Clothes matter. People judge you based on what you wear and, more importantly, even our own perceptions about ourselves are wrapped up in choices about attire, for reasons ranging from fashion to social expectations. Caring about one’s appearance is perfectly natural, but the fetishizing of women’s dress reflects larger social issues of identity and control that go far deeper. For Muslim women in particular, the recent social media storm surrounding a prominent Saudi religious scholar’s comments, in which he said that Muslim women don’t necessarily have to wear the abaya, brought this home.
As a woman who grew up wearing the abaya and veil in Saudi Arabia, I felt “safe,” somehow shielded from the prying eyes of lascivious men. Of course, for those who don’t already know, so many personal testimonials have shown us that even being totally covered does not always protect us from unwanted attention.
The veil. The niqab. The abaya. As a reporter in the Muslim world, I have often written about how women choose to dress – or are expected to dress – and every time the opinions or even just plain statements of fact were widely shared and widely debated. So I wasn’t surprised when Sheikh Abdullah Al Mutlaq, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Council of Senior Scholars, ignited an online firestorm by raising an issue of intellectual and social significance. “More than 90 percent of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” Sheikh Al Mutlaq said. “So we should not force people to wear abayas.”
The comment came in the context of broad movements to modernize Saudi society, involving everything from economic privatization to gender issues. The latter involves the much-publicized relaxation of the driving ban, allowing women to open businesses independently and now apparently even proposals about the abaya – perhaps much more controversially – which is required by law for Saudi women and female residents and visitors to the Kingdom.
However, even powerful religious figures can’t hide from the wrath of social media users on such subjects. The online discussion quickly went viral with issues raised about freedom of choice, the loss of identity, religion and culture.
Under fire on social media, Sheikh Al Multaq, who is known for his witty commentary, was quick to clarify that he did not call specifically on Saudi women to remove the abaya, but said his comments were “directed to all Muslims.” This appeared to give the religious scholar some cover domestically, with his clarification including this statement: “I call on women to dress modestly.”
However, the mandatory donning of the abaya in Saudi Arabia is not the black-and-white issue that is often described in the Western press. Not all of the criticism of Sheikh Al Mutlaq’s comments came from conservative men and women. Some commentators said that if Gulf women stopped wearing abayas and veils, they would then look like “any other Arab woman” and lose the distinction and social prestige associated with the full covering.
Somewhat paradoxically, there is a parallel between the Saudi sartorial concerns and those expressed in Lebanon, widely considered as one of the most liberal Arab countries where most women wear Western and even revealing clothes, demonstrating their “liberation,” to use a term that Western pundits seem to particularly like.
But beneath the surface are similar issues of social status as well as seeking approval from men. Digging a bit deeper, there have been many reports about pressure on Lebanese women to look “perfect” (whatever that means) for the men in their lives, forcing them to scale the pinnacles of high fashion not for themselves, but to satisfy someone else’s expectations.
While there are multiple layers to the discussion, it is impossible to ignore the fact that women’s choices of clothing are deeply interwoven with broader gender issues. The International Men and Gender Equality Survey last year looked at what it meant to be a man in four countries – Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine. A majority of the men surveyed supported “a wide array of inequitable, traditional attitudes.” For example, almost 90 percent “expect to control their wives’ personal freedoms, from what they wear and where they go.”
It is worth pointing out that these sorts of sentiments are not limited to the Middle East. Western media reports abound with speculation about what female public figures are wearing, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to US First Lady Melania Trump, with even British Queen Elizabeth’s attire attracting attention at a recent fashion show. It is an intense scrutiny of appearances to which men – with the possible exception of US President Donald Trump’s hairstyle – are simply not subjected to.
The controversy surrounding Sheikh Al Mutlaq’s comments reveals how truly multifaceted the issue is. While many outside observers will be quick to make presumptions about Saudi Arabia’s enforcement of strict religious tenets regarding women’s dress, the religious scholar makes it clear that while he believes Muslim women should dress “modestly,” there is no single mandatory dress code involving the abaya or niqab.
Instead, given the deeply interwoven patterns of culture and religion, such issues defy superficial explanations. Certainly, in most societies, men and often other women express a great deal of interest in how women dress, sometimes out of prurience, sometimes seeking control and sometimes just to criticize or to gossip. But to casually dismiss women’s own choices and agency without going beneath surface of appearances is the real blinkered view. Are you defined by what you wear? Some food for thought.
Rym Tina Ghazal is a peace ambassador, thought/youth leader, documentarian, lecturer and author. In addition, she is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years of experience. In 2003, she became one of the first women of Arab heritage to cover war zones in the Middle East.
AFP PHOTO, SABAH ARAR