Huge labels such as Mark&Spencer, H&M and Mango have recently created a huge uproar in Western countries by picturing models wearing the hijab or advertising for “burkinis”, swimsuits allowing women to cover their whole body, in Britain. If these decisions have immediately created a controversy among the populations, it has been particularly intense in France, which has called the brands on their responsibility concerning women’s image and the values that they wish to communicate and spread. France is also the only country in which the debate infiltrated the political sphere.
Laicity and multiculturalism: different countries, different priorities
The difference between France and English-speaking countries’ reaction speaks volume about their different perceptions of the religious. In France, laicity is paramount to everything and one of the most essential principle of the State. It has already been a factor of tension in the past, in 2004 when the decision was taken to forbid girls from wearing the veil in schools and in 2010 when full-face veils were prohibited. The logic behind these decisions relies on the 1905 law which specifies that the religious sphere and the public sphere must remain absolutely separated, which means that no ostentatious religious signs are authorized outside from the private sphere. In English-speaking countries, the perception is slightly different: indeed, laicity is not seen as such a strict notion and people are fully allowed to display signs of their religions, even when they have official positions or work for the State. Civil servants and officials have the right to wear the veil while at work. Laicity is more commonly thought as the freedom of practicing one’s religion among others.
Is the fact that fashion seems now to be taking into account demands from Muslim women a sign that a true multiculturalism has succeeded in Britain? It’s the argument used by many defendants of this trend, who believe that it’s a necessary and welcome step in order to address diversity. No doubt that there’s also a strong and enticing commercial reason behind it: according to a study led by Thomson Reuters, Muslim throughout the world spend more than 266 billion of dollars in clothing, and could spend up to 480 billion in 2019.
The religious sphere in itself is becoming an increasingly lucrative one: there’s also a high demand from ultra-orthodox Jews and Evangelists who are interested in hiding more than revealing their bodies. Another fashion label, Uniqlo, launched in 2015 the “Hana Tajima Lifewear collection” available in Singapore and online, which is composed of covering clothing, and, despite the fact that the designer Hana Tajima is a Muslim woman, deliberately chosen to open it to all religions.
The notion of freedom at stake
On the other hand, the opponents criticize not only the infringement of the religious on the fashion sphere (which, as we have seen, can constitute a tempting market) but also the image of women it conveys. Indeed, the veil is not a trifling object and carries several undercurrent meanings, the first of it being that a woman needs to be covered up and “modest”.
Women claiming their “modesty” is in fact a growing trend in itself: in a world in which advertisement and fashion have been regularly accused of sexualizing women’s bodies, going back to a notion of “decency” can be considered as an act of self-empowerment for women, who claim their right to be visible without having to show skin.
That Muslim and other religious women represented is indeed a strong argument, which should be taken into account by defenders of women’s rights: refusing to include veiled women from fashion and the advertising world is not harmless either, as it in effect exclude them from the society. Hanna Woodhead from the University of Geneva argues that forbidding women from wearing burkinis is also keeping them from accessing swimming pools. The notion of freedom is also central: feminism, which has fought and still fighting for the right of women to be lightly dressed, advocates more generally for the right to self-determination, which means that women should also be free to choose whether they wish to be covered up or not and be equally accepted and represented in the society.
The French Minister of Family, Children and Women’s Rights Laurence Rossignol has communicated on the issue, drawing a parallel between women choosing to wear the veil and “American negros choosing to be slaves”, sentence that has also created an uproar in itself.
The argument behind this controversial sentence is also a strong one: even though some women do choose to wear the veil, it is still a meaningful choice which is the visual expression of a system of beliefs in which women are not seen as having the same imperatives than men. In this ideology, modesty is not only a choice but also a necessity: women’s bodies have to be protected and hidden, and this representation creates de-facto inequality between men and women. Taking this into consideration, allowing hijabs and veils to be a part of the fashion world is not harmless as it can lead to a normalization of this representation. In the same way, if a large part of Muslim women are indeed choosing from their own free will to wear the veil, the impact on the ones who have no choice but to do so should also be taken into consideration.
Women’s bodies are still at the center of political and societal stakes
Individual bodies of women seem to unfortunately remain a manipulated source of political, cultural, religious and overall public debate: in the Middle-East and in some of the Maghreb countries, wearing the veil, full-faced or otherwise, is a much stronger social obligation than it was years ago. In the United States, opponents to Donald Trump have recently used images of Donald Trump’s wife’s body as a way to attack and criticize him. In the city of Cologne, Germany, women have been advised not to smile in order not to create unwanted reactions. Unfortunately, women still don’t seem to have the sole ownership on their bodies.
Léa Guinet, Assistante de recherche au CIPADH
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Henry Samuel, "France says Marks and Spencer burkini 'irresponsible'", The Telegraph, 30 March 2016. Available online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/03/30/france-says-marks-and-spencer...
Allison Pearson, "The M&S burkini for Muslim women shows Britain is letting sexism sneak under the radar", The Telegraph, 22 March 2016. Available online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/the-ms-burkini-for-muslim-women-sh...