Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Feminism in Islamic Fashion?

Raising girls in America has given me a senstitivity to issues of women's rights, both in the Jewish community and the greater society. When it is your own wife or daughter that must deal with rude comments and creepy taxi drivers, problems of women in our time are no longer abstractions to me.
I remember as a child visiting Montreal with my family. A woman was running to catch a bus. She looked frantic and helpless as her legs banged against a narrow tubular skirt. At first I thought she was disabled, and then realised that her impediment was sartorial and not orthopedic. Back in the mid 70's , platform shoes were all the rage. There was a wide gender gap between men and women in their popularity. Most men thought they looked hideous, which proved that there exist in fashion other aims than attracting men's attention. In the sixties, there were high spiked heels that always looked like they would break . One thing both platform and spiked heel shoes have is a history of causing back problems as well as terrible injuries to the ankles and feet. Both types of shoes inflict an oppressive drag on the mobility of their owners. We criticise the Chinese for binding the feet of women. Though our modern shoe styles do not usually inflict permanent damage, they share a common denominator of limiting moblility.
Men can engage in a full range of physical activities while wearing current fashions. Women in skirts and dresses face modesty issues when riding bicycles , engaging in other sports activities, or even sitting on their front steps.
My work takes me frequently to neighbourhoods with large populations of Jews, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians. I shop for Indian music and moves near a large mosque at the edge of a Jewish neighbourhood. Especially in the current climate, there is a focus in the media on the most extreme and misogynistic mutations of Islamic fashion. In Flatbush, I almost never see the burqa or any other form of complete face covering. It is, however common to see married women and older girls in the Pakistani community covering their hair.
I noticed both men and women wearing an outfit that had the same basic shape for both. Men wore very subdued colours. Women wore pastel shades that are not as bold as those favoured in western attire. I noticed that the clothing affords girls a complete range of mobility in any physical activity from running to bike riding as well as reasonable modesty. In the summer, the loose fit in both men and women affords a degree of protection from the heat. The name for this garment, whether worn by men or women is a shalwar kameez. My daughter in law has told us that something similar was popular among Yemenites.
Clothing has many functions, not the least of which is showing allegiance to a group. Indeed, even the shape and creases in a black hat on an orthodox Jew can signify to which Jewish community he is loyal. It is for this reason, especially after 9/11 that there might be a reluctance to dispassionately evaluate fashions from the Islamic world.
I look at the world with thousands of years of Jewish history as a reference point. Though today, Christians tend to be less antagonistic to Jews than Muslims, there was a time in our history when Muslim Turkey under Islamic law gave us refuge from the Spanish Inquisition. I view our current age as a sliver of time in a continuum . Seeing the changes of fortune in Jewish history, I look for the Unseen Hand. It is in this light that I view fashion almost as a dispassionate outsider.
It may seem unpopular to say this, but I believe that Islamic fashion in the form of the shalwar kameez could find common ground with Orthodox Judaism and feminism. I am just one blogger with a tiny circulation, but I am putting my observations out into the cyber ether. For the sake of the world in which my wife and daughters live, I am speaking my heart.
Copyright 2008 by Magdeburger Joe Pictures and link are from Wikipedia. Man and woman in left hand picture are Muhammed Ali Jinnah of Pakistan and his sister Fatima

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