From Bikinis to Burqas, the Feminist Politics of Clothing

How can so many American feminists have come out against a
burqa ban in France (as they largely
when the burqa, along with other excessively modest religious garb, appears to
be a classic tool of gender oppression?

The answer is that singling out the burqa as the only
article of clothing patriarchal enough to merit legal regulation – or even
strident criticism – is racist. Critique of women’s clothing, from burqas to
cleavage, is
often leveraged for other purposes, whether they be religious, cultural or
political, and should be called out when it’s faux feminism
, as Aziza Ahmed
argued here on RH Reality Check.

But it’s also true that almost every cultural or religious
group sets standards of appearance that oppress women. Most fashion, from the
corset of yore to the bikini to the FLDS prairie dress to the Nike sneaker
(made by women in sweatshops, marketed to Western women), tends
to hew in some way to patriarchal norms. So the quandary we grapple with, as
feminists, is how to acknowledge that fact
without alienating,
targeting or harassing
groups of women for the way they dress.

Remember the
Manolo Blahnik pinkie toe-removal phenomenon
, which hearkens back to
Cinderella’s stepsisters in terms of the lengths women go to mutilate
themselves on the altar of fashion? Imagine if we outlawed those heels for fear
that some women would shorten their pinkie toes.  In each instance of an oppressive custom of
dress or beauty, it’s right to support those feminists who debate it. It is also
crucial to examine the implications for women and for gender roles of dressing
one way or another – it’s a clear example of the personal being political. But
we have to do that without punishing or shaming women for their choice of
outfit, as the French would seek to do.

Rather than single out other people’s problematic dress, we
should all be engaged in a robust critique and examination of the way gender
norms inform beauty standards everywhere. In France, a country that many of its
citizen claim is paradoxically so sexually liberated the burqa isn’t welcome, American-style
short-shorts are still a novelty, for instance, likely to garner stares or
catcalls. Women there tend to dress marginally more modestly than they do in
America – except on beaches, where topless bathing is accepted. Evidently, the
pressure to cover up, or to uncover, in various contexts may be stronger than
we think, even in "free" Western countries.

Here in secular/commercialized America, women try to live up
to a prepubescent ideal, buying into a diet industry that’s a racket and causes
eating disorders, using chemical bleaches on our hair, and undergoing
sometimes-painful waxing, peeling or plastic surgeries to look eternally young,
slim and buxom. The beauty myth has always been part of our culture, but as
feminist commentators like Naomi Wolf and Susan J. Douglas have noted, the craze
for ever-smaller female bodies coincided with women taking up a more space in
the workplace. Some women claim that restrictive fashion trends, obsessive
calorie-counting and makeup make them feel great, but both women who love it
and those who loathe it are spending money and energy on their looks in a way
that most men simply don’t have to. The
Daily Show played with this idea last week:

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And yes, in conservative communities of all denominations
(and non-religious ones as well) modest dressing restrictions treat all women
like jezebels, so unendingly sexual and distracting that their figures must be
kept out of sight. Such garb – even if it has different meanings for different
wearers – reinforces a misogynist ideal that puts the burden on women to cover up
rather than men to avert their gaze.

This isn’t meant to equivocate between all patriarchal
fashion or grooming trends – (certainly, styles that are restrictive or unhealthy
are worse than those that are just silly), but to point out that they exist on
a spectrum. Feminists stand up for women at either end of the spectrum even
when both ends do have pernicious
aspects. Yes, we criticize "porn culture" at the same time as excoriating the
"modesty movement." But then we should also support women kicked off airplanes
for wearing outfits deemed too skimpy – and rush to defend women denied jobs
because they choose to wear the hijab.

Just because feminists acknowledge the problematic roots of
a practice doesn’t mean that we can, or want, to bully it away. The way humans
dress is an extension of our self-expression, our identity and an indication of
how we align ourselves in terms of community norms and expectations. Attacks on
individual clothing or grooming choices often feel deeply personal and can put
people on the defensive.

The truth is, rarely will clothing choices not be loaded,
complex and full of contradictions – here in the US we have cheerleaders and
beauty queens in suggestive outfits who wear chastity rings, and religious
women who accent their modest clothing with perfume and Botox while toting a
copy of Gender Trouble. Oppressive
mainstream beauty standards may make modest clothing appealing, while
puritanical religious customs may spur women to express their sexuality by
stripping down. It’s not so easy to reject patriarchal standards in their entirety
– if we didn’t shave, wax, or wear makeup (or at times, conceal the fact that we don’t) in strategic ways, we may well have a
much harder time taken seriously by the world (except if the world were a
hippie commune).

