Last week I went to see my friend, Saad Ahmed, do his thing at an open mic in town… it’s one of the things I like to do when I am not glued to my computer screen or locked away in my room sewing. I always like to support local artists (comedy is an artform), and Saad is probably my favorite local comedian (if you ever get a chance to see him, I recommend it). This blog post is credited in part to him for unwittingly implanting the initial idea.
In the setup for one of his jokes, Saad brings up having seen a fashion show in the middle east with all the women wearing burkas. This got me wondering if there actually was such a thing… There IS! And contrary to the remark within Saad’s joke, it is nowhere near boring. 🙂
Whether you realize it or not, when you get up in the morning and get dressed for the day, the clothes that you wear speak to other people and the rest of society about who you are. Our clothes are a form of non-verbal communication. They communicate information such as our age, our gender (whichever we identify with), what kind of work we do (sometimes how much money we have or don’t have), what part of the country or the world we come from, and sometimes, as in the case of the burka, we communicate our religion as well.
The burka is perhaps one of the most expressive and talkative of all wardrobes. There is so much that is connected to the burka.. politics, religion, women’s issues, oppression/freedom, deep and rich histories.. who on this planet does not hold some manner of fascination for the burka?
What you can wear, what you can’t wear
At it’s root, the burka is meant to provide modesty for Muslim women. It is loose clothing that covers the body, the head and sometimes the face as well. While the Koran never specifies the need to wear a burka, it does cite the need for modesty, and for a lot of Muslim women around the world, there are indeed a wider range of options. A lot of the Muslim women I went to college with wore nice abayas and hijabs, some also wore their hijabs with jeans and a shirt. I also know women who don’t really even wear hijab most of the time. There are places where full burkas are enforced, such as places in Afghanistan, and places where burkas are forbidden, such as Syrian schools and there have been a lot of controversies concerning burkas in France. (I remember reading a story last year about a woman in a burkini getting kicked off a French beach.)
Burka as a Fashion Statement
In the summer of 2008, Iran held a government approved fashion show (1) in which they tried to enliven the expression of women’s attire while still keeping with the law. While I’m not entirely sure what women in Iran would chose to wear if there were no strict dress code in place, and I doubt that Culture and Islamic Orientation Minister Saffar Harandi was really getting into the women’s psyche in his feelings that, as source 1 states, “the show ‘freed’ Iranian women from the ‘shackles’ of the western fashion industry”, he does have a valid point for consideration. While western women (like myself) are supposedly free to wear what we want to, even we are pressured to conform to a social image and are confined either to what we have access to buy or are able to make for ourselves (if we know how). I know that I have often felt uncomfortable clothes shopping because mainstream women’s clothes in America are meant to hug your body, sit low (low-rider jeans, v-neck shirts), and more or less sexualize you. I wore men’s pants and baggy shirts for the longest time and still dread going swimming as I feel eternally self-conscious in even a one piece swimsuit. (Maybe I might opt for one of those burkinis myself, heh).
Probably as a rebellious comment upon the burka bans in France, I have come across a number of burkas and burka inspired pieces coming from French designers like Jean-Charles de Castelbajac and Marithé François Girbaud (3). Of course, while it could be argued that some of these designs are offensive in that they steal another’s cultural dress and distort it to suit their needs/desires (don’t act like it hasn’t been done before multiple times by almost everyone, it’s part of cultural diffusion. Look at Japanese Lolita outfits sometime.), I think that these designs are coming as a reaction to the ban (or proposed ban.. haven’t been able to pin down how far it went, someone enlighten me) actually goes in the favor of Muslim rights.
Perhaps my favorite of all the sites and articles I have come across is Burka Meets Haute Couture.
Lela Ahmadzai is an Afghani woman who, while having left and attended school outside Afghanistan, is proud of and in touch with her heritage. As part of a diploma project, she designed a series of outfits that reached out and bridged her Afghani self with the western world she was living in. I find her pieces both beautiful and inspirational… truly, this is fine art.
2) http://abcnews.go.com/International/popup?id=4421425 -The Burqa Gets a Makeover
4) http://www.celebuzz.com/mias-fashion-burka-yay-nay-s263081/ -M.I.A. Wears a Burka to Promote Album
6) http://relijournal.com/islam/the-burqa-facts-issues/ – Very informative and serious article addressing the facts about the burka
7) http://www.burkameetshautecouture.com/hm_englisch.htm – Lela Ahmadzai’s diploma project addressing fashion and her Afghani heritage. Very beautiful and Highly recommended!