When the veil becomes a fashion trend

In Frankfurt, hijabs, niqabs and burqas are on show at the Contemporary Muslim Fashions exhibition. But is equating religious head coverings to mere "fashion" offensive to the many women worldwide fighting for the right to take them off?

Cinzia Sciuto
Cinzia Sciuto MicroMega, Italy
Source: MicroMega
When the veil becomes a fashion trend - NewsMavens
Veiled woman. Pexels.

Why this story matters:

Patriarchal and misogynist ideologies, with the constant support of religions, have always exercised their power over the bodies of women. As Femen activists Inna Schevchenko and Pauline Killier write in "Anatomie de l'Oppression", there is no part of the women's body which the patriarchy has not oppressed: hair, brain, eyes, mouth, heart, breast, belly, hands, sexual organs, feet.

One of the most common ways of oppressing the body of women is by creating an obligation to cover it. The coverage can take various forms, from an almost symbolic headscarf draped lightly over one's hair to total coverage like a burqa.

Behind the more or less opaque "veils" that have been used to cover the bodies of women hides a long and complex history of oppression, which existed across ages and cultures. And which, unfortunately, still exists. Even today, women in different countries are forced to cover themselves in different ways and can be severly punished -- as severly as incarceration and corporal punishment in some cases -- if they fail to do so. For example, Iranian women have been protesting against the veil for years. 

What would the women who risk their lives by taking off their headscarf think of the Contemporary Muslim Fashions exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Frankfurt, which reduces hijabs, niqabs, burqas to mere items of clothing?

As items deserving to be shown not at a conference on women's rights or in a historical exhibition. Ask Mina Ahadi, Iranian activist in exile who has lived in Germany for forty years, president of the Council of Former Muslims in Germany.

In her open letter to the organizers of the exhibition, she writes: "The veil represents a misogynist ideology that is imposed with prison and torture in Iran and Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. An ideology that also reached Europe and the West thanks to mosques and Islamic organizations, often linked to Islamic regimes, and that imposes the veil even on little girls. [...] If contemporary fashion and art still possess a touch of humanity, they should show the struggle, the real war that women in Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are waging against this 'fashion'".

Perhaps cultural institutions should reflect on their mission. Do they want to support women's battles for freedom around the world, or boost the profits of fashion companies that make money off our bodies?

Details from the story:

  • The Contemporary Muslim Fashions exhibition opened on April 4 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Frankfurt. On the museum's website, we read: "From haute couture to streetwear to sportswear: the market for Muslim fashion is growing by leaps and bounds worldwide. Contemporary Muslim Fashions is the first major exhibition ever to explore the phenomenon of contemporary Muslim fashion."
  • The exhibition is shown in Europe for the first time. It was first on show at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
  • The Council of Former Muslims in Germany published an open letter asking the organizers to cancel the exhibition, which they believe offends the women for whom the veil and other forms of body coverings imposed by tradition are a form of oppression, and who are fighting to abolish it.
  • For Seyran Ates, lawyer and founder of a liberal mosque in Berlin (where men and women pray together, where there are also female imams and where homosexuals are welcome): "The veil has nothing to do with individuality and diversity, it is rather the flag of political Islam. Exhibits like these fall into their trap".
  • For Inge Bell of Terres de Femmes "the veil cannot be considered an accessory, simply because it is not. This exhibition is a scandal, a slap in the face for all the girls and women in the world who would like to take off their veils but cannot." 
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