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 and conversations to create change. She has been writing since she was ten. In another life, she used to be read more...
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