Freedom of expression is taken for granted. In a world of western individualist liberalism, we see our right to expression as sanctioned by the state and the law, and ignore the fact that most of the infringements on our right to expression are imposed on us by the laws of society. For this reason, ‘fashion’ as we’ve come to know it exists as the signifier of trends and socially acceptable norms that allow us to take part in the discourse of materialism, and as such the concept of ‘fashion’ as taken by most participants in modern society is deterministic in its very nature – even if not explicitly, but always implicitly affecting our choice of dress. Even contemporary individualists like Alasdair MacIntyre have conceded that western philosophers’ purist notions of individualism and existentialism hold a certain naiveté in the context of the inescapable pressures of our own historical and societal bonds, and so it should not be surprising to come to a conclusion that engaging in sartorial choices is, in all cultures, not much of an act of free will. For example, if today you decided to go to work, or school, without wearing any clothing – expressing yourself in your true natural state which is nothing but an exercise of free will – numerous instruments of society would coincide to stop you: a conduct detention or suspension, the threat of losing your job as your employer fears for your sanity and perhaps the most condemning of all, the judgmental gazes of the masses of people trained to accept clothing as the only possible mode of dress that will burn your skin more than your bare butt sitting on a metal railing at 12 noon. Let’s face it – when it comes to fashion, those of us needing to function within communities have no free will.
Yet when we consider something like the Burqa, another form of clothing worn in middle-eastern societies, the voice inside our liberal, educated minds screams out “Women should not be forced to wear Burqas! It is denying their free will!” Why, though, when we have already come to the conclusion that in all societies, free will in our sartorial choices is nothing but a myth? The inability to answer this question led to the same confusion that gripped America when, upon ostensibly deposing Taliban rule in George Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ as western neoliberal emancipators rode in on their white horses looking to “unveil this form of anticivilization” (STANFILL, Francesca, 2002), millions of middle eastern women failed to unveil themselves. The fall of the Taliban meant that the law no longer bound them to the Burqa and yet, the Burqa as the material representation of the suppression of women did not disappear, despite some Muslim women now making the conscious ‘choice’ to wear them.
The main reason why the Burqa is as yet still so reviled has its roots in centuries of imperialist knowledge upon which ideological sartorial logic as propagated by Western media is built upon. Media exposure familiarized the Burqa as a sign of absolute alterity – necessarily contrary to women’s freedom - and it was an easy one to enforce: what could be more un-American, more un-Western than the black, head-to-toe covering of the Burqa? It was transformed into a commodity used to sell news, films, documentaries and magazines by providing a clear Us/Them dichotomy with readily associated and institutionalized signs. “The Taliban’s Veil of Terror” allowed for the cultural and state production of the Burqa-clad Afghan woman as a sign of anti-liberal gender and sexual oppression, which substantiated the humanitarian justification for the war in Afghanistan. (PHAM, Minh-Ha T, 2011) The concept of the “uncivilized savage” that provided moral grounds for colonialism as explored by Edward Said in his 1977 book ‘Orientalism’ can be closely paralleled with constructions of the Burqa and it’s severe infringement on women’s rights that necessitated an American invasion to bring an individualist, Western, ‘civilized’ freedom to the middle-east.
The effect we feel today, even in Asian society and within this international community, is the complete normalization of western clothing. With the Burqa posited as the symbol of absolute oppression, the alternative in this dichotomy must be the ‘freedom’ offered by clothing representative of the society opposing this oppression: T-shirts, short skirts, jeans and the like. Why the Vogue-sponsored projects such as “Beauty Without Borders”, where beauty skills were taught to Afghan women, were seen as the means for neo-liberal emancipation was because the media’s portrayal of the Burqa as foreign and unintelligible means that these women have to be integrated into the readily understood system of signs before they can be interpreted and considered as ‘real people’ by our modern, incredibly westernized definition. This leaves us neo-liberals with the terrible irony of the conditions which open women up to objectification – the show of skin, the make-up and the normalcy of the painted face – becoming the very conditions which lead to the possibility of subject-hood for women under the Burqa. Is it, then, morally superior to wear western clothing? Defining a person through their appearance is, according to most western tales and proverbs, not exactly the best way to go. Therefore, the hypocrisy here is that western versions of normality were so influenced by societal pressures that they became incongruous with their versions of morality, and these values imprisoned the population just as the Burqa had apparently imprisoned Afghan women against their will.
The normalization of cultural values that aren’t always right can be paralleled with the more relevant issue of short skirts and uniforms. Movies focusing on high school ‘cliques’ and teenage dramas have since the dawn of time portrayed ‘The Popular Kids’ wearing the short skirts, and it’s no wonder that the sexualisation of the teenager in the media has trickled down into the normalization of short skirts in school uniform. When various schools, including my own, sought to reverse this normalization and in its place institute more conservative forms of dress, the reaction from students in favor of ‘freedom of choice’ for females expressed a similar sentiment to that shown by the neo-liberal emancipators: objectification of women, in this case through the short skirt, has become the sole discourse for the freedom of women. Perhaps something to consider is, what kind of freedom is that? Freedom from school rules, but slavery to the dictates of society. For example, objective arguments leveled against the Burqa as a form of female suppression criticized its physical restrictiveness, yet the short skirt – apparently a form of female emancipation – has the same physical restrictiveness: running is ruled out because the short skirt flies up in the wind, walking up the stairs becomes an exercise in precaution or embarrassment and truly one is forced to sit like a lady, as if it were the 18thcentury, if one is to avoid one’s underwear being shown. Banning the short skirt is sexist, yet wearing the short skirt may be an even graver subjugation to gender roles.
Condemning or championing the short skirt or the Burqa is really only subject to cultural norms, as we all are. There is a reason that existentialism hasn’t survived into the 21st century, and that is because man (and woman) is not free to do what he or she chooses – we are members of a community, either descendants from that family or nationals from that country or students of this school, and the social and historical bonds we carry with us mean that freedom of choice is denied. In the teenage world of high school fashion there is perhaps no more deterministic a force than society, and in this context, freedom of choice is only vacillation between different norms.
written by somethingvain