In France, no doubt, fashion is taken very seriously. Decades of innovation by grand fashion houses have produced the most extravagant expositions on the fashion runways of Paris. Widely celebrated as the cradle of modern fashion and haute couture, it is particularly curious that France now becomes the first nation in Western Europe to censor specific expressions of fashion.
But wait a minute, the French would insist, a burka is not fashion, it's opression! In the political landscape of much of post 9/11 Europe, the burka is the site of unruly and untrustworthy Islamic fundamentalism. The stitching, the fabric, the color, the design: all is absorbed into the logic of Jihad, a war against Western civilization which lurks beneath this draping costume, the habit of hate and oppression.
Yet the distinction between fashion and oppression can be slippery. Is a miniskirt a symbol of fashion or oppression? The feminists who burned bras in the 70s clearly thought the bra constituted something more than an innocent fashion accessory. What about a G-string, what about high heels when worn by men in the context of cross-dressing? Clothing is fraught with social meaning that produces effects which, when taken to an extreme, can result in the legal banning of certain forms of clothing.
Clothing, in Western culture, has become intrinsically intertwined with expressions of the self, and specifically with the intentionality of the self. As such, to wear certain things is to fall into a presumptuous and speculative landscape about what one wants, such that:
- the woman who wears a business suit wants to make a career
- the woman who wears a miniskirt and a g-string wants to have sex
- the woman who shaves her head and wears a leather jacket wants to tell the world she's different
- the woman who wears a Burka wants to destroy Western civilization (and be oppressed)
To suggest that one should not judge a book by its cover seems too late, since certain covers, indeed perhaps too much cover, can provoke anger and hostility from a Western point of view, where fashion as expression of the self is restricted to selves that want Western things, and that can be translated smoothly into Western (French) values.
That the politicization of the Burka came as a result of 9/11 and subsequent wars on terrorism seems apparent, yet it remains unclear what it is that fuels the public's everyday outcry against wearing a facial veil. We might return here to the speculative landscape that defines the thoughts of individuals who wear certain things. It is possible that in the minds of a largely secular French public, the woman behind the facial veil is imagined to walk around with the following thoughts:
"I hate this damned country!"
"I'm on my way home now to arrange for my daughter's circumcision!"
"Look at all you sluts who don't cover up, may you all burn in hell!"
"I'm going to use all the welfare money that I get from the government to buy more burkas!"
"If I could just get my hands on a bomb so I could blow up a train or something!"
Of course, in the real minds of the women who wear facial veils, we might find the rather disappointing pondering of everyday things such as:
"I hope my son did well in his math exam today"
"how come I have not lost any weight since that diet routine?"
"I wonder what it's like to swim with dolphins"
"I must remember to record that show on TV"
Beneath her habit, we might even imagine the possibility of white ipod earphones playing Barry Manilow. Who knows?
The controversial piece of legislation that is about to be passed in France cannot be properly understood without a mediation of the collective fantasies of a Western society which perceives the symbol of the Burka as a threat. These perceptions must be deconstructed, and alternative accounts must emerge if we are to ever bridge the gap which is currently widening between the West and the Muslim world.