Big clothing labels are stirring controversy by offering more fashion lines aimed at the growing number of Muslim women who live in the West.
“Islamic fashion” can range from innocuous pieces of clothing such as headscarves all the way to “burkinis” — swimsuits that cover the entire body.
In strictly Islamic regions, women are required for cultural and religious reasons to “wear the veil” – covering their heads with scarves called “hijabs” or even full-length shawls such as “chadors” or “burqas.”
I believe that many of those who wear headscarves are militant advocates of political Islam. Many wear it for religious reasons and want to impose it on all women. Florence Rossignol,, French minister for women and sport
But in the more secular West and especially in France, such clothing is often seen as supporting the suppression of women.
Earlier this year the well-known French women’s-rights activist and philosopher Elisabeth Badinter called for a boycott of companies that sell Islamic fashions in the West.
Such cultural relativism should not be allowed, said Ms. Badinter, who is on the supervisory board of Publicis advertising and is daughter of the firm’s founder. She said Muslim women are vulnerable to great political pressure by conservative men and Western companies should not be part of it.
France’s minister for women and sport said companies like Dolce & Gabbana, H&M and Marks & Spencer, which all offer clothing for conservative Muslim women, are complicit in efforts to “control women’s bodies.”
In a radio interview, the minister Florence Rossignol also set off a storm of protests when she compared women who voluntarily wear the veil to “Negroes who were for slavery.”
“I believe that many of those who wear headscarves are militant advocates of political Islam,” she continued. “Many wear it for religious reasons and want to impose it on all women.”
Reaction was swift.
“Step back and think how that is,” one Muslim woman posted on Twitter. “There you are, making breakfast for the kids, and suddenly you’re compared to U.S. slaves who supported slavery!”
Others called for Ms. Rossignol to resign.
Meantime, the former companion of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent fulminated against the Marks & Spencer burkini. Pierre Berger said it was an attempt “to imprison women, while the task of fashion has always been to help them attain more freedom.”
He had nothing to say about headscarves, probably because he is old enough to remember Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn, fashion icons of the 1960s who are still admired today for their elegance.
The two women distinguished themselves, among other things, by enthusiastically wearing headscarves. In countless photos, they wore elegant, richly colored scarves wrapped sometimes loosely, sometimes tightly around their heads.
No doubt about it – they weren’t Muslims. But it begs the question: Can a headscarf be a good thing if worn by a Christian woman, but bad if worn by a Muslim?
The controversy has a concrete economic backdrop. Large fashion and cosmetic brands have long adapted to markets in the developing world as well as in rich Muslim countries.
But only now are products such as burkinis or collections like D&G’s headscarves being offered in large numbers in the West. The reason is simple: The customer base is growing and becoming more affluent.
And the market is booming. In Arab countries alone, sales of Islamic fashions are expected to double in a few years to €400 billion, or about $445 million.