The Politics of Dress Double Standards in the Headscarf Debate

When cultures clash, women's clothing is often at the center of the debate. While for Western women, the issue is how much skin they should be allowed to show, for Muslims the focus is on how much they must show.

A woman wearing a headscarf in Turkey

A woman wearing a headscarf in Turkey

An Essay by

In Iranian archives, there is a collection of photos from the late 1930s. They show women and men dressed in European clothing, and the women are not wearing a chador or headscarf. The images are oddly troublesome: Some women look at the camera in horror, while others have their gazes affixed to the ground. The photos are of Iranian aristocratic families, taken at the instruction of Shah Reza Khan at the height of his campaign to unveil his country's women. He wanted Iran to become a modern country, Western-oriented, and he saw the chador as a symbol of its backwardness. The ban was far more violently enforced on the streets of Tehran than the burkini ban on French beaches. Women's chadors were ripped off in broad daylight.

Back then, the women were undressed in the name of modernization. In recent weeks, similar incidents occurred on French beaches, because women in burkinis allegedly posed a threat to the modern, Western lifestyle. Yet it is only a little more than half a century ago that women on European beaches could be issued a fine, not for wearing too much but too little. When the bikini came onto the market 70 years ago, it was no less controversial than the burkini. In fact, it was initially banned almost worldwide.

Then as now, the female body is a focal point of the battle between tradition and modernity. The liberation from the corset to the fight over trousers, the debates over miniskirts, hot pants, bikinis and headscarves: Women's clothing has repeatedly been regulated, stipulated and proscribe, with men issuing decrees and bans relating to what women wear. In Europe, the dispute has tended to focus on how much skin women are allowed to show. Now, though, it is about how much skin they are required to show.

Specific Social Morals

Clothing, our second skin, is deeply personal. And it is political. It is an expression of identity, making a statement about character and personality, social status and worldview, profession, age and gender. Whether someone wears a frilly blouse or a tank top, jogging pants or a tuxedo, pumps, vegan sandals or riding boots, clothing is always a message we use to belong or distance ourselves, seduce or deter. Clothing conforms or rebels. Those who prescribe or ban certain types of clothing for women want to change society or preserve specific social morals. To this day, women are not supposed to decide for themselves what they wear, because their clothing is a symbolic battlefield. A man drives a truck into a crowd on the Nice waterfront esplanade and kills 86 people -- whereupon women in Cannes, 33 kilometers (21 miles) away are banned from wearing the burkini.

Today, we are trying to determine our relationship to Islam by way of our attitudes to the headscarf, burqa and burkini. We define the burqa and the headscarf as symbols. But of what, exactly? Of the oppression of women in Islam, or of their protest against the dominance of the West? The veil can be many things. It can be a sign of a man's claim to ownership of his wife, ensuring that other men are unable to look at her. It can be a woman's message to men that she is not available. But it can also be seductive, like the colorful headscarves worn by some, who combine it with loud makeup, skin-tight coats and high heels, so that they end up being chaste on top and sexy down below.

"The burqa debate," says literary scholar Barbara Vinken, "affords us a new look at our own gender order in public." Men and women in Western cultures are likewise in no way on an equal footing, she adds. Men wear suits, with only their faces visible, and an erotic message is rarely associated with male clothing. For a long time, men did not want women to dress the way they did. They weren't in favor of women wearing the pants, which stood for power, success and credibility. German Chancellor Angela Merkel wears pantsuits, as do most of the female cabinet ministers. To this day, a woman is more likely to be taken seriously in Germany if she wearing a pantsuit than a skirt.

The Male Gaze

The burqa debate confronts us with our own insecurities. Just how self-determined is female fashion in the West? To what extent is it shaped by social constraints, group pressure, conventions, shows like "Germany's Next Top Model" and the dictates of the fashion industry? The feminist movement is still divided over whether the visible female body, bare skin and the miniskirt are actually signs of freedom or if they degrade women into sex objects.

It comes down to the male gaze, certainly in Islam. Traditionally, the veil (hijab) was a curtain that protected Mohammed's wives from the gaze of his visitors. Islamic culture differs fundamentally from Western culture in that it covers up things that are precious. There are no images in mosques, and certainly no icons. Visibility and transparency do not have positive connotations; the preference is for the hidden, the invisible and the indirect. The veil signifies esteem. Poorer women had to work, and how can a woman work in the fields wearing the chador? It was the clothing of wealthy, privileged women.

But the enlightened West is also willing to make allowances for the covetous male glance. The ability to control one's yearning, oft touted as a civilizational advantage of the Western man, likewise has its limits. A year ago, Germany was embroiled in a brief but heated debate over hot pants in schools. A principal in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg wrote a letter to parents arguing that the ultra-short shorts should be banned in her school. She argued that male students and teachers should not be distracted in class by overt displays of the charms of female students.

And not long ago, my 15-year-old daughter brought home a letter from her physical education teacher. The letter, which required a parent's signature, stated that parents should pledge to ensure that their daughters wore sufficiently decent clothing in PE. Bare bellies are verboten, and so are spaghetti straps. According to the letter, girls should have at least three finger widths of material on each shoulder. It sounded as if the school would prefer to see girls wear burkinis in relay races. The school argued that the measure was necessary because it would prevent boys from injuring themselves. "Otherwise, they might run into something!" the physical education teacher explained to the girls. And yet, there are no rules for the boys, who are allowed to show up shirtless on the playing field. The girls were furious: How unfair is that?

