What’s in a Dress?

Historically, how females dress has been different from how males dress.1 There has never been in history a truly androgynous dress.2 Through dress, women and men’s gender roles are specified. This hasn’t changed much in our contemporary times. Despite the fact that there has been a movement in the fashion industry for unisex lines of clothing, the most prevalent manifestations of dress are still unique to each gender. This has not changed with the increasing presence of women in the workplace, including in Western contexts. While designers have developed business suits for white-collar women, those are markedly different than men’s. In a career guide for how to dress professionally at Emory University,3 for example, the recommended clothing for “business professional attire” is different in many respects for men compared to women. When it gets to the “business casual attire,” the differences become more salient.

Dress continues to be a factor by which cultures define what is appropriate for men and women, not only in terms of how they look, but also in terms of how they behave. In Eastern and Western work contexts, dress codes are different for men versus women. In the aviation industry, for example, female flight attendants have different attires than male flight attendants. Yet, such dress codes do not entail different work expectations. Some studies addressing the historic relationship between dress and gender roles4 indicate that gender roles closely follow the divergence between male and female dress. When fashion styles of females significantly diverge from those of males, gender roles also tend to diverge. As female dress converges more with male dress, so would be the expected convergence in gender roles.

Surprising to many who are not familiar with Arab culture, how Muslim women dress is as thorny a topic as it is in many Western societies. How a woman dresses has been argued to be of significant relevance to her expected roles and her potential participation in public life. A dress is not only a fashion statement by the wearer. It sometimes reflects an inherent ideology, a reflection ofdeep religious convictions, a response to parental or societal demands or pressures, a political declaration, a social message, an identity statement, all of the above, or none of the above. The decisions she makes thus have implications, not only for her, but also for others. Those implications have magnified over the last few years, as women’s bodies and clothes have “become battlegrounds” for conflicting ideas. Below I explore some of the arguments, standpoints, and positions that see the female Muslim dress, particularly the veil5 (headscarf), as a major contributor to the decline in Arab women’s participation and empowerment.

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