Fashion: A Sign of Liberation or Oppression?

In an imagined essay* by Carrie Bradshaw about her trip to the Middle East, she writes:

We felt just awful for those poor Arab women. We saw the way they looked longingly at our glamorous and vibrant couture. The difference between those women and us is that we look fabulous under oppression! We can get through the world of men getting us down because at least we can pick our clothes and drink cocktails by the pool.  We didn’t really get to talk to many Arab women on the trip, but the ones that rescued us were completely jealous of the fact that we could leave the house in our couture and they couldn’t.

This post is not about defending Muslim women and their way of life.  What it is about is the idea that Western women feel free because they can dress and behave however they want.

You’re probably thinking, Exactly!

But think about it for a minute. What’s the main reason we think that that Muslim women are oppressed? Because of the way that they dress. We don’t know, and don’t care to know, the first thing about their lives besides what they wear. The mere fact that they cover up convinces us that they must not be free to do the things that Western women take for granted.

But if we think that being “allowed” to sit around the pool in our bikinis drinking cocktails means that we’re not oppressed, we’re sadly mistaken. We’re just distracted from noticing it.

Some Muslim apologists insist that it is Western women who are enslaved by their culture and its demands on them to be sexy and Muslim women who are liberated because they don’t have to worry about what they look like. There’s some truth in what they say, but they’re missing the point. It’s not what women wear that signifies oppression or freedom. It’s whether or not they have the same opportunities that men do.

Some (usually younger) feminists are practically giddy about what they see as all their options. “The real feminist is not the woman who rejects her femininity; it’s the woman who celebrates it!” they cry. They think that spending loads of money on their hair, make-up, pretty little frocks and designer shoes and bags is a sign of self-esteem—and liberation. They see “old-fashioned” feminists in much the same light as they see Muslim women: as being trapped by their own values into becoming mere shadows of real women.

They may have a point as well. But the truth is, as long as women are kept busy debating fashion, they’re not noticing the real oppression in their lives. The female professional may make enough money to afford her physical upkeep, but is she making as much as the males alongside her? Is she getting promotions at the same rate and for the same, or even better, performance? Is she held back when she has children (or even just because she can have them)  in a way that men aren’t?

Being well-dressed doesn’t mean we’re not oppressed.

* “The Lobby for Abu Dhabi – An Essay by Carrie Bradshaw” by Sara on Muslimah Media Watch