There was a Marks & Spencer (M&S) Store for a time in a city where I once lived. I liked to wander the aisles of this British commercial icon; it was like taking a mini-trip ‘across the pond’. There were tantalizing jams and marmalades, biscuits, candies, etc.: products that one would normally encounter only in the UK. Mostly I looked and salivated, though. I think I purchased products from the frozen food case a couple of times. Unlike the food offerings, the store’s limited selection of women’s clothing held little appeal for me, as it would have for most North American women, I believe. I found their clothing rather matronly, even dowdy. There must have been too many consumers like me, for the store closed its doors for good after what seemed to me like the briefest of forays into the local market.
M&S’s latest business venture is making news headlines these days. For the first time, M&S will offer burkinis for sale in the UK, beginning with their flagship store at Marble Arch in London. A burkini, for those who don’t know, is a women’s bathing ‘costume’ which meets the Quranic requirements for Muslim women. Resembling the wet suit worn by divers, the burkini covers the whole body except for the face, hands, and feet. Up until now, M&S sold burkinis only at its stores in Dubai and Libya. M&S will be selling two versions in its London store: a blue item with a floral print across the front, and a black number with a paisley pattern. “It’s lightweight so you can swim in comfort,” promises the ad.
I wonder about that “swim in comfort” claim. I have seen a woman wearing a burkini. It was at a public pool during adult swim time. As I watched her doing lengths, seemingly oblivious to the swimmers around her–young men with their bare chests and sleeve tattoos, female swimmers wearing the latest swimwear–I couldn’t help thinking: What must it feel like to do lengths in a soggy body-length suit? Maybe it was tolerable while in the water, but one certainly wouldn’t want to sit around in it after coming out of the water.
Like M&S, a number of the world’s foremost fashion houses have recognized that there is money, big money, to be made in Islamic fashion for women. A 2013 report revealed that Muslims spend $266bn on clothing and footwear–more than Japan and Italy combined. The biggest buyers of haute couture fashion are not Westerners, but Arab women. Determined to capture a corner of the lucrative Islamic fashion market, the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana has launched, for the first time ever, a line of fourteen abayas ‘loose-fitting, full-length cloaks worn over clothes to conceal the woman’s shape’ with matching hijabs ‘head scarves’. Their new line of Islamic clothing, according to some, is so beautifully-made that even non-Muslim women would like to wear it. Other fashion houses are getting into the act: Chanel, H&M, Gucci, to name a few.
Thankfully, not everyone believes that designing and selling clothing for Muslim women that meets Quranic standards is the right thing for Western businesses to do, and they are speaking out. British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, herself a Shia Muslim, protests, “These companies might not think they are encouraging fanaticism, but they are. They’re complicit in a version of Islam that believes women must be subjugated in public.”
Pierre Berge, French businessman and co-founder of the fashion house Yves Saint Laurent, outraged by what fashion houses are doing, told a French radio station that “creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion…[that] designers who do are taking part in the enslavement of women…Designers are there to make women more beautiful, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.”
Another voice of protest is that of France’s Minister of Women’s Rights Laurence Rossignol who argues that “What is at stake is social control over women’s bodies. When brands invest in this Islamic garment market, they are shirking their responsibilities and are promoting women’s bodies being locked up.”
Glamourizing abayas and hijabs by trimming them with black lace, beads, and flowers does not alter the garments’ purpose, namely, to conceal the feminine form from public scrutiny.
Is being made to wear abayas and hijabs a form of oppression? And do those who design and sell the garments contribute to that oppression? I still vividly recall a scenario I witnessed while sitting on a park bench in Vienna. Having spent several hours inside the cool of Vienna’s war museum and not realizing how hot the weather outside had turned during that time, I started out for the bus stop, managing only to make it as far as the first park bench before being forced to take a ‘breather’. As I sat there, a young female jogged by at a brisk pace, arms and legs bare, pony tail flying! Behind her, along the path plodded three young Muslim women–comparable in age, I would guess–wearing hijabs and abayas, only their hands and faces exposed. Looking uncomfortably warm, they plunked themselves down on the park bench down from me. Their actions and that of the jogger spoke volumes to me that day.