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Opinion

Culture pop

July 23, 2017

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Culture Pop: A Saudi dressing-down

This week, in the deserted lanes of a heritage site in the tribal backwaters of Najd, a 100 miles from Riyadh, a young Saudi woman caused a conservative sandstorm. A video of her walking nonchalantly through the Ushaqir heritage village in a mini skirt and cropped top quickly went viral on Snapchat. The Directorate of Public Security, which obviously felt the public was threatened by this display of womanly flesh, disclosed on Twitter that “Khulood” was being questioned by the Riyadh police. Was this a very public protest against Saudi Arabia’s rigidly enforced dress code?

Social media seemed to think so – on both sides of the divide. Some vocal Saudis were deeply affronted by the woman’s immodesty and demanded she be tried in court. At the opposing end, feminists applauded a “brave woman” for standing up to the Saudi regime – though in reality she was released without being charged. The ‘offending’ video was apparently posted by a male guardian (women in the kingdom aren’t allowed to drive and need to be supervised while travelling).

If there is any other country that seems to police women so closely it is probably the very Islamic Republic of Iran. You would think that Saudi Arabia and Iran would have little to talk about if they ever sat at the same table but there is a misogynistic common ground between the sworn enemies. Both countries inflict forced veiling and a rigid dress code on their female citizens. For women, not being suitably enveloped in an abaya or head scarf in either country – and posting such images on the internet – can mean jail time, losing their job or even death threats.

In April 2017, former Iranian national footballer Shiva Amini was reportedly banned after being photographed in shorts while abroad. Government statistics show that in 2014 alone 3.6 million women in Iran were arrested, warned or fined for their attire including being detained for wearing ripped jeans. When a picture of Malak Al-Shehri wearing a fairly modest calf-length dress on a street in downtown Riyadh was posted on social media there were tweets demanding her beheading.

The Khulood walkabout also generated discussions over how Western dignitaries like Melania and Ivanka Trump recently visited the kingdom with super blow-dried hair. One Twitter user crudely superimposed Ivanka Trump’s face onto the woman’s. “We have solved the problem,” read the tweet, shared over 2,000 times. More troubling was the fact that despite being the main instigator the male guardian was never questioned or charged. Moreover, once the issue of a public challenge to the establishment was defused the skirt was more or less skirted. Saudi writer Ibrahim Al-Munayif told his 40,000 Twitter followers that if everyone started disregarding the law as Khulood had done it would only lead to chaos. But it wasn’t the law that was at stake, it was the dissemination of the image on social media that was making the Saudi government look ineffective.

What is disturbing is that despite infantalising half its population to mention just one incursion, Saudi Arabia has retained a place on the UN Human Rights commission again this year. As UN Watch Director Hillel Neuer commented: “Electing Saudi Arabia to protect women’s rights is like making an arsonist the town fire chief.” There have of course been some improvements in recent years: women now have the right to vote and 20 percent of the Shura Council seats are reserved for them. More Saudi women graduate from university than men. This is not to say the situation is rosy. The male guardian system in particular is a major controlling mechanism; women need permission for almost anything including being released from prison.

But dress codes are not just imposed by Muslim states. Even seemingly liberal societies are deeply invested in suitable cultural contexts. Which is why French beach-goers paled when Muslim women in burkinis invading their waters. The French police were quickly brought in to play cultural bodyguards. Pictures of them forcing Muslim women to partially disrobe were distasteful to most right-thinking people of any nationality.

Yet, also disturbing is the recent commercialisation of the hijab, which has led to both its normalisation and the convenient pigeon-holing of Muslim women. Whereas at one point stylish Muslim women were mostly invisible in Western society, now they can be seen on Dolce and Gabbana catwalks resplendent in ‘modest clothing’. A religious commitment has evolved into a high fashion accessory that invites attention as does Gigi Hadid wearing it famously in an eroticised image on the first cover of Vogue Arabia in 2016. Hijab-wearing models now pop up in H&M ads and as ambassadors for Cover Girl cosmetics (Beauty blogger Nuria Afia). Hijab-wearing model Halima Aden made history as Allure magazine’s cover-girl. Big brands have woken up to the possibility of seducing rich Muslim shoppers with targeted products. According to the State of the Global Islamic Economy, the Muslim fashion market will be worth GBP226 billion by 2020. So despite all the talk of inclusion there is a lot more hard cash at stake.

While some of this has been about breaking stereotypes, it has also been about creating new ones. All Muslim women do not wear the hijab, yet this is the most obvious way to represent them and the formula has stuck. When you see a line up of models in an advertisement now there is invariably one in hijab. It has become the default, which is both reductive and racist even if it is well-intentioned. This approach eschews diversity for semiotic glossiness. Hijab may be seen a choice for some, but when there is no freedom to dissent women are de facto devoid of choice. Peer pressure in either direction further neutralises that choice.

Inspiringly, some women are fighting back in ingenious ways. Journalist Masine Alinejad, runs the My Stealthy Freedom campaign, encouraging Iranian women to share photos of themselves without a hijab online. Their Facebook page has nearly two million likes. Over in Saudi Arabia, dozens of women share videos of themselves driving, many subversively using the niqab and dark glasses to disguise themselves so they cannot be caught. In a music video released earlier this year, Saudi Arabian women cruised through the streets on skateboards and scooters protesting the oppression of women in the kingdom. Perhaps for now this is the only recourse. As Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy says in her ground-breaking book, ‘Headscarves and Hymens’. “To the girls of the Middle East: Be immodest, rebel, disobey, and know you deserve to be free.”

I’d say that’s good advice for all women, including my fellow countrywomen.

The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: @fifiharoon

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