Fashion or Faux pas: what is the issue with commercialising head coverings in France?

Fashion newspapers have a considerable influence on society. They play with ever-changing social mechanisms and target citizens. Vogue France is no exception to the rule, and its publications are highly linked with ongoing norms, trends, and values. 

So, when Vogue France’s Instagram portrayed model Julia Fox with a black fabric around her head for Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week, alongside the caption “yes to the headscarf”, there was a considerable backlash. In a context where French Muslim women are constantly being denied the right to wear headscarves, Vogue’s latest fashion move strikes as particularly offensive to many people. 

It raised the unanswered questions of how far fashion can go, and the impact of its influence on society. Fashion and society critics have argued over whether headscarves are one of many fabrics where use dictates its meaning, or whether wearing religious attire as accessories is deeply disrespectful. Most importantly, why can Vogue France models wear headscarves for the sake of fashion when millions of citizens are being denied their freedom of expression and practice of faith? Their post reveals as much about fashion’s relation with society as it does with the nature of French society itself. 

Religious attires have been heavily controlled by French authorities for decades.

Religious attires have been heavily controlled by French authorities for decades. The big word on everyone’s lips surrounding these debates is laïcité – a unique form of French secularism. In the town halls, in public schools, and in every building representing authority, stands the French motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (freedom, equality, brotherhood). Yet, laïcité seems to be embedded in French society to the same extent as these three values. Ever since the separation of the state and the church in 1905, it has become increasingly important. 

Religious clothing has been the target of numerous laws from the French government. It culminated in the 2004 ban on religious clothing and symbols within public schools, except for ‘discrete’ ones, and was implemented in both elementary and secondary schools. More recently, in 2019, the Senate tried to pass an amendment forbidding parents to wear the Islamic veil during school trips. Although the latter never saw the light of day, it appeared to prompt much controversy around the world. 

For more than a hundred years, the state has tried to regulate people’s expressions of their faith for different reasons over time. Still, in the 21st century, no other religion has been at the centre of this debate in France as much as Islam. It has been the target of countless talks from white men in power who meet to discuss the limits of others’ liberty.

How is the line drawn between ‘discrete’ or ‘ostentatious’ religious attire, and who draws it.

In the name of laïcité representatives of French authorities judge what is ostentatious or not. The real question is why the government feels threatened by these signs, when testimonies of those directly concerned clearly proves that religious symbols are only ostentatious in the eyes of those who perceive it as such. When the former Minister of Education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, denounced the French magazine LePoint on its article highlighting this religious discourse, she did not search to provoke anyone. The question is then raised: how is the line drawn between ‘discrete’ or ‘ostentatious’ religious attire, and who draws it?

Those who decide laws to forbid Muslim women to wear the hijab in numerous places contribute to a climate of tension; they enscribe in law that certain religious attire is  ‘ostentatious’  and too provocative, but simultaneously a sign of oppression. Yet, we can’t help but notice contradictions here.

In truth, the control of attire can be seen as yet another tool of control by the government. The abundance of rules controlling religious clothing is mainly targeted at Muslim women. They do not affect other religions and genders in the same way. It comes from a heightened climate of Islamophobia that has risen after 9/11, and was exacerbated in France after the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015. After these attacks, France deployed an emergency plan to guarantee “protection and prevention” against such horrible events. In the name of ‘Vigipirate’ (French national security) – they deployed immense attention on terrorism, which has undoubtedly helped stop some of them. 

This climate of tension puts politicians, who reinforced associations between Islam and terrorism, under the spotlight. They did not hear the absolute majority of Muslim people saddened by these attacks, nor did they sympathise with those experiencing Islamophobia within their own country. Today, it appears such apathetic attitudes are rooted in the series of laws continuously passed by the French government as they evidently restrain the rights of Muslim women. 

This only reinforces this negative connotation, especially when these laws are introduced on the basis of fear and insecurity, and are used to increase tensions at the centre of religious debates. Suddenly, everyone is called upon to give their opinion on who should wear what and how to express faith. Everyone, except those directly concerned by these laws: Muslim women.

Restrictions on women’s bodies and choices are rooted in both Islamophobia and sexism. These laws primarily target the headscarf worn by Muslim women and, instead, claim to protect them from an ‘oppressive’ religious attire. Such an argument directly assumes that women are the prey of an oppressive force and cannot defend themselves without rescue from the all-powerful state. It is inconceivable for them that women could make that choice for themselves, without the influence of a man’s decision.

Laws controlling women’s choices are still very much prevalent around the globe. Abortion is still a contested right in various places worldwide and has recently been challenged in multiple states in the USA, such as Arkansas which made it illegal in 2021. President Macron referred to wearing crop tops in school as inappropriate because it “recall[s] an identity, a desire to shock or existence that has no place in schools.” This was yet another law controlling women’s bodies, not men’s.

Yet, the emphasis on putting such laws in place is prioritised, rather than the state spending time to invest in education for women, fighting against period poverty, unequal pay and femicides.  Though initially the fight for gender equality was announced as the great cause of Macron’s presidency, it is now his policies that prevent Muslim women from externally expressing their identity.

Debates around when and how to wear religious symbols and attires are conducted without Muslim women at the table.

In short, they revendicate this law to fight the patriarchy, when it only reinforces it by controlling women’s bodies and choices even more. It takes women’s freedom out of their hands and refuses to recognise their ability to make informed choices for themselves. It silences their voices when debates around when and how to wear religious symbols and attires are conducted without Muslim women at the table.

When Vogue France points out the headscarf as a fashion item, it not only undermines Muslim women and their fight for freedom of religion, but shows how out-of-touch Haute Couture is with society. The fact that Vogue France did not expect this backlash only highlights societal attitudes towards Islam, especially when Muslim women in France lack their right to freedom of expression. 

Vogue was not trying to instigate an example of activism by standing in solidarity and claiming the right to wear the hijab. Its publicity team did not think any issues would arise from portraying a woman wearing a headscarf. as a worldwide fashion newspaper, they have the privilege to witness designers experiment with infinite possibilities of dressing up, whereas Muslim women have to face stares, comments and laws restraining what they can wear. Vogue is accessorising the headscarf because those in power only view the headscarf as acceptable when religion is completely detached from it.

Vogue France’s post mainly rubbed salt into the wounds of those who are still struggling in their fight to achieve freedom of religion. However, with the upcoming French presidential elections being dominated by far-right candidates, this fight is appearing to be more contentious, and standing up for Muslim people’s rights is now more crucial than ever.

 

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