The Countess of Wessex is Patron of the London College of Fashion, in which capacity she hosted an event at Windsor Castle where she met representatives from the Islamic Fashion Festival. It appears from reported excerpts of an interview with Harper’s Bazaar magazine that she is favourably disposed to Muslim girls and women wearing the burqa:
One of the aims, she says, is ‘to try to use fashion to break down barriers and dispel the myths about Muslim women’. She pauses – aware, perhaps, that anything she says might be open to misinterpretation – and then continues: ‘It’s very evident that Muslim women can be fashionable while also retaining their modesty… And it’s a great way of bringing people together, and saying, “Look, this is what we’re really like.” And what people forget is that underneath the burka and everything else, there is somebody who is probably wearing something really quite fashionable. But you don’t have to show a lot of flesh in order to be beautiful and stylish.’
The story is running in the Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail and in various Asian media, no doubt soon to reverberate around the world and encourage the Taliban to reassure their wives and daughters that it really is quite cool for women to cover themselves head to toe in black sacks, if not sky-blue capes, to express themselves freely to Allah and be exposed exclusively to their husbands and fathers. But the interesting thing is that where the Countess is pictured wearing Islamic dress, she is manifestly wearing what is commonly called a hijab – a headscarf – not a burqa, which tends to look more like this:
Now, there is some Arabic etymological debate over the precise meaning of hijab in the Qur’an, which can be variously translated ‘scarf ‘, ‘veil’ or even ‘curtain’ (and interestingly also ‘partition’, ‘division’ or ‘barrier’ – does one “break down barriers” by making those barriers more chic?). And the Hadith is no clearer, often appropriating and (ab)using the word to define cultural rather than scriptural precepts of dress. The Qur’an actually goes not much further than the socio-cultural traditions of the West: women must cover their private parts (7:26) and their breasts (24:31), with some stipulation on garment length (33:59). This is the extent of the modesty defined by Mohammed, which clearly offers a lot of scope for stylish adornment.
But you tend not to see too many Muslim women or girls wearing voluptuous, fur-lined, neon-pink burqas after the fashion of Lady Gaga, for to do so would abrogate the very modesty they are taught the garment is designed to induce. The reality is that the burqa is a symbol of oppression and a negation of female identity: in many countries it is mandatory and women daren’t express an opinion to the contrary for fear of harassment, brutal beatings or being buried alive in an ‘honour killing’.
Throughout the Middle East women are not free to choose what they wear, lest their flowing locks arouse the men and cause a riot. Even children as young as six are ‘encouraged’ by their fathers to prepare socially (ie anti-socially) for their shrouding in puberty and throughout adult life. Whether your burqa is a Saudi Arabian abaya and niqab, an Afghanistani grille or an Iranian black mantle, the ‘fashion police’ are a little more exacting than Harper’s Bazaar and rather more robust than the organisers of the Islamic Fashion Festival.
It is good for Muslim women to be free to express themselves in their choices of fashion, just as it is for Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists and Jedi. And it is a fine cause that the Countess is championing, for many of the vestiary traditions of Islam have no authentic religious foundation beyond that which has developed through cultural assertions of patriarchy. And the Countess is right to highlight that the common perception of female Islamic attire is that it is restrictive and monochrome, if not misogynistic and disempowering. But let us not fool ourselves that this is as simple as commissioning geometric patterns of ataurique or sampling new silks in the sunlight: the British burqa might be syncretising with a bikini on the catwalk, but there aren’t many Muslim fathers, uncles or brothers who will be placing early orders for their women’s 2015 Eid gifts.