From CNN to Marie-Claire Magazine, we hear the media refer to Muslim Arab women as prisoners of their culture and faith. Sometimes it’s the men who keep them down; sometimes it’s Islam, and sometimes it’s political turmoil. This is true. However, the one oppressor who is rarely, if ever, mentioned is other women. The community of women in Oman and elsewhere in the Middle East far too often act as a self-censoring, self-disenfranchising and self-oppressing unit that limits women’s mobility and freedom. Some call me a feminist, and I am, if that means that I believe that women deserve the same rights and freedoms as men, be they political, cultural, sexual, or economic. However, I do not blindly support women qua women. It is unfair to Arab men and to the Islamic faith to assign the often low status of women in the Middle East, and particular the Gulf region, solely to these causes.
To begin with, let’s look at this issue through the lens of fashion, or the lack thereof, for women in the Gulf. The expected and uniformly worn clothing is the ‘abaya and hijab (called by various names according to country). This is basically a black, formless garment that covers all skin except for the hands and face (in the most conservative areas such as Saudi Arabia and Musandam, a small region of Oman, women also wear black gloves and a mask). In Saudi Arabia, these clothes are required. In other Gulf countries, though not required by law, the social pressure to conform is enormous. It is undeniably true that in many cases, fathers, brothers and husbands force women to cover in this way, but most of the time it is voluntary. Again, the main source of pressure is the community of women. All over the world, it is recognized that when primarily with others of the same sex, social coercion and competition (be it for sexiness or respectability) is at its highest.
Think of an all-girls American high school and a co-ed American high school: Where is the greatest concentration of girls with eating disorders and fashion obsessions? Usually the former. Yet, despite this trend, it generally goes unrecognized that women in the Gulf region act to oppress themselves, at least in terms of repressive fashion styles. The fact that this black, formless cover is perpetuated and supported by women seems to fly in the face of the efforts made by women world-wide to liberate their oppressed sisters in more traditional and conservative sectors of society. However, many women do not realize that their daily choice to wear the ‘abaya and hijab and their decision to wag fingers at those choosing not to, is a powerful force that keeps them at the back of the bus. It has become so much a part of their identity as Muslim Arab women that it is no longer seen as a daily sign of being hidden, but rather has become fashionable and chic. ‘Abayas are adorned with everything from cheap pastel rhinestones to diamonds and gold and are made by everyone from the corner seamstress to Donatella and Christian.
A student recently asked me with a proud look in her eye if I liked Arabic fashion for women. I thought: “You mean the lack there-of?”, but responded, “No, not really. I like colors.” Her face fell as she insisted that the ‘abaya is the most beautiful fashion. Has the most visible sign of female oppression in the Gulf been raised by the women themselves as their primary means of individual expression? The irony is stunning. So let’s stop calling these women helplessly restrained prisoners of their culture and religion. While we must take into account cultural limitations and laws, most men do not violently enforce this dress on their sisters and wives, and Islam does not require women to wear a black sheet. It’s time for these ladies to step up and realize that they and no one else must take the first step towards greater empowerment and freedom.