"A symbol of female oppression, an instrument of political fear mongering, an article of clothing blamed for inciting subversion, OR an embraced garment demonstrating modesty, faith, and dignity that serves in freeing women from worry about immodesty or overexposure?"Yes, you probably guessed the controversial item of apparel that I'm referring to; and the subject of a recent panel discussion at the Fashion Law Institute's Friday morning breakfast entitled "The Body Politic: From Banning Burkinis To Designing Democracy." There are very different ways of viewing the recent fallout over the much publicized banned-in-France-yet-revered-in-some-parts-of-the-world burkini as well as other elements of modest Muslim dress including the hajib (head covering), the abaya (full length cloak) and the nikab (which covers everything including the face).
Fashion Law Institute attorney and moderator Jeff Trexler opened up the discussion by promising that today's agenda on this worldwide issue was to make sure "everybody is offended and that everybody's position is morally superior to everyone else's." And he wasn't really kidding -- as things progressed I realized that the old adage: "Ask two Jews, you'll get three opinions," -- well, let's just say that those of the Hebrew faith can't claim a monopoly on that characteristic.
|From left Jeff Trexler, Sara Elnakib, Simi Polonsky, Susan Scafidi,|
& Asra Nomani
Photos Laurel Marcus - click image for full size view
Speakers/Panelists included Chaya Chanin & Simi Polonsky, Fashion Designers, Founders (and sisters) of The Frock, NYC; Sara Elnakib & Sondo Elnakib, Fashion Designers, Founders (and sisters) of Beaute Cache; Asra Nomani, Journalist, Author, Professor and Co-Founder, Pearl Project at Georgetown University; Professor Susan Scafidi, Founder and Academic Director, Fashion Law Institute; and Asma Uddin (via Skype), Director of Strategy, Center on Islam and Religious Freedom; Research Fellow, Berkley Center, Georgetown University.
"We didn't want to compromise what we looked like for what we believe," said Sara Elnakib regarding Beaute Cache. Seeking to find a balance between the two parts of their identity, "style and modesty," and wishing to "emulate the fashion women," they took inspiration from DVF and copied the wrap dress in a long sleeved, long skirted, fully covered up adaptation, which her sister Sondo, an executive level buyer at Toys 'R Us, wore to the event (and presumably to her work related meeting later). Sara's jacket was a take-off on Chanel; they also have a black shapeless beach covering which they call the "Hepburn" inspired by the elegance of Audrey. Photos were shown of Sara and Sondo frolicking in the ocean while wearing their pale aqua birkini, also featured on a mannequin in the room.
Invoking the Olympic fencer who wore the hijab along with other successful and active Muslim women, Sara doesn't feel that the garment holds women back. She spoke statistics: 1.7 billion Muslims of worldwide spending $224 Billion on clothing; a market that DKNY and Dolce & Gabbana recently catered to "validating Muslim women," but, she admitted potentially affecting her company's bottom line. Her position is that no one forces her to cover up but she does so of her own volition and "a lawmaker should not be in charge of my body and what I put on it." Interestingly, she mentions her mother who wore miniskirts and bikinis in her early youthful days but eventually decided to dress more modestly as an adult of her own free will.
|Sondos Elnakib, Chaya Chanin, Simi Polonsky, Sara Elnakib|
Photo: Laurel Marcus
Next we heard from Simi Polonsky, an Orthodox Jew who also adheres to the custom of modest dress. She and her sister Chaya were brought up in Australia with a rabbi father and a rebbe mother. "People always looked at us because we looked so different. I wanted to look different but in a good way." A move to Crown Heights where "Vogue became our bible," inspired them to create their "silky tee" modest long dress to be worn as a layering piece under a blazer. She points out that it's very hard to shop in regular stores where dress styles feature either a long skirt without appropriate sleeves or sleeves but with a shorter skirt. "You can look cool and different, covered but amazing," she added about her line of clothing. She believes dressing modestly is about being "dignified and carrying yourself in a respectable manner -- it's all about perspective." Simi is also conflicted about big time designers stepping into the "modest space" but believes it's a good thing if they succeed in changing the world's perception of women's fashion.
Professor Scafidi gave us the legal angle: the French Council of State has overturned birkini bans but police are enforcing them anyway. "Clothing has been a part of France's national identity since the French Revolution," she says, noting in jest that if designer Thom Browne had been there when the Sans-Culottes (short pants and silk socks) fought the long pant aristocracy they might have peacefully coexisted. Scafidi recited several laws regulating wardrobe which are "on the books" but not enforced including a 1799 law against women in trousers revoked in 2013, noting that even women police officers wore them. She mentioned the Ataturk 1925 ban on the Fez in which he substituted the Panama hat stating that no religious head covering could be worn in Turkey.
