Monday, April 18, 2011

Are Burqa-Inspired Fashions Glorifying Female Oppression or Encouraging Women to Dress More Conservatively?

(Fox News) - The fashion industry has always thrived on pushing the envelope -- but the latest accessory gracing the runways and magazine editorials is the increasingly controversial burqa, or a traditional Islamic headdress.

But despite France’s ban on the veil and talk of countries like Australia and Belgium following suit, it isn’t stopping European and Asian designers from attempting to make it hip and happening.

Vogue Paris raised eyebrows with a recent issue that featured the burqa in an Arabian-style editorial shoot, mixing it with varied styles and blatant sexuality, even though it is now illegal for one to cover their face in France regardless of religion.

Moreover, a slew of prominent celebrity designers, including famed British/Turkish mastermind Hussein Chalayan and Japan’s Jun Takahashi of Undercover, have reinterpreted the abaya (an Islamic cloak) and the burqa for their recent runway shows.

English designer Louise Goldin had her models strut in the burqa and other Islam-inspired pieces at London Fashion Week. And even comedian Bill Maher hosted a “Burqa Fashion Show” on his program in an effort to entertain his viewers.

But is turning these conservative Islamic garments into a fashion statement a novel idea or simply tasteless?

“It is concerning that the fashion industry is glorifying this form of dress. In today’s society, where young women are often easily swayed by celebrity fashion and media, it may be concluded that this is an acceptable and appropriate form of wear with little regard to its intended purpose,” Muslim filmmaker Hifney Masoud told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “In extreme Muslim places, women may be forced to wear the burqa and a failure to do so can potentially result in harassment, beatings, or worse. For those genuinely oppressed and forced to live this way, the idea of it as a fashion trend would be considered highly insensitive.”

Moreover, Los Angeles-based fashion business expert, Anne Riley-Katz, said that using Islamic dress in the glitzy world of the fashion/entertainment arena could be viewed in either a positive or negative light.

“It’s risky in the regard that it might be construed as offensive -- both in terms of trivializing traditional Islamic dress and may be seen by Westerners as glamorizing what is considered the oppression of women in Islamic culture,” she said. “The flip side of that is that some, perhaps designers themselves, might see it as an attempt to integrate elements of Islamic culture into the Western view; a visual way of melding cultures and generating acceptance.”

Still, many Muslim women embrace the idea of the western fashion world using Islamic dress to make a trend-setting statement, and don’t perceive it to be a symbol of oppression by any means, as many Muslims choose to dress this way.

“I love to see people’s take on it as long as they are not trying to put women down. To some people, it (Islamic dress and the burqa) is liberating,” said Mariam Sobh, editor-in-chief of

Kamal Nawash of the Free Muslims Coalition also echoed their sentiments.

“I think conservative Muslims would be pleased if their required dress code becomes fashion. Conservative Muslims absolutely detest women dressing as sexual objects or so revealing as to suggest that their value is their sexuality,” she said. “Thus, when conservative Muslim women view other women dressing conservatively they become happy even if the non-Muslim women are merely dressing for fashion.”

While Nawash doesn’t have a problem with Western women wearing the dress for the sake of fashion, she disapproves of the way it has perhaps been “sexualized” by the fashion industry. Indeed, the Paris Vogue editorial features lanky models with each of their faces covered by a stylized burqa, yet they’re wearing high heels, tiny skirts and hot pants.

“Muslim women would only be insulted when women who are otherwise naked, cover their face. Muslims believe that such fashion is designed to ridicule conservative Muslim women,” Nawash explained, referencing the Paris Vogue pictorial as an example of what may be considered offensive.

But at least here in the U.S., fashion experts are doubtful that local boutiques will start selling such “accessories” as the burqa for women’s day-to-day wear.

“I doubt that the burqa would really find its way to the average western woman, whether it be Main Street, Idaho, or the designer boutiques of Fifth Ave. or Rodeo Drive,” celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch tells us. “The use of the burqa on runways and for fashion sense is merely to incite, to intrigue and to evoke a sense of mystery.”

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