On the latest Global Pulse episode, host Erin Coker talks about the evolving world of Islamic fashion. Watch the episode below and share your thoughts!
When I was studying in France a few years ago, I taught at a high school in a largely Muslim suburb. One of the most profound rituals of daily life at Voillaume high school happened during the few minutes immediately before and after the school day. Many Muslim girls would arrive at the school gate wearing the traditional Islamic head covering called the hijab, (Arabic for “scarf”). Seconds before entering the gate, they would whip off their hijabs, and they would just as rapidly reapply them as they exited through the gate when the school day ended. The speed and grace with which these girls would take off and put on their hijabs, within feet of the school entrance, fascinated me.
But, why did they have to take them off? Because restrictions passed in 2004 disallow religious head coverings in public schools in France. The French government argues that the wearing of hijabs in public schools is an affront to the concept of “laïcité,” and threatens secular government. The vast majority of Muslim youth I encountered in France, many recent immigrants, cherished the personal liberties that France gave them. In fact, students I spoke with who objected to the policy didn’t frame the headscarf controversy in terms of the government suppressing Islam, but rather as a kind of hypocrisy - the French government limiting the same personal freedoms it claimed to defend.
Nonetheless, they understood the secular nature of the French government and would find the idea of replacing it with an Islamic version as preposterous. Compare this to Iran, where the hijab is compulsory. A new generation of Iranians wants increased freedom from a stifling dress code that has been in place since the Islamic revolution. Simply put, many young women in Iran are sick of religious modesty laws and other limitations on their personal freedoms. Some women are fighting the dress code by following it to the bare minimum. As opposed to wearing the chador – a traditional loose garment covering the entire body (and still worn by Iran’s most religious women), many young Iranian women have adopted modifications that comply with the law but allow a degree of fashion and mobility. These modifications include jackets that sufficiently cover the body but are form fitting and stylish. Some wear hijabs in bright, lively colors instead of traditionally modest monotones. An Iranian journalist who has worked for increased rights for women in Iran, responded to these newer fashions by saying, "It signals that we obey the law, but nothing more than that."
The objectives of women who want to wear hijab in France, and those who would like to moderate it in Iran, are different. But the desire to have freedom to dress as one sees fit is essentially the same. When governments mandate how people can and can’t dress, they aren’t just trying to control what people wear, but how they feel. But does the Iranian government really think that easing restrictions on Islamic dress would instantaneously lead to a rise of Paris Hilton clones, promiscuous activity and the forsaking of Islam? Does the French administration really believe that allowing Muslim schoolgirls to wear the hijab will lead to a sort of “Franganistan,” where women lose all rights and Islam replaces secular governance?
The fact that many French girls reapply the hijab as soon as they leave the gates of school, and that many Iranian women see modesty laws not as a symbol of their relationship with God but as an imposed annoyance, shows the ultimate failure of the social engineering schemes in these two countries. While governments can dictate how people dress, they ultimately can’t change how people feel.