The fashion world presents itself as a bastion of Western progress and women's liberation. Rena Niamh Smith discusses fashion's treatment of Muslim women and questions its legitimacy.
The portrayal of Middle Eastern women in the film Sex and the City 2 and Vogue sheds light on a peculiar but nonetheless irritating perception of Muslim women that persists in the West.
Sex and the City 2, released in 2009, depicts a scene in which Carrie and Samantha, the two most “fashion-conscious” of the four protagonists, are saved from a violent fracas in the market into the safety of a hidden room up a near-by alleyway by some local ladies.
There, with eyes full of wonder and hushed voices, the liberated women from New York are told by these oh-so-repressed Eastern ladies of the awe and respect they hold for Western fashion.
Pulling back dusty burkas, they reveal head-to-toe outfits of glittering designer garb – Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Dior – seeming like pioneers of glamour against the previous scene of mucky, shabby chaos in the market.
So far, so irritating. More recently, the January 2012 issue of British Vogue carried the feature title on its cover “Postcard from Libya”. Of course, Vogue is hardly known for its cutting edge news reports, but with a relatively intelligent readership, it presented the article as such.
However it was not political events, but the personal experience of some women who evidently belong to an elite class of diplomats and business people that were the subjects. Like the SATC2 scene, there was definitely a thread of “our sisters in consumerism”.
Interesting as it was, the report on women’s experiences contained such things as an interview with Sina Ahmed, who sent out videos of atrocities online when she saw that the news reports of the repression of the Libyan uprising weren’t accurate enough; and women who were horrified to discover their children’s indoctrination by pro-Gadaffi teachers.
The report was peppered with phrases such as “we all wore make-up every day. If you feel good, it’s easier to be brave” and “Ibtihal and Amira Nayed couldn’t go out at night because of Nato bombing and the threat of kidnap. Instead, they would get together and hold breakfast parties, often wearing full make-up, designer outfits and heels.”
Admittedly, people’s survival tactics will match the life they already lead, but the main focus of the article was the way rich women used indulgence, and while the politics were vague, the attention to Western clothing brands they liked and exercise rituals they did were detailed.
Their bravery at baking cupcakes, donning Louboutins and “reading up on antioxidants” was lauded as if they’d saved a school-full of children from execution by pro-Gadaffi forces at point blank range.
As in SATC2, Middle Eastern women are heralded as new age revolutionaries by the West for carrying the torch of consumerism against a dour and even dangerous backdrop.
Who knows, if there was a revolution in Britain tomorrow, perhaps some of my more fashion-obsessed friends would do the same thing. Maybe we would all bury our heads in the escapism of choice. But there was almost a sense of the Noble Savage here, that these poor things didn’t know what else to do but prostrate themselves in front of the altar of material wealth. Simple things for simple people.
Inasmuch as one can generalise, fashion loves what is considered illicit, there is no doubt about it. Paris Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld sparked controversy by casting model Lily Donaldson, cigarette in hand, in a shoot that used motherhood as a theme, posing with a prosthetic pregnancy bump and pram.
There are the badly kept cocaine secrets, the flippant attitudes to weight loss at any cost, white models blacked up in magazines well into the 21st century while black models remain almost invisible. There is a desire to shock; Galliano’s outburst was less to do with extremist politics than a politics of extremes.
Indeed, exclusivity, in fashion and capitalism generally, is the highest prize of all. The trend no-one else is wearing yet, the brands no-one else can afford, the limited edition piece no-one else could get.
The report also details Libyan women’s difficulties procuring sanitary towels; the idea that the fruits of the Western fashion and beauty industry themselves, from an Always tampon to Loewe jeans, could be so illicit as to be threatened by war makes a heady cocktail that confirms that West is Best.
There is certainly a jet set of the Middle East which enjoys a very opulent and showy display of wealth in places like Dubai, but only confusion between this and the prevailing notion of Middle Eastern women as miserably oppressed gives credit to these two Orientalist fantasies.
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