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Denim and Black Cloth: Feminism and Female Expression

Last week, I talked about my position on skin-lightening creams. Even as I wrote that post, I was bursting with contradictions. Some include:

Is it a woman's right to do that to her body?*
Are people using these products uninformed about the consequences and the societal expectations informing their choices? If not, what makes them choose to use it?

And, most importantly: Are fashion choices sanctioned by feminism, even when they are considered destructive?

Thinking of fashion from a feminist perspective is a tricky feat. There are feminists on both sides of the burqa debate; there are those that find mini-skirts and booty shorts just as offensive or progressive. In many senses, fashion can be liberating or constricting.

As we go into a season where people come out of their thick layers and begin using their clothing to express all different messages, I want to explore this single question:

How does feminism intersect with fashion and what are the consequences?

*I know that men also use skin-lightening creams, but for the purposes of this post I would like to restrict it to women.

Feminism has broadly been interested in women having control and options. American feminists focus on the sexual politics surrounding job markets and abortions, while global feminists try to break the confinements of the home and the view that women are subordinate. Similar mission, different approaches. And different outlooks on how a feminist should show off her stripes - individual choices are key in each context.

The personal certainly does get political when it comes to clothing and fashion. The motivation behind wearing a denim mini-skirt or a burqa may seem extremely different, yet each of these articles of clothing can be construed as a political statement working towards the same ends, though neither woman wearing them might acknowledge their shared struggle. Tanmeet Sethi explains that struggle well to two Western white women in an essay she wrote, anthologized in Colonize This!:

"I explain that many women in the world use the burkha as a symbol of power, as a statement of their value system. Women who wear the burkha refuse to be judged by their body or face. They want to be seen as another being, not as a sexual object. In this way, the burkha can be a tool of empowerment. The women across from me listen with blank faces and confused stares… I pity them; their oppression is so subtle they cannot even recognize it."


In this way, Western women are looking on at burqa-wearing women as oppressed, while burqa-wearing women are looking on at Western women as sexual objects. Yet each of them clamors for a greater perception of women as owners of their own bodies. Those who make the choices about what they wear. These two styles could be considered on the same side of the Venn diagram, if only they chose to reach out and see the others' logic (and by no means do they have to agree).

I wish that we did not create a divide between women based on their chosen outward appearance. I wish that we could see that the other party has motivations and agency just as we do, and I wish we would ask them about it. When feminists, all of whom proclaim choice as their moniker, support clearly anti-choice measures such as the complete burqa ban in France, tensions rise on other levels beyond gender. It becomes a war of colonized and colonizers, race, and class - where opinions of those higher in the hierarchy are imposed upon those at lower rungs.

No choice should go unquestioned, but many privileged feminists dictate the "right" choice without even asking the proper questions.

How have you seen feminism interact with fashion? How would you answer the question of choice and scrutiny? Let me know your opinions in the comment.

I encourage you to check out my posts Oops, Your Islamophobia is Showing and Discrimination and Mixed Metaphors for more discussion of this topic.
You may also be interested in some of my feminist book reviews, including Colonize This! and Click: Moments When We Knew We Were Feminists.

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Tags: Muslim, burqa, choice, fashion, feminism

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Comment by Malcolm R. Johnson on June 21, 2011 at 7:08pm
I am a male who thinks this was a very interesting post and I will pass it on to a friend who has just started a women's collective for their discussion meetings. My original feeling about 'burqua banning' was that it was a logical terrorism defense and also that wearing a burqua was a regulation from 'control freak' men and governments. If the women were truly free, I would say it is fine if they want to wear a burqua but if it is required by 'law', then the women should not even think about wearing one.

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