Sunday, July 12, 2009

“To bring a little bit of liberty to Muslim women” or how the Abaya got a makeover by top French designers.


It is Paris fashion week. Several designers showcased their new collection with glamour and prestige this week in Paris. There was the very “ose“ Christian Lacroix show where models wearing both underwear and haute couture clothes at the same time, were seen. And let us not forget about Jean Paul Gaultier who once again mesmerized us with a collection inspired by Great actresses of Hollywood and France such as Brigitte Bardot or Marilyn Monroe.

All those shows were interested but one show in particular caught my attention. It was a fashion show about Abaya, the black cloak Saudi women wear when they leave their house. The show was organized by the general manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in Saudi Arabia Dania Tarhini. She invited several designers such as John Galliano (Christian Dior's artistic director) , French luxury labels Nina Ricci and Jean Claude Jitrois and Italian houses Blumarine and Alberta Feretti to redesign the Abaya. She stated that since many Saudi women liked to wear designer clothes underneath their black Abaya, it was only fair that they got a designer Abaya.

This fashion show come at a very interesting time in France. In fact, just days before, President Sarkozy stated that the port of the Burqa, a cloak that hides even the face, was forbidden in French territory. He said that it made women prisoners. So imagine, how hard it was for those designers to redesign the Abaya without raising any polemics. After the show some of them were interviewed. They stated that they accepted this challenge to redesign the Abaya because it gives them an opportunity to “bring a little liberty to Muslim women”

Being a Muslim woman, I was shocked and hurt by those words. I found it very pretentious that some fashion designers by creating new style of Abaya hope to emancipate the Muslim woman. Who do they think they are? What do they know about the Muslim woman? Are they sure that wearing the Abaya for the Muslim woman is a sign of oppression?

I do not wear the Abaya (except for some colorful version I wear as going out clothes) but I try to cover myself under the norms that were dictated to me by my religion. That does not make me an oppressed woman. I am free to do what I want, when I want it. I am free to go where I please. I am independent and no one is forcing me to wear the veil. I chose to do so on my own. I was not influenced or forced. Therefore, how can people think that I am oppressed just by looking at my veil? Who gave them the right to want to “free” me? Moreover, do they really believe that by creating sexier and flashier Abaya, they will help “liberate” Abaya wearing women?


The port of the Burqa has been a hot topic in France all this summer. President Sarkozy decided that he would not allow it in France, because he sees it as a sign of oppression for Muslim Women. As a Muslim woman I am not necessarily for the port of the Burqa, which I find extreme. I can understand why it shocks people who see it for the first time. (I was shocked when I saw it for the first time) It reminds them of the Afghan women under the Taliban regime. Moreover, the Burqa looks so strict that those people cannot help but think that women who wear it must be miserable.
Nevertheless, I think that those people should not judge Burqa wearing women. They should try to understand why they chose to wear it, where is its origin instead of deciding what should and what should not be. I was ashamed to discover that even in France, which is a country that believes in the liberty of expression, the port of the Burqa is an issue. But it is not surprising considering that in the past, France forbade the port of the Hijab in administrative places stating that it infringed with the laicity of the country. I know of many Muslim women who were obliged to stop wearing the veil just to be able to live in peace in that country. This is such a big contradiction with the French slogan: “Liberty, equality and brotherhood”.
I think that in reality the port of the Hijab or the Burqa in France is such a big deal because French people are afraid of “integration”. For many years France has found a problem with foreigners who were migrating in the country. They were trying to model them in the perfect type of French man. However, even if those people –who are coming from different horizons- “integrate” French values, we cannot force them to forget about theirs. It does not make sense. Why is it so wrong to want to perpetuate once value even outside once country? We are not one entity. We do not resemble each other. We are all different, and it is that difference that makes the world interesting.
France compared to other countries of the free world is lagging behind in the sense of liberty of expression. In England, and even in the States, Muslim people are freer to practice than in France. I remember that when I started to wear the veil, my mother was scared for me. She was worried that I may face issues in the United States. However, up to now I have not had any problems at all for wearing the Hijab, either at my workplace, at the airports or even outside.

Fashion has been liberating for years. It went hand in hand with revolutions in many countries. For example, in the China of 1940s the port of what we call now the Mao suit was synonymous of change and acceptation of the Communist Party. What we wear has always been a sign of who we are, even though it is recommended never to judge someone by its clothes. For many Muslim young women, wearing a veil is a sign of liberation, a way of letting the world know who they are and what they represent. But wearing the Hijab, Abaya or Burqa is not a fashion statement; it is a religious statement.

I would never give a group of designers the power to “change the world” just because they created new styles of Abaya. The irony of it all is that what they are doing is nothing new. Many Muslim designers have been trying to “relook” the Abaya for years. I have seen many Abaya wearing women in the past. And even though the Abaya they had on were all black, they had a design of their own that made them stand out. Therefore, I cannot help but laugh when I see French designers attempt for a “good cause” to do something that has been done before. It is so ignorant and pretentious of them. Moreover, they are doing all this under false pretenses. We all know it is all about the Saudi women money that they are after. Saudi women like designer clothes and accessories, and they spend huge amount of money to get them. Therefore, what Saks Fifth Avenue and those designers are trying to do is to get more clients. With this economic crisis, they have to reinvent themselves if they want to stay afloat. And considering that one Abaya would be retailed for $2500 in Saudi cities starting this September, it is a very juicy market.

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