French fashion mogul Pierre Bergé has condemned fashion designers and retailers for creating headscarves and burkinis, accusing them of “taking part in the enslavement of women”. His comments come hot on the heels of France’s women’s rights minister Laurence Rossignol, who also sparked outrage yesterday by comparing Muslim women who wear modest clothing to “negroes who supported slavery”.
As a Muslim woman who's lived throughout Europe her entire life, both these comments don’t surprise me, but they are disheartening. Over the years, controversial statements like this have become the expected norm from the wealthy French elite, whose narrow idea of what it means to be emancipated overlooks the intersecting issues faced by minority groups. But it’s disappointing to have someone like Bergé, the former life and business partner of designer Yves Saint Laurent, be “scandalised” by the very nature of the clothes Muslim women wear. After all, Saint Laurent is a fashion house that many women, including me, have always admired.
His comments are indicative of a fashion industry that has been slow to consider the Muslim consumer, despite the fact that figures show we spend an estimated $230bn (approx. £180bn) on clothing globally. I have first-hand experience of spending hours in a store and not finding a single thing to wear. And I know I’m not alone, it’s an all too common fact of life for the British Muslim woman. While most people would be able move on to another store if they couldn’t find anything they like, someone like me would have to keep on looking and somehow find something that I might be able to work with – with the help of my tailor. (Yes, I have a tailor. His name is Sonny and I’m pretty sure I’m putting his daughter through university).
European Muslim women are free to think for themselves. Their choice to embrace aspects of their faith is just that: a choice
But there are some retailers taking steps in the right direction. In January, Dolce & Gabbana released its first Hijab and Abaya collection, although let’s be honest, their £3,000-a-piece abayas aren’t targeted at a mere mortal like me. I was also thrilled to hear last week’s news that M&S had launched a burkini, not only because this meant that the next time I plan to go to a waterpark, I wouldn’t have to resort to online orders from dodgy websites with “modest” swimwear that always come in a size too big. But also because, for the first time, I felt like there’s something available on the British high street specifically for a woman like me: the young Western Muslim who refuses to choose between her Islamic faith and Western identity.
The launch of the burkini has undoubtedly opened up a whole new door of opportunities. Some women will get to wear one if they choose to. Other women don’t have to if they don’t want to. I’m happy – but the Telegraph is not, who declared M&S’s decision to cater to Muslim women is to “let sexism sneak in under the radar” and that the “hideous” garment would make women like me look like “a pregnant elephant seal”.
I don’t agree. Women don’t choose what they’ll wear with anyone other than themselves in mind. I, for one, love fashion but most of the time, I care more about my comfort and how something I’m wearing makes me feel. When on a beach or at a waterpark, I prefer to cover my entire body apart from my face, hands and feet – sometimes I don’t like to show my feet either – it all depends on how I’m feeling. It’s not so much about avoiding looking like “a pregnant elephant seal” but rather being so comfortable and satisfied with what I’m wearing that no amount of body-shaming will get to me.
Rossignol’s comments may be shocking and crass, but I understand the sentiment behind them – Muslim women shouldn’t side with their apparent oppressors. I am all for stopping anyone from siding with an oppressor – whether it is done unwittingly or wilfully – but I really don’t see how British Muslim women who choose to wear something like a burkini, in a society that would rather have them do anything but, equates to an endorsement of oppression. It is true that some women in countries like Saudi Arabia don’t have the freedom that I do. But European Muslim women are free to think for themselves. Their choice to embrace aspects of their faith is just that: a choice – why is that such a difficult thing to accept?