Thursday, September 17, 2009

A fashionable martyr

In Sudan this July, twelve women were arrested for being “inappropriately” dressed. According to news sources, they were wearing trousers, which is a violation of Sudan’s strict sharia dress code. That code – which applies to Muslims AND Christians, to the disgruntlement of many – has relaxed in recent years, but now they’re seeing a crackdown again.

Of the twelve women arrested, ten agreed to their crime, paid $100, and received 10 lashes each. (Yes, with a whip.) But one of the women, Lubna Hussein, a journalist and all around shit-disturber, not only refused to admit that she’d broken the law, she sent out 500 invitations to her trial and flogging. She quit her UN job so that they couldn’t provide her with legal immunity, and she went to war with the courts.

I love that she’s causing a stir so that people will hear her message: she believes that persecuting women because of their clothing choices is un-Islamic. Nowhere does the Quran say that women should be punished for their fashion choices. The law itself is vague and leaves the definition of “indecent” dress up to the individual police officer. Very scary.

Last week, the court found Lubna guilty of indecency for wearing pants in public. They fined her $200 but decided not to lash her – probably because, at this point, it would be too embarrassing for them.

These old fashion arguments are beginning to feel a little bit like the Arab-Israeli conflict: is it ever going to end? On the one hand, Muslims argue that the dress code, which in theory applies to men and women, is not just about “decency,” it’s about tradition and cultural identity. But plenty of other Muslims think that argument is bogus and say you can be a good Muslim no matter what you’re wearing.

I remember how weird it was to meet women in Saudi Arabia who were totally preoccupied with the hottest fashion trends from Milan, Paris, and New York. They put fashionistas in the West to shame – not only did they know everything about the latest runway trends but the Saudi women at least could actually afford them.

But their display of those fashions was severely circumscribed, because every time they left the house, they were still wearing the same big black cloaks and head coverings. You might argue that some of those runway styles actually look better under a black cloak, but still, who spends hundreds of dollars on clothing items that almost no one is going to see?

Well…let’s see: everyone who shops at Victoria’s Secret? My mother once got her hands on my VS credit card bill and practically exploded: you spent ____ dollars on UNDERWEAR?!! Well, it’s not all underwear, but yes. There is a secret thrill to wearing hidden, beautiful things. And Saudi women don’t wear cloaks all of the time – most of the women in their lives will get the chance to see those new designer jeans. And, let’s admit it, women dress up to impress women as well as men. HOWEVER --

When someone's going to put you in jail for going public with Gucci or YSL or just plain old trousers, something is very wrong. Especially when that law is directed against women with such exclusivity. What would happen if Sudan started arresting men for wearing trousers in public? It's not about upholding moral standards at that point, it's about upholding moral standards for women only. And that is simply indecent.

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