Freedom From Fashion

Posted: June 20, 2011

Recently, I was talking to a friend who grew up in Saudi Arabia, about the campaign by Saudi women for the freedom to drive. I have to say, Saudi Arabia is not exactly my favourite place in the world, given that it treats grown women as children in need of guardianship and policing.

It has among the most regressive laws in the world, including requiring all women to be covered head to toe in a burqa/abaya. So, I was surprised to hear this friend say that she loved her childhood & adolescence in Saudi – and even more surprised to hear that she had no trouble wearing the abaya.

This friend is not Muslim; so, the garment or the act of covering up has no religious meaning for her. What she liked about wearing the abaya was simply that it freed her from having to dress up to go out on the street. While most of us may view it as lack of freedom to dress as one wants, she in fact saw it as freedom from fashion – from having to be ‘properly’ dressed each time one went out.

I can sort of understand where she is coming from. It is true that there is so much pressure to dress up. I’ve heard people talking dismissively about women who go walking/jogging in salwar kameez – that it “looks funny” with sports shoes. By that logic, only women who wear Western clothes are entitled to exercise. Again, if one wants to go to a party, in some circles there is a sort of unwritten rule that one must wear something short or tight or shiny or at least display some cleavage. Not that I have anything against that sort of clothing, but somehow, enjoyment of a drink or even music becomes so linked to how one looks – as if possessing a pair of high heels or wearing lipstick is a prerequisite!

The thing is, most of us are complicit in these rules. We do feel odd transgressing them, even if there is no logic to it. A burqa or abaya, which is in a way a uniform, does away with those problems – though even there, I believe ingenious women get their fashion high by adding bells and whistles to the basic garment.

While I believe that we could all do with less fashion and appearance policing, I still don’t feel that I’d be happy at all with a mandate to cover up. What do you think? Is the burqa freedom from fashion or loss of freedom or both? 

Founder & Chief Editor of Women's Web, Aparna believes in the power of ideas

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  1. During the teenage years in school, everyone used to be excited on days when we could wear “colour dress” instead of the same old boring uniforms. But a few years down the line, the act of finding coordinating, clean, ironed clothes to wear every morning seemed like such a chore-that I almost missed my uniform days!

    Having said that, the feminist in me shrinks back from the idea of being forced to cover up. Although if it was something optional, then maybe it is a good idea to have one-just to save the trouble of changing out of your pyjamas to head to the grocery store down the street or something! Also I’m not sure about Saudi Arabia, but from what I have observed here in the UAE, just because the Emirati women wear abayas doesn’t mean that they are not fashion conscious-far from it! The super high heels (lots of dresses in the market here are super flowy and long-probably to cater to the high-heels), expensive branded handbags, loads of perfume are evident. Most women here don’t cover their faces and their faces are always impeccably made-up with elaborate makeup (I believe its even called “Arabian Eyes”) and whatever little amount of hair that one can see is perfectly styled. I always thought that they put so much effort into their make-up and accessories simply because that is the only way that they can express their fashion sense to the world. Looonngg reply!!

  2. I never thought of it that way. True I too would feel happiest relaxing in a comfortable attire at home and dressing up for the occasion seems cumbersome. But wearing a burqa to escape being properly (Read fashionably)dressed is also not appealing. For me being neatly dressed for an occasion is a way of honoring the host whether fashionable or not.

  3. Anne – exactly; the feminist in me also shrinks from being told what to wear, though at the same time, I also ask myself – why would I hesitate to wear salwar kameez to a club? Isn’t that also an unwritten rule that someone is telling us to follow? It’s not exactly the same of course, but it still troubles me.

    Hip Grandma – I totally agree with being neatly dressed, but sometimes, I feel like young women are expected to look pretty all the time!

  4. Actually Aparna, the feminist in me agrees that no one should tell you what to wear but there is a time and a place for everything. I’d also hesitate to wear a short skirt to a temple. No, no one has a right to tell me what to wear to a temple or a club, but brought down to these terms, its not a feminist problem anyway – even men wouldn’t wear a dhoti to a club or shorts to work. There is always pressure to look a certain way and its not just on women.

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