Open, nonjudgmental discussion of these complexities may
lead some women to turn towards comfort and away from custom–ditch their high
heels or experiment with less modest clothing. But at the end of the day,
different women have different reactions to what they wear. The feminist group Ni
Putes Ni Soumises and other
Muslim women have taken a convincingly strong stance against the burqa

while some burqa wearers say it’s
a choice they make freely
. Many women get a rush of happiness from high
heels while other women curse them and wish their workplace was more accepting
of less chic footwear.

That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and refuse to
examine the meaning and history of clothing styles and fashion expectations – we
should. It’s important to note which styles of dressing get women rewarded in
patriarchal societies and why. But when we do delve, we should delve holistically,
not focus mono-maniacally on habits-literally-of other women.

Reproductive rights advocates strive for a society where
choice means getting rid of social and legal obstacles to reproductive health
access instead of criticizing women’s individual reproductive decisions.
When feminists talk about clothing we try to focus on getting rid of the
gender, race and class expectations that feed into the way we dress and how we judge
women’s appearance.
We need to continue to target the pressure, coercion,
and legal and social compulsion that affects women, not women themselves. And
imposing laws that regulate clothing does not accomplish that goal, but curtails
women’s freedom even more seriously.

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  • invalid-0

    The problem with the burqa is that gangs of young Muslim men have decided for themselves that it is of paramount importance when not worn. When the option is out there, some women don’t wear burqas and it is they who are targeted and beaten, burned or killed. This doesn’t just happen in Muslim nations. It’s happening more and more in Europe too. Athiests don’t go around targeting women who wear FLDS prarie dresses. Fashion designers don’t attack women who don’t wear bikinis but these young gangs of young Muslim men absolutely DO target women who do not wear burqas. What the French should be doing is going after these gangs directly, but I think they are afraid of them and of charges of anti Muslim feeling. So they are trying to outlaw the burqas so the gangs will not target young women who wear something other than burqas. It has nothing to do with racism. It has to do with the reaction to the absence of a burqa in many Muslim communities in France.

    • invalid-0

      The problem with the burqa is that gangs of young Muslim men have decided for themselves that it is of paramount importance when not worn. When the option is out there, some women don’t wear burqas and it is they who are targeted and beaten, burned or killed.

      Sounds to me like the French should be focusing on these guys, then, rather than restricting the choice of clothing of women.

      • invalid-0

        I agree. I wish they would focus on them, but I don’t think they will. Remember about a year ago when gangs were burning cars all over Paris and nothing happened? I think the police and courts are all so afraid of vague charges of racism that they don’t know what to do so they are trying to end the attacks this way.

  • invalid-0

    When I was a child, in this country, women who dared to wear a dress above the ankle were ostracized. Hats were a must (especially for church goers) veils were common and nuns were fitted in garb desinged to cover their being. There are pockets of society which still rely on the horse and buggy and, by choice, adhere to values which most of us cannot understand.

    Just as we have evolved so, too, will those of other cultures. It takes time, and patience, for change to take hold. Because our culture has grown to embrace new values, and rid ourselves of old taboos, does not give us the right to interfere with those who believe in and adhere to old values.

    It took us hundreds, if not thousands, of years to come up from slavery. Patience gains all things ‘n’ that which is, or was not, possible eventually will become an accepted reality. TIME, and the efforts of peaceful, freedom loving people, WILL TAKE CARE OF IT!!!-:) MNSVHO-:),

    • invalid-0

      You don’t have to walk in the shoes of the highly still discriminated women. Think about it. Better yet put yourself in our shoes and then say something we can believe.

    • invalid-0

      John, I appreciate your points, as well as your open-minded stance in reminding us that there are many cultures, and many different norms and mores.

      However, there is clearly a global double-standard when it comes to human rights being denied to women, as a particular group.

      You said,

      Because our culture has grown to embrace new values, and rid ourselves of old taboos, does not give us the right to interfere with those who believe in and adhere to old values.

      I agree, but I think that it does not trump the more important concept that human rights exist, and that one actual right is the right to defend those rights, whether in one’s own case, or in another’s. Some might even say we have a moral duty to defend those rights, but that may be a separate argument.

