From Bikinis to Burqas, the Feminist Politics of Clothing

Sarah Seltzer

How can so many American feminists have come out against a burqa ban in France? The answer is that singling out the burqa as the only article of clothing patriarchal enough to merit legal regulation is racist.

How can so many American feminists have come out against a
burqa ban in France (as they largely
when the burqa, along with other excessively modest religious garb, appears to
be a classic tool of gender oppression?

The answer is that singling out the burqa as the only
article of clothing patriarchal enough to merit legal regulation – or even
strident criticism – is racist. Critique of women’s clothing, from burqas to
cleavage, is
often leveraged for other purposes, whether they be religious, cultural or
political, and should be called out when it’s faux feminism
, as Aziza Ahmed
argued here on Rewire.

But it’s also true that almost every cultural or religious
group sets standards of appearance that oppress women. Most fashion, from the
corset of yore to the bikini to the FLDS prairie dress to the Nike sneaker
(made by women in sweatshops, marketed to Western women), tends
to hew in some way to patriarchal norms. So the quandary we grapple with, as
feminists, is how to acknowledge that fact
without alienating,
targeting or harassing
groups of women for the way they dress.

Remember the
Manolo Blahnik pinkie toe-removal phenomenon
, which hearkens back to
Cinderella’s stepsisters in terms of the lengths women go to mutilate
themselves on the altar of fashion? Imagine if we outlawed those heels for fear
that some women would shorten their pinkie toes.  In each instance of an oppressive custom of
dress or beauty, it’s right to support those feminists who debate it. It is also
crucial to examine the implications for women and for gender roles of dressing
one way or another – it’s a clear example of the personal being political. But
we have to do that without punishing or shaming women for their choice of
outfit, as the French would seek to do.

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Rather than single out other people’s problematic dress, we
should all be engaged in a robust critique and examination of the way gender
norms inform beauty standards everywhere. In France, a country that many of its
citizen claim is paradoxically so sexually liberated the burqa isn’t welcome, American-style
short-shorts are still a novelty, for instance, likely to garner stares or
catcalls. Women there tend to dress marginally more modestly than they do in
America – except on beaches, where topless bathing is accepted. Evidently, the
pressure to cover up, or to uncover, in various contexts may be stronger than
we think, even in "free" Western countries.

Here in secular/commercialized America, women try to live up
to a prepubescent ideal, buying into a diet industry that’s a racket and causes
eating disorders, using chemical bleaches on our hair, and undergoing
sometimes-painful waxing, peeling or plastic surgeries to look eternally young,
slim and buxom. The beauty myth has always been part of our culture, but as
feminist commentators like Naomi Wolf and Susan J. Douglas have noted, the craze
for ever-smaller female bodies coincided with women taking up a more space in
the workplace. Some women claim that restrictive fashion trends, obsessive
calorie-counting and makeup make them feel great, but both women who love it
and those who loathe it are spending money and energy on their looks in a way
that most men simply don’t have to. The
Daily Show played with this idea last week:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Burka Ban
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day


And yes, in conservative communities of all denominations
(and non-religious ones as well) modest dressing restrictions treat all women
like jezebels, so unendingly sexual and distracting that their figures must be
kept out of sight. Such garb – even if it has different meanings for different
wearers – reinforces a misogynist ideal that puts the burden on women to cover up
rather than men to avert their gaze.

This isn’t meant to equivocate between all patriarchal
fashion or grooming trends – (certainly, styles that are restrictive or unhealthy
are worse than those that are just silly), but to point out that they exist on
a spectrum. Feminists stand up for women at either end of the spectrum even
when both ends do have pernicious
aspects. Yes, we criticize "porn culture" at the same time as excoriating the
"modesty movement." But then we should also support women kicked off airplanes
for wearing outfits deemed too skimpy – and rush to defend women denied jobs
because they choose to wear the hijab.

Just because feminists acknowledge the problematic roots of
a practice doesn’t mean that we can, or want, to bully it away. The way humans
dress is an extension of our self-expression, our identity and an indication of
how we align ourselves in terms of community norms and expectations. Attacks on
individual clothing or grooming choices often feel deeply personal and can put
people on the defensive.

The truth is, rarely will clothing choices not be loaded,
complex and full of contradictions – here in the US we have cheerleaders and
beauty queens in suggestive outfits who wear chastity rings, and religious
women who accent their modest clothing with perfume and Botox while toting a
copy of Gender Trouble. Oppressive
mainstream beauty standards may make modest clothing appealing, while
puritanical religious customs may spur women to express their sexuality by
stripping down. It’s not so easy to reject patriarchal standards in their entirety
– if we didn’t shave, wax, or wear makeup (or at times, conceal the fact that we don’t) in strategic ways, we may well have a
much harder time taken seriously by the world (except if the world were a
hippie commune).

Open, nonjudgmental discussion of these complexities may
lead some women to turn towards comfort and away from custom–ditch their high
heels or experiment with less modest clothing. But at the end of the day,
different women have different reactions to what they wear. The feminist group Ni
Putes Ni Soumises and other
Muslim women have taken a convincingly strong stance against the burqa

while some burqa wearers say it’s
a choice they make freely
. Many women get a rush of happiness from high
heels while other women curse them and wish their workplace was more accepting
of less chic footwear.

That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and refuse to
examine the meaning and history of clothing styles and fashion expectations – we
should. It’s important to note which styles of dressing get women rewarded in
patriarchal societies and why. But when we do delve, we should delve holistically,
not focus mono-maniacally on habits-literally-of other women.

Reproductive rights advocates strive for a society where
choice means getting rid of social and legal obstacles to reproductive health
access instead of criticizing women’s individual reproductive decisions.
When feminists talk about clothing we try to focus on getting rid of the
gender, race and class expectations that feed into the way we dress and how we judge
women’s appearance.
We need to continue to target the pressure, coercion,
and legal and social compulsion that affects women, not women themselves. And
imposing laws that regulate clothing does not accomplish that goal, but curtails
women’s freedom even more seriously.

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