“Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion,” asserted Pierre Bergé, co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent in an interview with radio station Europe 1. “Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.”
The “abominable thing” Bergé is referring to — modest Islamic women’s clothing — has recently been appropriated by major designers including DKNY, Dolce & Gabbana, Tommy Hilfiger, and Marks & Spencer. Fashion brands are gradually recognizing that they have a lucrative, untapped market in Muslim consumers and are producing clothes to satisfy that profitable niche. From full-body swimsuits and ankle-length dresses to abâyas and headscarves, the fashion world is starting to incorporate loose and modest garments that are a major departure from the typical sexy runway fashions. But not everyone is happy about it.
In her April 14, 2016 article “What Freedom Looks Like” for the New York Times, author Vanessa Friedman explores the backlash that is coming from some people in France’s fashion industry and government. Referring to Pierre Bergé, Friedman writes, “He … implied that the designers were exploiting a misogynist system that, for financial gain, forces women to hide their bodies.”
Laurence Rossignol, the French minister for women’s rights, jumped into the fashion fray. In an interview with BFTV, she likened modest clothing to a prison: “What’s at stake is social control over women’s bodies,” she said in an interview on the French news network. “When brands invest in this Islamic garment market, they are shirking their responsibilities and are promoting women’s bodies being locked up.”
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Rossignol then infamously compared Muslim women to “negroes” who supported slavery, causing a global uproar and accusations of racism. She later recanted that particular part of her statement.
Reading the statements of these two French public figures, I am torn between derision and disgust. On one hand, I wonder how they cannot see the irony of their statements. Bergé laments a “misogynist system that, for financial gain, forces women to hide their bodies,” but apparently fails to see any problem with a high-profit fashion industry that has, for centuries, persuaded women to reveal their bodies in order to serve as sex objects, sell clothes, and entice the male gaze. When Rossignol decries “social control over women’s bodies,” doesn’t she see how women’s bodies have been controlled in various ways throughout Western history? Isn’t banning the headscarf in French schools an example of “social control?” Isn’t requiring all swimmers in French pools to wear tiny, tight, and extremely revealing swimsuits another example?
On the other hand, I am disgusted with Bergé’s and Rossignol’s depressing and incorrect depiction of Muslim women. The image they are associating with a Muslim woman is of an uneducated, voiceless, oppressed person who has no say in her wardrobe or her life choices. Haven’t they observed the countless Muslim women doctors, professors, engineers, intellectuals, businesswomen, and highly educated and talented women who choose to cover? Don’t they see the millions of empowered Muslim women around the world who have the “freedom” to uncover in their country of residence if they wish, and yet often willingly embrace a modest wardrobe?
Unlike Bergé and Rossignol, I view all women as intelligent beings with free will and intellect. I do not think they are so easily duped or forced into dressing or acting certain ways. Even when the runway models are waif thin and wearing extremely revealing clothing, Western non-Muslim women can still choose to dress however they wish. I would not, as Bergé does, define them as “forced” to do things. And although the fashion industry has been criticized widely for creating and perpetuating unrealistic ideals of beauty, I still would not describe Western women as being “locked up” by the shackles of fashion. They have a choice and a mind, should they choose to use them.
What about Muslim women? Do we have any choice in our clothing? Are we, as Rossignol said, “consenting slaves”? Are our long dresses, tunics, and abayas truly a prison for us? Do we need to be liberated by the likes of Bergé and Rossignol?
First, if the opponents of Islamic clothing bothered to ask Muslim women their opinion, they would learn something that might surprise them: the vast majority of Muslim women who dress modestly do it willingly and for one reason: to please their Creator.
“Yes, but what if their husband or father or government is forcing them to cover?” someone is bound to argue. To that question I would reply, “A Muslim woman’s duty to cover is mandated by her Creator. Regardless of what others in her life might do or say, dressing modestly is an act of obedience to Allah. Some women might indeed be exploited or mistreated by individuals or governments, but any oppression of women is un-Islamic.”
Besides, do people seriously think that non-Muslim women are free from oppression, coercion, and control? What about uniforms that require women to show their legs, arms, and chests to look appealing for customers? What about egotistical husbands who want their wives to look like “arm candy” at all times? What about mothers who constantly pressure their daughters to lose weight, wear makeup, and squeeze into the latest styles so that they can find a husband, thrive socially, or be a “credit” to their parents? Aren’t these females victims, too?”
So let’s look at a realistic view of Muslim women. Of course, there are some Muslimahs who choose not to cover at all, and their freedom of choice is obvious. The majority of Muslim women who do dress modestly do so with their eyes wide open. Their goals are the noblest ones possible: To please their Creator and to earn Paradise. By covering their bodies, they are eschewing public opinion, pop culture, and a superficial understanding of beauty. They are refusing to exhibit their attractiveness or to sell their bodies. Their faith tells them that their worth is not based on their outward appearance, but on their character and morals. Their inner beauty (the most important one) is apparent in their actions and manners, and their outward beauty is revealed on their own terms, only to those who can be entrusted with it. That is empowerment, not prison.
Bergé and Rossignol would like to cast themselves as super heroes whose noble task is to liberate the poor Muslim women who are living what Bergé calls “a hidden life.” What, I would ask them, is wrong with a hidden life? Should everything be made public? Aren’t there certain things that even French people would like to keep private? Why should women’s bodies and beauty be expected to be on display for other’s enjoyment? Are men entitled to that? If, theoretically, all women started dressing modestly, who, exactly, would find that disappointing? Is this whole issue really about women’s feelings and empowerment, or about men’s insistence on keeping them half undressed?
If a woman chooses to cover her own body in compliance with her faith, isn’t that her right, her freedom?
It comes down to a matter of semantics, in a way. What some people call an “abominable thing,” others call “modesty.” What some call “locked up” others call “liberated.” Even the very first word of Bergé’s quote proves that he has a completely different mindset from a Muslim. He uses the term “creators” to describe designers like himself. It is their duty, asserts Bergé, to “make women more beautiful and to give them their freedom.” What a lofty goal for mere mortals with a flair for design!
Muslims, of course, have a completely different definition of “Creator.” We live our life to please the One Creator, Allah, and our beauty and freedom are gifts from Him and contingent upon Him. No miniskirt or makeup can make us beautiful if we are rotten on the inside. No politicians or fashionistas can free us if our hearts are slaves to a false god. Therein lies the crux of the matter and why Bergé and Rossegnol will never see why our freedom and our power are in the very garments they abhor.