      Think back to the Apartheid struggle in South Africa. Half the world was “interfering” in that country’s society, through various external pressures, to make sure black citizens got their rights. Nobody rational said, “hey, that’s their culture. Maybe that’s just how they are and how they live. Let them evolve at their own pace.”

      And thank God they didn’t, or millions of South Africans might still be languishing without fundamental human freedoms to this day.

      So why is it that when the oppressed demographic simply happens not to include males, that it is suddenly just their culture, and so on?

      Why, when men and women are oppressed, as in South Africa, is it unequivocal oppression, but when just women are oppressed, as in beatings of people not wearing a burqa, is it “culture?”

      Why was the South African governmental system of denying one demographic group (blacks) the vote considered to be an illegal, rights-abrogating Apartheid worthy of American sanctions, but the Saudi Arabian governmental system of denying one demographic group (women) the vote is considered to be legitimate culture that in no way should infringe upon American business relations with that nation?

      People in France who don’t wear a burqa, whether they be Muslim, Afghan, Swedish, American, Christian, Arab, or whatever… people who don’t wear a burqa in all likelihood don’t wear it because they don’t wish to wear it. And that should be all that is needed for civilized people to know that it is wrong for anyone to be forced to wear a burqa, or be punished for not wearing one.

      I don’t believe that cultural relativism needs to be appeased, but just as an aside, this burqa-wearing and/or total covering-up, and the “house-binding” of women is actually not a recent part of many of the cultures in which it is now happening. Go back and look at photos of Iranian women pre-1979. They are wearing the same fashions as American women here were (tee-shirts, calf-length skirts, same hairstyles, no head covering, or loose scarf, or hijab, as they chose. In pre-Taliban Afghanistan, for heaven’s sake, about half of lawyers and doctors were female, many women wore no head covering, and few city women wore a burqa.

      Well, anyway, sorry for the long post. I really do appreciate this blog and everyone’s comments.

  • invalid-0

    Again, I am baffled.

    I whole-heartedly agree with the highlighted statement that “When feminists talk about clothing we try to focus on getting rid of the gender, race and class expectations that feed into the way we dress and how we judge women’s appearance.”

    I reject the notion that “…if we didn’t shave, wax or wear make-up in strategic ways, we may well have a much harder time being taken seriously by the world (except if the world were a hippie commune).”
    I also have a problem with the premise of this article. I think that there are many variations of prejudice, and while dress prejudice and race prejudie may share the same root, they are not the same. The author seems to have some pre-judgement concerning women who don’t shave their arm-pits (think Patti Smith’s cover-shot for the EASTER album), but I wouldn’t say that she’s biased towards her own race.

    I think a more apt correlation would be between the enforced wearing of the burka and female genital “circumcision,” or mutliation. I believe that there are women in the world who, because they were taught to believe such from their upbringing, think that both are natural expressions of their culture Men do get circumsized, but there are valid medical reasons for doing so. I don’t think that there are any valid medical reasons for female “circumcision.” I also don’t think that men wear burkas. They do wear skirts – the kilt is a perfect example – and make-up, and even shave their unwanted body-hair. But they don’t wear burkas. The reason why they don’t is, as far as I’m concerned, the reason why I feel that it’s sexist. Nobody needs to feel ashamed of their body, and if the display of your body causes unwanted attention, then the problem is clearly psychological, and should be addressed in that realm, not in censorship.

  • invalid-0

    I agree with you too! FGM, foot binding, anorexia; its all part of the same evil trinity and strangly mixed up in world cultures past and present. Ideally we should be able to wear a burqa, a prarie dress or a bikini without worry and it would be ideal if law enforcement world wide would have the courage to focus on law breakers instead of victims or possible victims.

  • kiara

    People who like watching people make stupid looking clothes that no one should be stupid enough to buy love the show, and therefore were watching out for Project Runway Season 6 Episode 2. Project Runway Season 6 Episode 2 of the show, recently acquired from Bravo by Lifetime, had all to do with maternity clothes – as model/actress Rebecca Romijn wanted something “chic” to wear while pregnant. Chic is a French word loosely translated to “say this and stupid people will pay more for this lousy shirt.” Shirin won, Malvin was a miserable, despicable failure, and no one should get installment loans for bad credit to buy the lousy rags they made on Project Runway Season 6 Episode 2.