The Politics of Dress: Double Standards in the Headscarf Debate

Published on Spiegel Online International, an Essay by Christiane Hoffmann, Sept 9, 2016  - translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

When cultures clash, women’s clothing is often at the center of the debate. While for Western women, the issue is how much skin they should be allowed to show, for Muslims the focus is on how much they must show.  

In Iranian archives, there is a collection of photos from the late 1930s. They show women and men dressed in European clothing, and the women are not wearing a chador or headscarf. The images are oddly troublesome: Some women look at the camera in horror, while others have their gazes affixed to the ground. The photos are of Iranian aristocratic families, taken at the instruction of Shah Reza Khan at the height of his campaign to unveil his country’s women. He wanted Iran to become a modern country, Western-oriented, and he saw the chador as a symbol of its backwardness. The ban was far more violently enforced on the streets of Tehran than the burkini ban on French beaches. Women’s chadors were ripped off in broad daylight … //

Specific Social Morals: … //
… The Male Gaze: … //
… Whatever a Woman Chooses: … //

… Nowhere has the headscarf debate been waged as bitterly as in France. As long ago as 1989, in the so-called headscarf affair, three girls were expelled from school for refusing to remove their headscarves. In 2004, the government enacted a general headscarf ban in public primary and secondary schools, and the burqa was banned in 2011. There are also now laws in Germany regulating where women are permitted to wear the headscarf and where not. The battle over the headscarf shows us the limits of our own, enlightened liberalism. Suddenly we no longer know just how liberal we want to be. We disguise our own illiberality with the claim of wanting to liberate the women of other cultures.

Perhaps capitalism will prevail in the end, and in this instance, it might not be such a bad thing. Western fashion labels are now designing Muslim fashion. DKNY was one of the first, with its 2014 Ramadan Collection. Conversely, oriental fashion is also influencing Western fashion designers. Perhaps we will see the rise of a global non-dress code, in which essentially everything goes – including whatever a woman chooses to wear.

(full text).


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