Uniforms pose another problem even in this country -- it wasn't until 1986 Goldman v. Weinberger that an Orthodox Jew was allowed permission to wear a yarmulke with his uniform on Air Force duty. Since then there's been a Canadian Mounty allowed to wear a Siekh's turban (1990) and 2015's EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch earning Samantha Elauf the right to wear her religious head scarf to work.
According to Scafidi, there are five legal issues involved in these right to wear cases. Issue #1 concerns women, harassment and assault ie. "My clothes are not my consent." "Clothing is often introduced in rape cases," she said. Issue #2 also cuts right to the core of current culture with the issue of streetwear, urban youth and public perception. Geraldo Rivera urged African American youth not to go out wearing a hoodie especially with the hood up. The cultural statement of wearing pants low, exposing underwear also became a law enforcement issue and included a "Raise your pants, Raise your image" campaign which even President Obama addressed. Issue #3 involves covered faces and cultural associations. An early version of Spiderman refers to him as a "masked menace" "We associate covering the face with being a criminal and robbing a bank," Scafidi remarked. Issue #4 is defining reasonable accommodation in which she referenced the defense lawyer for the 911 trials wearing a burka in court in Guantanamo Bay, only to remove it once she was out of the courtroom. Issue #5 multivalent marketing and consumer response, deals with the huge market for modest items. Scafidi mentioned Marks & Spencer, "a venerable British department store sold birkinis and got a lot of pushback." Also in the news is Pierre Berge, co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent Couture House who recently tried to shame designers catering to this market for "enslaving" women.
Now we go to the political aspect of the issue with Asma Uddin joining us by Skype. As the founder and editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com she wrote an op-ed article about the hijab and its representation of being an instrument of repression. "This issue gives new meaning to the phrase 'Fashion Police.' We should be able to live our faith without regulation in dress restriction," she said. It was hard to see what she was wearing over the grainy screen but it looked like a regular collared blouse and cardigan. She continued using many buzz words about how women are portrayed as the "aggressor" in these situations, as "religious extremists, proselytizers. This goes against gender equality and reinforces stereotypes and violates human rights laws." She spoke against the perceived need to "protect public order" from the burka-clad woman, as it may upset other people inciting them to violence. She railed against the "40 million people who can't feel the wind in their hair" and the multi-million dollar campaign to keep it that way.
Asra Nomani can be heard regularly on NPR and promised to take the already heated discussion even a step further. As a Muslim raised in India, her mother wore a full face covering veil which she took off once at a woman's college. Someone ratted her out and the result was that no women could go to college after that. Nomani also referred to the burka wearing 911 defense attorney: "I was offended as a Muslim. It is Political Islam -- they're turning our bodies into enemies of the state. In Afghanistan by being present and by not covering we are unchaste. I don't believe in the ethics or the ideology. We should be valued for our intrinsic dignity not as sexual beings to tempt men."
She told the story of her visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem where men are in the front near the wall and women (who must be dressed modestly) are separated further back; where she encountered an Orthodox Jewish woman who uttered the words, "Men are weak," implying that they will be sexually distracted. For the record, Nomani doesn't believe that men are naturally predators who can't help themselves. Nomani who wore a long embroidered tunic over lace pants, brought out a Koran and read passages from it to illustrate what she termed "hijab propaganda." "The interpretations are very different" adding that there is no direct reference to total covering up with a headscarf.
|Audience members wearing scarfs given by Asra Nomani|
Photo Laurel Marcus
Armed with audience volunteers, she reached into her suitcase and produced several colorful scarves, shawls and a blue garment complete with a face covering nikab for each to don. "How do you feel in that?" she asked the gentlemen in the nikab. "I feel invincible," he remarked going off script. This particular garment was not full length in the front. "Cover up!," admonished Nomani "we can see everything!" He clutched the bottom of the garment and hobbled slightly. "Now grab your kids hands and your shopping basket," she said. She also brought out a Muslim Barbie or Fulla doll of which she had removed the abaya and the stapled on hijab. On top of the long sleeved t-shirt and long skirted doll she had placed an "I voted" sticker.
Mediator Trexler tried momentarily to wrap up the escalating discourse in the allotted time frame remarking on the "points of connection," however it was not to be. Obviously this is an issue that will continue to be a hot button for now and the foreseeable future with no easy answers forthcoming from politicians, law makers, scholars, or social reformers.
- Laurel Marcus