances can shape ordinary day-to-day experiences.
"Hopefully the students see how moving in public space -- from home to work for instance, or from any point A to B -- can be curtailed often times by your appearance," Fluri said.
Many students say Fluri has succeeded. Rebecca Boswell '10, one of the students, has reported being treated differently due to her attire.
"I had someone on Friday walk up to me and pull off my head-scarf," Boswell said. "He said that the head-scarf was the really scary part of my costume and he wanted to see who I was. It was very aggressive. I mean, why would you walk up to someone and touch their clothes?"
Other class members said they have encountered similar reactions.
"People have a problem with the body being a private space," Sheppard said. "People come up to us and grab us. There are definitely mixed reactions. People saying 'you're going to rob us' or 'you're just weird' or people who are like 'yeah that's so true, we live in a communist state.'"
Daina Staisiunas '10 has a class with one of the students involved in the project.
"She scares me," Staisiunas said, "I've seen her multiple times and I still jump every time I see her."
At a recent class event, Staisiunas' orange-clothed classmate sat in the front row and garnered a lot of attention from other students. "
"Everyone kept looking at her," said Staisiunas, who noted that the student's presence might have been "distracting" to her classmates.
Sheppard said that such reactions show that the community still has much to do before it is completely accepting of different people.
"I think we can tote diversity around and say we strive for it, but let's remember that it's a struggle," Sheppard said. "We're not as accepting as we think we are. I think we're tolerant and I don't think that translates into acceptance, as we see from the reactions across campus."
The fact that the controversial orange jumpsuits have the New Hampshire state motto "Live Free or Die" written on the back has caused some students to question whether the public would confuse the social experiment with a political statement.
"You have to handcuff yourself to something that represents capitalism, so I think that it's asking 'how free are we in a capitalist country?'" Alessandra Necamp '09, a student in Fluri's class, said. "My problem with it was that you should not be anonymous and make any sort of statement."
The production of a flier explaining the idea of the costume helped to appease the fears of some students such as Necamp.
"On the sheet, we wrote that the costume is complicating concepts of imprisonment, freedom, accountability and humanity," Fluri said. "The costume is not saying that anything is wrong or right, but rather that we should be talking about these issues more."
The idea behind the experiment is not entirely new; Fluri first encouraged students to physically mark themselves in public in 2004 when teaching at Pennsylvania State University.
"Most of my students were white and weren't treated differently based on how they looked," Fluri said. "I thought it would be really interesting for them to be physically marked in public and learn from this experience."
Fluri conducted similar experiments with women's and gender studies classes last year. This is the first time, however, that all of the class's students decided to mark their bodies in the same way, which Fluri said has drawn increased attention to the class.
Allie Lowe contributed reporting for this article.