Muslim fashion is about choice

What is it about Muslim women exercising their purchasing power that so frightens some people, asks Shelina Janmohamed?

Clothes are pictured inside a Marks and Spencers retail store in London. The retailer has started stocking burkinis – and some people aren't happy, writes Shelina Janmohamed (AFP PHOTO/SHAUN CURRY)
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In hindsight, the backlash against Muslim fashion was inevitable. All those Muslim women, deciding for themselves how they should dress. Not allowed.

It was triggered by a swimming costume, a burkini being sold in the United Kingdom by quintessentially English retail brand Marks & Spencer. The women’s rights minister in France, Laurence Rossignol, declared the all-over-body suit a form of “social control” and demanded that Muslim woman capitulate to her demands not to wear it. Irony doesn’t appear to translate into French.

To make matters worse, she compared Muslim women who cover up to “negroes who support slavery”. And thus was unleashed the imperialist mindset that lays claim to women’s bodies, and in particular to the bodies of women of colour and Muslim women.

This row is about more than just about a swimsuit. It’s about definitions of fashion, of beauty, of womanhood, and who gets to define them. It’s about who gets to express themselves on their own terms, and how every attempt at self-expression is shut down if it does not conform.

In the thick of the French row, Pierre Berge, a fashion designer and partner of Yves Saint Laurent, implied that only his kind of fashion is beautiful, to be covered is not beautiful.

The fashion industry is up in arms that Muslim women are creating a look for themselves and wish to buy it in designer and high street outlets. How dare ordinary women choose their own version of fashion and beauty. And what, wait, how much is it worth? A total of $474 billion (Dh1.7tn) by 2019. Young Muslim women, increasingly educated, employed and affluent, and – here’s the crux of it – increasingly proud to assert their identity as Muslims are creating a new fashion look and have money to spend.

If Muslim women can quite clearly be seen to be the mistresses of their own identity and destiny through something as straightforward as how they choose to dress, who then will be left to be “saved” by the politicians and their wars on the one hand, and by stern hardline Muslim traditionalists on the other?

For all of them, Muslim fashion is dangerous, because it normalises and humanises Muslim women. It gives Muslim women their own means to express their own identity on their own terms.

White, non-Muslim middle-class feminists also seem to be outraged by Muslim women determining their own identity. They believe that only one kind of womanhood, and one kind of feminism is allowed – their own. It makes them feel nervous or immodest to be around Muslim women they whine. Since when should a woman’s self-esteem be tied up in what someone else wears? And isn’t the point of feminism to support women’s choices? Itis racism dressed up as feminism.

And politicians couldn’t be happier to put down Muslim women’s legitimate choices of self-determination to win a few votes and make themselves look tough by interfering in fashion choices.

As always, no one is listening to what Muslim women themselves are saying. Berge said he wanted to “teach Muslim women to revolt”. Being told our choices are not beautiful, and that we don’t have the right to make them, now that’s what I find revolting.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.