Tuesday, May 10, 2016

French Islamophobia, Fashion, And Freedom

From Tommy Hilfiger's Ramadan Collection
Here at TKIN we usually avoid the low-hanging fruit. I figure, if something is just really obviously stupid and wrong, you don't really need a whole blog post about it. But we're making an exception today -- because I can't help myself from saying something about this article that appeared in the New York Times in April, describing French reactions to the introduction of modest clothing from various clothing lines.

What started it all is that big name fashion brands, like Dolce and Gabana, H&M, and DKNY put out modest clothing lines -- long skirts, long sleeved tops, a swimming outfit that covers up -- with the implicit suggestion that they were hoping to attract Muslim consumers. Tommy Hilfiger had a "Ramadan collection," and Dolce and Gabana offered abayas and hijabs. Marks and Spencer offered a "burkini."

Some people in France are very upset. The minister for women's rights said the clothing represented "social control over women's bodies" and should not exist. The co-founder of Yves Saint-Laurent said the designers were exploiting a misogynist system and should "have some principles." Philosopher and influential feminist scholar Elisabeth Badinter called for a boycott of the brands that sell "Islamic fashion."

I'm sorry but -- has everyone gone completely insane?  I mean, we are talking about modest clothing. Has it really come to this? That the mere existence of modest clothing for women is some kind of radical problem?

Just a few decades ago, women were shamed and assaulted for not wearing modest clothing that was not modest enough. And today, even though the lines are drawn differently, women are still shamed and assaulted for wearing clothing that is not modest enough. You're telling me a world in which people say "she asked for it" because a woman wore a miniskirt to a party is also a world in which long skirts and covering clothing are banned? FFS.

In the most "reader recommended" comments at the Times, there are two ideas floating around, both of which seem to me ridiculous. One is that the clothing in question is misogynistic because it reflects a cultural double-standard -- in which women have to cover and men do not. The other is that the clothing in question is misogynistic on grounds that women wear it because they're "forced" to.

The commenters at the Times like to think they're very clever, but both of these are a logic fail. The clothing itself isn't anything. Selling modest clothing just gives people the option of modest clothing -- an option anyone I would think anyone has a right to.

To deny this entails saying that the world would be a better place if women didn't have the option of long skirts and covering clothing. So, what -- now we all have to show some tits and ass to save the United Federation of Planets?

From a philosophical point of view, the whole thing recapitulates the essential problem that Francophone culture has with the idea of banning clothing as religious symbols. Because things -- and especially clothing things -- are symbols only in virtue of how they are interpreted. As articles of clothing, they are also just articles of clothing.

As a million people have said before me, how can you say something is wrong when some people do it but "fashion" when Jackie O. does it?

More abstractly, I think there's a tendency to think about cases like this in terms that pit one absolute against another. Like: either you're for radical freedom of the individual in all cases because that's Truth, Justice, and the American Way, OR, you think society and social reality impact on people in complicated ways so that "individual freedom" is just a code for "we'll leave you alone to sort out your own damn problems."

But these things are highly contextual. At this point in my life, I believe that clothing, like food, has entered the category of appropriate radical individualism. That is: let people wear what they want, for the reasons they have, and don't have a lot of opinions and judgments about other people. Let people eat what they want, for the reasons they have, and don't have a lot of opinions or judgments about other people.

For me, it's not that these things follow from some abstract universal truth about things always go best when you leave people alone to do what they want and never judge. I don't think that's true. Instead, it has to do with the contextual space that food and clothing now occupy. They're both intensely personal, uncomfortably politicized, domains where someone always thinks they know better than someone else. As, indeed, all of these French fashion people seem to think they know what's best for a whole bunch of other people.

But above all, modest and covering clothing for women should always be an option. How is that not obvious? And I say all of this as someone who loves to wear sexy, revealing, and flashy outfits. Because in addition to all the reasons already mentioned, there's this: how can I freely choose to wear the clothing I love, when there's no option to choose otherwise? Without any other options, I'd be essentially forced into it! Talk about "social control over women's bodies."

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