This story is a few weeks late, but my roommate just sent me a link to a runway show from last month where two French designers had their models go down the runway with “burqa-inspired” looks on, to protest the currently proposed burqa ban in France.
This was also a theme in last years spring fashion shows and Threadbared caught on and wrote the following,
We’re still mulling the implications of the Givenchy couture runway show at the recent Paris Fashion Week, with its perhaps lucky, maybe deliberate, coincidence with French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s condemnation of the burqa (a specific garment that in this instance seems to stand in for any face-obscuring garment with a Muslim-y connotation) as a “walking prison.”
The blogosphere certainly recognizes the coincidence, if not quite sure what to do with it. Going for the morbid commentary, Fashionologie calls them “couture corpse brides.” At the Lux Style File, they note that, “[Givenchy's] creative director, Riccardo Tisci, definitely struck design genius and political controversy by showing two burqas in the famed houses’ [sic] line. Givenchy’s Modern Arabian Nights theme paired well with the landscape of current political events in France.” Meanwhile, the lone comment ups the ante by assigning value to the artistic efforts of the couture house (including, presumably this latest couture collection) while denying it to the sartorial practices of Muslim others. “The house of Givenchy is excellent. I agree with French President Nicholas Sarkozay to ban the burquas [sic].”
Similarly, I suppose on some level I appreciate that fashion designers read the news. My initial reaction was definitely of intrigue, interest and I kind of thought it was cool. But on closer inspection, given couture houses’ historical objectification of “other” as fetish spectacle, it is hard to all of a sudden think of design houses as allies in the fight for Muslim women’s rights. This fails to move us from a fixed understanding of what a burqa means which has essentially become a fill in, catch all, category to describe Muslim women, to a more complex one that actually encompasses and acknowledges the work, experience and resistance of Muslim women who don the burka. Flattening the very complex experience of “Muslim women,” is a reductive tendency that seems to be at the heart of pro and con arguments of banning verse allowing what is understood universally and often falsely as “forced” veiling.
A piece currently being touted in the blogosphere at the WSJ reinforces this dichotomy of the veil or lack thereof representing freedom or lack of freedom. Peter Burkowitz who suggests the ban could be justified writes,
Given the importance that the French Constitution attaches to liberty and the seriousness of the threat to peace and public order posed by the large, restive and nonassimilating portion of its Muslim population, the veil represents a legitimate concern. Banning it would be justified to the extent that Muslim communities in France use the veil to deprive girls of basic educational opportunities and to prevent women from fulfilling their obligations as citizens, or that terrorists create a security threat by disguising themselves in the veil.
I suppose if seemingly nonthreatening terms such as “assimilation” weren’t actually really violent processes through which immigrants are routinely policed, shamed and forced to engage in, I would feel this democratic spirit, but I am not convinced. As Anushay Hossain pointed out a few months ago it is wishful thinking to suggest that Sarkozy’s motivation is the freedom of women, by making a legal demand of what they can wear (ironic no?), as opposed to just another strategic step in the cultural warfare between certain Muslim and non-Muslim communities in France. Either way, both scenarios objectify and ignore what some Muslim women want for themselves.
Ironically, Islamic extremists also use the burqa as a tool to express their power, and make their presence felt. I am from Bangladesh, one of the world’s most populated Muslim countries, where radical Islam has slowly but surely been rising over the years. Growing up, you could count on your hands the number of women you saw veiled let alone burqa-clad. Nowadays, the numbers are astounding. Billboards that use to advertise colorful saris show women covered in black, with only the sliver of their eyes exposed. When the extremists want to let you know they are in town, there is no better way than covering up and restricting the visibility of women.
Sarkozy is doing something very similar, but in the opposite way by telling women they cannot wear the burqa. He can use the whole “it is a subjugation of women” language as much as he wants, but do we really think that Sarkozy is formulating policy to fight for the rights of Muslim women? If he was, he would factor in the issue of how many French Muslim women may not be allowed to go to schools, may be denied medical care, and have their mobility curbed in general because their (sexist) male guardians may not allow them out of the house without the burqa. We are seeing women’s bodies being exploited for political purposes.