Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2020-21/Is Modest Clothing Constrained by Social Norms or the Manifestation of Individual Freedom?

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Is Modest Clothing Constrained by Social Norms or is it the Manifestation of Individual Freedom?[edit | edit source]

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Generally, modest clothing refers to a style of loose-fitting dressing that aims to avoid attracting attention by covering parts of the body.[1] This style is commonly adopted by women of the Islamic, Judaic and Christian faiths. Although no religion or culture have the same interpretation, modest clothing is considered a traditional representation of the antiquated patriarchal view that men hold the right to “appropriately” limit women’s behaviour, and by extension, what they wear.[2] This investigation will thus solely focus on modest clothing for women and how it is perceived by the disciplines of Literary Studies and Social Anthropology.

Totalitarian regimes are a major trope in dystopian literature, in which universal dress-codes are imposed to forge a loss of individuality. In The Handmaid's Tale, individuals are forced to conform to the status quo dressing regulations, in which costumes are modest, covering women’s heads and bodies.[3] Hence, examining fashion from a dystopian literary perspective reveals how the governing body in this genre constrains individuality by eliminating the freedom of choosing one’s own clothing.

Meanwhile, the customary association of patriarchy with modest clothing[4] opposes feminist anthropology, where one studies the values and customs of different cultures to determine their respective constitutions of gender. The work of feminist anthropologists diverges from other extensions of feminist theory by dismissing the prevalent view that all women are oppressed, namely through "imposed" modest womenswear.

Responses[edit | edit source]

Literary Studies[edit | edit source]

A subdiscipline of English literature is literary studies, which involves the study of written work[5] including narrative fiction, and thus genres like dystopia, studied at different universities.[6][7][8][9]

An example of the modest clothing in 'The Handmaid's Tale' dystopian novel.

Being the dus-topos (δυσ-τόπος), etymologically meaning the bad place in Ancient Greek,[10] dystopia focuses on the portrayal of imaginary suffering societies as a means to criticise the dangers of control.[11][12][13] This genre emerged in the early twentieth century, a period marked by socio-political instability, totalitarian regimes and two world wars. Interestingly, dystopian works are more likely to be written during times of hegemony than of chaos. As stability and the “Roman provincialism”[14] behaviour dominate, it seems like there is no need to consider any political alternative, leaving space for the emergence of totalitarian regimes. Dystopian authors hence write novels to warn us about the danger of passively giving a governing body too much unilateral power. Besides censorship and the suppression of liberties, totalitarian control in dystopian novels is also depicted through clothing.

Fashion is pivotal in self-expression, which is why the success of regimes in dystopias are dependent on its restriction. In Queen Krinaleen, fashion is imposed by the queen of the Mezzes to "infect" female tourists by giving them dresses which are gladly received, despite permanently disfiguring the wearer; therefore illustrating the detrimental impact uniform fashion may have.[13]

Likewise, in The Handmaid's Tale, the patriarchal, theocratic state Gilead requires handmaids to renounce their identity by conforming to wear long, modest, red dresses and white bonnets (inspired by biblical iconography).[15][3] These social norms deprive the women of individual freedom, making them docile and thus easier to control by the regime. Margaret Atwood, who only included real events in her novel, emphasised in an essay the misuse of unilateral clothing as a means of societal control and identification in totalitarian regimes throughout history.[3]

Both novels exemplify the critical attitude dystopian novels- and therefore, literary studies- have towards an imposed dress code. It is intriguing that women are often victims to dystopian fashion norms and suggests that clothing can be manipulated to oppress. The literary perspective is that any implementation of universal clothing may be harmful to societies whether the people want to wear them or not.

Social Anthropology[edit | edit source]

Veiled Muslim women.

Nowadays, anthropology is studied as a discipline in many academic establishments.[16][17][18][19]

In the early twentieth century, the anthropologist Franz Boas proposed a dominant approach in socio-cultural anthropology- cultural relativism, suggesting that each culture should be treated equally. This was a critique of the previously ethnocentric evolutionist anthropology, which ranked the development of cultures in accordance with Western ideas.[20]

Furthermore, the rise of second-wave feminism led to the emergence of 1970s feminist anthropology, which sought to study gender as an important area of scholarly inquiry. Understanding the different male and female world-views was achieved through strengthening women's position in the discipline, both as subjects of research and as academics.[20]

However, with the idea of cultural relativism, Chandra Mohanty claimed that Western feminism tended to portray non-Western women as universally oppressed objects of analysis, constrained by tradition (e.g. through imposed clothing).[21]

Women wearing burqas.

Similarly, Saba Mahmood analysed women’s ethnographic realities in Cairo, where women actively cultivate traditional virtues that are associated with feminine passivity and submissiveness (e.g. modesty).[22] These women would be viewed as reproducing their own domination and oppression, because the subject of liberal feminist theory is always underpinned by goals of liberation whereby autonomy is largely understood in terms of being able to resist or subvert oppressive social norms.[22] However, in reality they are operating with a different notion of autonomy: rather than subverting the norms constraining them in search of emancipation (like in the West, where self-expression is commonly enacted though clothing), women actively try to embody the clothing norms that "constrain" them as a mode of seeking emancipation, in the form of religious freedom.

Although the burqa has often been seen as a sign of oppression of Muslim women, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod explains that even after the liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban, women still wear veils, symbolising their modesty (an important virtue of Islam). It also enables them to move within the public sphere whilst complying with the morally required segregation between men and women. She quotes Hanna Papanek describing the burqa as "portable seclusion.”[23]

Feminist anthropologists acknowledge cultural relativism- that women, and the clothing they wear, should not be judged by Western standards. Instead, it should be examined through a culturally specific lens which sees women as “products of different histories, expressions of different circumstances, and manifestations of differently structured desires."[23]

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Having two distinct backgrounds, dystopian writers and anthropologists perceive modest clothing differently, one as a way to assert power, while for the other it serves for self-expression.

On one hand, dystopian literature has built its plot around submissive societies in which totalitarian regimes impose unilateral clothing rules. Due to the discipline's history, which emerged as a way to highlight the dangers of dictatorial governing bodies, it focuses on such pessimistic tropes. Hence, imposed modest clothing is perceived as a means of control that eliminates individuality.

Whereas, current feminist anthropology argues against the assumption that "imposed" veils on Muslim women make them oppressed by the segregated social norms, as this contrasts the idea of cultural relativism; it is their cultural choice to wear them. It is ethnocentric to state that Western feminist ideas of oppression are universal and ignore the fact that women have different desires structured by their own contexts.[21][22][23] Therefore, according to anthropology, the cultural specificity of individual freedom means that generalisations about women’s constraints, with regards to modest clothing, cannot be made.

A possible consideration to reconcile these two opposed stances would be to separate the clothing- a piece of material- from the idea of it being a political instrument.

References[edit | edit source]

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