Women’s clothing: Don’t fight oppression with oppression
France’s Union for Popular Movement (UMP) – which, when previously led by Nicolas Sarkozy banned the burqa in France – sparked controversy recently as female British MPs criticized the party over a sexism row. Accusations of sexism came after the centre-right party were seen in French Parliament hooting and crying “phwoar”at minister Cecile Duflot who was wearing a blue floral-print dress.
It was around the time of the burqa ban I began to delve into the reasons of why Muslim women dress the way they do. As a Hindu woman, I never had a true understanding of why these women chose to cover themselves. I concluded it to be for conservative religious beliefs, respected that and carried on with my own life.
Images of a 6ft supermodel with perfect bone structures, prominent assets and flawless skin is the depiction of what a woman should be, or at least encouraged to be by womens lifestyle magazines.
The “mannequines” as author Jean Kilbourne defines them, are constantly propagated through the media. Regurgitated on many media platforms they have the most profound impact on the socialisation of young boys and girls. Beautiful women with silky hair are plastered upon billboards, magazines and the internet. It is almost impossible to escape. But alongside conformity to this conventional beauty of these women there is no individualism, personality or signs of intelligence. And if there is, it is not deemed significant enough to advertise alongsides their body. Women are turning to extreme lengths to manipulate their faces and bodies, some even going as far as to have surgery such as bum implants.
Because these attitudes have formed in our subconscious and have become “the norm” there is a failure to recognize it as a form of oppression. The burqa on the other hand becomes oppressive only when a woman is forced to wear it. Why is not then deemed oppressive when women are objectified and face so many pressures to look aesthetically pleasing to benefit men?
Writer Ariel Levy suggests that we as women must be careful not to buy in to the sexualisation of women. In her book “Female Chauvinist Pig: Women and the rise of Raunch Culture” Levy points out “it no longer makes sense to blame men”. It is our responsibility as women to be conscious and realise that self-objectifying ourselves is not a form of female empowerment.
In a world that sexualises women in the media I now see my earlier perception of the burqa being “conservative” as not entirely accurate. The dominant reason I see for the practice is the women’s wish to preserve herself guided by the Quran under the concept of modesty. If anything, the way Muslim women dress can be liberating because it directly challenges the conventional ideology of beauty that pressurises women into manipulating the way they look. On encounters, it allows a woman to display her true inner beauty through her personality and intellect.
Men too have an equal role in respecting women. “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them.” – Quran 24:29. Men must refrain from being drawn to the sexualisation of women. If they see women as sexual objects in their path, they must lower gaze so they do not continue to see it.
The sexualisation of women in advertising reduces them to objects and de-emphasises individuality. Muslim dress – so often referred to as oppressive – can challenge this oppression, especially if they push for their intellectual voices to be heard. It invokes a reminder that women are intelligent beings who should progress due to their merit, not their appearance.
The recent rejection of Aishwarya Rai’s weight gain after giving birth further exemplifies how far the idolisation of conventional beauty has come. Gaining weight after birth is a natural process, if we cannot embrace celebrities during motherhood, what can we embrace? Commentators said: “She needs to learn from people like Victoria Beckham who are back to size zero weeks after their delivery.” Do people genuinely believe that getting back to size zero should be the priority of a woman who has just entered motherhood?” Giving birth is one of the most beautiful things a woman can be part of, yet many despise the natural processes that come with it.
It is not a new argument that there is too much attention focussed on a woman’s body and the clothes she wears. This remains the case in the celebrity world, political world and the world of every woman. Sarkozy claimed the veil reduces women to “servitude and undermined their dignity” but can the same can not be said in regards to the way Duflot was treated in parliament?
In an interview with Le Figaro, Patrick Balkany, MP for Union for a Popular Movement (UPM) said: “If she didn’t want us to take an interest in her then she shouldn’t’ve changed her look. [Duflot] put on that dress so we wouldn’t listen to what she was saying.”
The hoots and cries over her blue floral-print dress gives the impression that the dress was to serve them. It undermines her dignity as the dress becomes a distraction over what she has to say.
Ultimately it is not the item of clothing itself that defines how liberated a woman is but her right to chose. What she wears should never be dictated by men or due to pressures from the world around her. Blaming an item of clothing and banning it is illogical; like trying to fight oppression with oppression. Within this right should be the ability for her to be perceived as a person, rather than an object that is defined by whether she choses to wear a burqa – or a blue-floral print dress.Tagged in: advertising, burqa, Cecile Duflot, dress, feminism, France, islam, muslim women, Nicolas Sarkozy, Patrick Balkany, sexism, UMP, women
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