The politics of fashion

Last week AltMuslimah explored feminism and faith in relation to patriarchal movements, and concluded that it is not possible for women of any faith to thoroughly enjoy their God-given rights in a society where “God” is replaced with “men.” Saudi Arabia is perhaps the quintessential example of the modern display of faith gone awry when religion is defined by men.
The kingdom is home to the birthplace of Islam; its extreme gender disparities, largely symbolized by women in veil, are how we in the West view the status of women in Islam. So when Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, head of the Mecca branch of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, recently denounced Saudi’s strict gender segregation and dress code, he astounded Saudi and Western audiences alike.

Speaking at a women’s conference in Jeddah, Ghamdi acknowledged that scholarly opinion on Islamic modesty varies greatly. Some scholars claim women must cover entirely, with not even the face showing, while other scholars approve showing the face, hands, elbows – and some even approve showing hair. Ghamdi also added that the kingdom’s gender mixing ban should only apply to preventing men and women from meeting in private, pointing out that Islam “orders a woman to cover her body to allow her to participate in social life, not to prevent her from doing so.”

When the Qur’an speaks of modesty, it speaks of both outward appearance and inward attitude, and it speaks to both women and men. Yet, women’s rights in the Islamic world have been reduced to culturally relative fashion rights – the right to wear or not wear hijab (headscarf) and niqab (veil), the right to cut bangs while wearing a hijab, the right to wear make-up, etc. The issue of what a woman wears or does not wear on her head has become so divisive because it determines whether women are able to seek education, employment, or even husbands. We see a direct correlation between the status of women in a country and the personal freedom women possess regarding their public appearance. In Saudi Arabia, specifically, women are unable to fully engage with society because of the enforcement of niqab. At the other end, women are also unable to observe their faith and choose what to wear in secular countries like Syria and Turkey, which ban the niqab and hijab, respectively, though Turkey is beginning to quietly recant its ban.

In addition, Saudi Arabia has long been criticized for its human rights violations of both men and women, particularly for the actions of its morality police. It was recently ranked 129 out of 134 countries for gender parity by the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Gender Gap Report. So when a prominent Saudi official like Ghamdi openly acknowledges that the Qur’anic text of modest women’s fashion can be interpreted differently, it can be a big step forward for not only Saudi women, but also the country as a whole. If Ghamdi is able to initiate the change he purports, it could mean greater mobility for Saudi women who are currently unable to drive or travel without a male guardian. It could also mean greater career opportunities in a place where few women work outside the home and even fewer hold positions of power. Over 150,000 unemployed Saudi women are estimated to be college-educated and yet are unable to find work due to the segregation rules. In contrast, most unemployed Saudi men are not educated beyond high school. One could argue that perhaps the Saudi government is realizing it has an valuable untapped workforce at its disposal. But would a more lax dress code actually enhance gender parity in Saudi?

Iran also has a growing female workforce, but it enforces a more moderate dress code for women in comparison to Saudi, making women increasingly independent. Fewer of these working women want to marry when Iranian law, similar to Saudi law, permits married women to work only with the permission of their husbands. The younger generation of women, accustomed to these allowances, expects men to share in the workload inside and outside of the home. A youth unemployment rate estimated to be up to 25 percent has created an even wider disparity between the genders; as less educated men are having a hard time finding wives and work.

The example of Iran is not unique; and perhaps it is the growing pains of a theocracy attempting to find its place in the modern world. However, it does illustrate that shifts in dress code are not enough to create gender parity if men are not cultured to be part of the discourse. Ghamdi’s words remind us that women have a fundamental Islamic right to choose to how to dress and engage in society, and he should be applauded for speaking out. Unfortunately, his words also show that after all these years we have not moved very far in our discussions of gender relations – we are still stuck on women’s fashion. So the issue remains something we in the West are still not able to resolve for ourselves – how can women engage in society with men as equal partners when we still cannot get beyond the discussion of a woman’s appearance?
Growing up as a Pakistani-South African American Muslim in suburbia New Jersey, Nadia S. Mohammad spent much of her childhood thinking she was Desi until she moved to Pakistan and learned she was American. Returning to the U.S. with this new perspective and a defiance of social stereotypes she delved into the world of South Asian and Muslim American media and activism. A Loyola University Chicago law graduate, she continues to believe in the values of justice and equality with cupcakes for all. This piece was originally featured at Altmuslimah @ On Faith.

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