Whatever a Woman Chooses

Still, men's clothing too has periodically been regulated by the state throughout history. The most famous example is Kemal Atatürk's hat revolution. Like the veil and the headscarf, the traditional male head covering also became a symbol of backwardness in 1920s Turkey. In his famous hat speech, Atatürk touted Western-style hats, and it was followed by a legal decree that stated: "The general head covering of the Turkish population is the hat, and the government forbids the continuation of a contradictory habit." For women, the headscarf and veil were banished from public life, and they were banned in schools, universities and government service. The return the headscarf under current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is thus not just a sign of Islamization, but also of protest against an authoritarian, secular state.

In the last century, the battle over clothing was a conflict between tradition and modernity, but now it is overlaid with the contrast between Islam and the West. Outside the West, clothing was often associated with the search for a unique, non-Western identity. The goal was to preserve traditions or to develop a separate modern age. This is embodied by the Mao jacket and the Nehru shirt, as well as modern Muslim women's fashion. Globalization led to the triumphal march of Western fashion brands around the world. From suits and ties to jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, the Western style of clothing seems to have become universal. However, globalization also incorporates the reverse movement, as foreign clothing appears on our streets and in schools. We see it as demarcation and provocation, and as signs of the failure of integration efforts. We fight over the headscarf.

Nowhere has the headscarf debate been waged as bitterly as in France. As long ago as 1989, in the so-called headscarf affair, three girls were expelled from school for refusing to remove their headscarves. In 2004, the government enacted a general headscarf ban in public primary and secondary schools, and the burqa was banned in 2011. There are also now laws in Germany regulating where women are permitted to wear the headscarf and where not. The battle over the headscarf shows us the limits of our own, enlightened liberalism. Suddenly we no longer know just how liberal we want to be. We disguise our own illiberality with the claim of wanting to liberate the women of other cultures.

Perhaps capitalism will prevail in the end, and in this instance, it might not be such a bad thing. Western fashion labels are now designing Muslim fashion. DKNY was one of the first, with its 2014 Ramadan Collection. Conversely, oriental fashion is also influencing Western fashion designers. Perhaps we will see the rise of a global non-dress code, in which essentially everything goes - including whatever a woman chooses to wear.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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donnaelvira 09/09/2016
1. Article totally misses the point
This article, like many others I have seen on the subject, totally misses the real issue which, in the case of France (where I live) it to keep religion as much as possible out of the public domain. In the case of Islamic dress codes the issue is made all the bigger as there is a very determined effort under way by the Salafist movement to impose Islamic rules : dress codes,Halal food, segregation of the sexes, polygamy, content of science courses in schools..., everywhere Muslims come into contact with the rest of French society. The fear in France today (where Muslims represent about 10% of the population in total but much, much higher percentages in certain neighbourhoods in almost all of our major cities) is the more we give in to such demands, the more such demands are pressed (if you give an inch they take a mile...). Since the majority of non-Muslims actually find little to like about the Muslim faith and a lot to dislike in the present very tense context, keeping ostentatious displays of belonging to this faith out of the public domain is actually in everyone's interest, including Muslims themselves who already suffer from discrimination. Regarding this point, a recent article published in the New York Times: is particularly interesting. Some of the Muslim women who contributed to this article complain that what they are being subjected to today is equivalent to what the Jews were subjected to by the Nazis, conveniently forgetting that they are the ones who are going out of the way to state their separateness and their difference . The Jews were forced to wear the yellow star, no one is forcing Muslim women to wear dress which distinguishes them clearly from everyone else. This is frankly insane, especially in the present context, and if they continue to go down this route they can hardly complain that people do see them as being different to everyone else with the risks that this entails.
AmericanHeretic 09/10/2016
2. Clash of Cultures
If the cultures clash, why mix them? Genital mutilation, honor killings, Sharia, sexual assault of women ..... clothing is only a small part if the incompatibility. Multiculturalism does not work.
bicester55 09/10/2016
3. Double standards
The double standards here is that liberals who would claim to protect the less well off have here so shamelessly failed come to the support of Muslim women. In many EU aided countries and for many women within the EU it is not a lifestyle choice of these women of what they wear and what freedoms they have it is instead what is imposed on them. This whole article and many similar just aims to obfuscate the issue: what does the issues of school girls' clothing have to do with this issue? (It has nothing to do with protecting boys either.)
dqkemah 09/11/2016
Very well balanced article, wish others had paid attention to the same, World exists by the limits, laws, and scarf is nothing more or less but, a limit to protect ladies modesty.
macca51 09/12/2016
5. Islamic female clothing
This article very much confuses the purposes and meaning of womens clothing. In the West women wear, within reason, what they like. Their choice of clothing is as much meant to impress other women as it is to attract men.But fundamentally womens clothes, in the West, say "I am part of Western civlization, however different my choice of clothes is, I am Western, I am like you". Islamic womens clothes MAY be the womans choice, although I think that there is a large degree of coercion in many cases, but the purpose of their clothing is not to impress other women or to be attractive to men. It is worn to shout out very loudly "I do not hold Western values, I am a Muslim and I am NOT like you". How can letting people wear clothes which clearly and obviously state their religious affiliations be a good thing, keeping in mind the history of religions?. The author either has no understanding of the issues involved or is being very disingenuous indeed.
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