exploring the backlash against high-fashion hijabs

Though French government minister Laurence Rossignol is facing criticism for comments she made comparing veiling to slavery, her position has been echoed by her countrymen in the fashion industry including YSL co-founder Pierre Bergé and designer Agnes...

by Emily Manning
30 March 2016, 9:25pm

Laurence Rossignol, a French government minister, is facing backlash for comments she made on BFMTV and and RMC radio earlier today comparing women who wear the veil to "negroes who supported slavery." The women's rights and families minister's remarks follow similar arguments made by Pierre Bergé, the French industrialist who co-founded Yves Saint Laurent with the storied late couturier. Bergé spoke with Europe 1 French radio about the growing trend of designers creating "modest wear" collections which cater specifically to the Muslim market. "I am scandalized by it," Bergé told the station. "Creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion. Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life."

Bergé and Rossignol's comments take aim at designers including Dolce & Gabanna; earlier this year, the Italian house launched its first-ever collection of hijabs and abayas, debuting a 14-piece range on Style.com/Arabia. "DKNY -- owned by French giant LVMH -- pioneered the 'modest clothing' trend with a capsule collection aimed at the Middle East for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan two years ago," reports the Daily Mail. A few months prior to D&G's lace and Sicilian lemon-covered collection's arrival, H&M featured a hijab-wearing Muslim model in a campaign for the first time. The model, Mariah Idrissi, told an interviewer, "It always feels like women who wear hijab are ignored when it comes to fashion."

"Ignored" is an apt description in many respects, one of them economic. The Muslim fashion market is, by any account, massive. According to one report, Muslims around the world will be spending $484 billion on clothing and shoes a year by 2019. Bergé argues creating collections specifically for Muslim women is "opportunism" on the part of Western designers. "These creators who are taking part in the enslavement of women should ask themselves some questions," he told the station. "In one way they are complicit, and all this to make make money. Principles should come before money." Designer Agnes b. echoed Bergé's sentiments in recent comments she reportedly made to the Parisian Daily: "There is something obscene about offering clothes to rich women from countries where many are fleeing bombs trying to keep their veils on their heads."

Rossignol has since apologized for using the n-word -- a choice she argued was made in reference to philosopher Montesquieu's abolitionist text "On the Enslavement of Negroes" -- but otherwise defends her criticism of designers catering to the Muslim market. "Apart from the slip of the tongue, I don't take back a word that I said [about the clothing]," she said in a statement.

Though Western fashion designers are relatively new to the Muslim market, wearing the veil has long been contested in this hemisphere. In 2002, scholar Lila Abu-Lughod contributed a nuanced piece to American Anthropologist titled "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving," written partly in response to former First Lady Laura Bush's national radio address "to kick off a worldwide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the al-Qaida terrorist network" which largely relied on religious and cultural othering. "We need to work against the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women's unfreedom, even if we object to state imposition of this form, as in Iran or with the Taliban," Abu-Lughod wrote after outlining the practice's historical development across diverse communities in the region.

"In life you have to chose the side of freedom," said Bergé. "Rather than covering women up, "we must teach [Muslim] women to revolt, to take their clothes off, to learn to live like most of the women in the rest of the world." But as Abu-Lughod argued 14 years ago: "What does freedom mean if we accept the fundamental premise that humans are social beings, always raised in certain social and historical contexts and belonging to particular communities that shape their desires and understandings of the world?"

Certainly there is a case to be made about Western designers capitalizing on the immense economic potential of the developing Muslim market, but placing a moral onus on these designers -- or Westerners at large -- to "teach [Muslim] women...to learn to live like most of the women in the rest of the world" is, as Abu-Lughod put it, "colonial feminism." "We must take care not to reduce the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing," she wrote. "Perhaps it is time to give up the Western obsession with the veil and focus on some serious issues with which feminists and others should indeed be concerned." 


Text Emily Manning
Photography Faizal Riza Mohd Raf via Flickr

Laurence Rossignol
pierre berge
modest wear