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The chador and feminism don't always fit

Some romanticize Islamic women's dress as liberating; the case of Lubna Hussein is a reminder of the dark side of the veil.

September 10, 2009|MEGHAN DAUM

On Monday in Sudan, Lubna Hussein, a 34-year-old journalist, was convicted and jailed for wearing pants (long, loose ones) on the streets of Khartoum. Though she was released the next day and, moreover, avoided the 40 lashes with a plastic whip that is considered a standard sentence under Sudanese law for wearing "indecent clothing," her case made international headlines and attracted protesters outside the courthouse, many of whom were women who wore trousers in solidarity (and some of whom were arrested).

Hussein, who was entitled to immunity because she worked for the United Nations, quit her job and used the arrest as an opportunity to spotlight the punishment for dress code violations in Sudan. Having refused to pay the $200 fine, Hussein said she was glad to go to jail and seemed disappointed when she was released after a journalists union paid her fine. "I am not happy," she told Reuters. "I told all my friends and family not to pay the fine. ... [T]here are more than 700 women still in the prison who have got no one to pay for them."

Hussein isn't the only rabble-rousing feminist journalist who has made waves in sartorial politics. In a column that was published a year ago but has grabbed widespread interest on the Internet in recent days, America's own Naomi Wolf had a revelation. Islamic dress protocol, she says, can be empowering and is infused with feminist dimensions that Westerners, in their Islamaphobia, are too quick to deny. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2008, Wolf talked about visiting Muslim countries and meeting with women in their homes and realizing that "Muslim attitudes toward women's appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one's husband."

Noting (with apparent surprise) that in the privacy of their homes Muslim women avail themselves of body lotions, attractive clothing and Victoria's Secret lingerie, Wolf wonders if Western sexual liberation, at least when it comes to how women are expected to look and dress, offers its own kind of tyranny. In fact, when she donned full-body covering and a chador and visited a Moroccan bazaar, she had something of an epiphany. "As I moved about the market -- the curve of my breasts covered, the shape of my legs obscured, my long hair not flying about me -- I felt a novel sense of calm and serenity," Wolf wrote. "I felt, yes, in certain ways, free."

Clearly, Wolf, who is nothing if not a master of taking obvious, not- exactly-original ideas and disguising them as radical inquiry (her name-making and "groundbreaking" book, "The Beauty Myth," offered up the ostensibly novel idea that obsession with physical appearance was damaging to women's progress in other areas) must never have dressed up as a ghost (or a nun or a cereal box for that matter) for Halloween. If she had, she could have saved herself the plane fare to Morocco and figured out what I thought most women -- actually, most human beings -- already know: Invisibility (or at least plainness) has its good points. Sure, it can be fun to get attention -- sometimes for showing skin, if that's your thing -- but it also can be tremendously liberating to bow out of the whole "am I hot?" enterprise altogether.

Given that for the last several years, American fashion trends have taken a skimpy (some might say sleazy) turn, it's easy to look at "repressive" dress codes in the Islamic world and attempt to make counterintuitive arguments about how it's potentially easier for women to thrive under a veil than in a miniskirt. And Wolf, for her part, is hardly the first Westerner to find a kind of romance in the idea of being covered. A significant percentage of Western Judeo-Christians who convert from Christianity to Islam are women, many of whom enthusiastically embrace the protocol for modesty and speak about the relief of no longer being seen as sex objects.

It's not difficult to understand how demureness and chastity can be a source of fascination, even a kind of fetish, for all kinds of people. After all, some young women still dream of becoming nuns, Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgowns still abound and "repressed" eras like the Victorian are in many ways imbued with more eroticism than even the hyper-sexual world of today. There's a reason the lingerie company didn't call itself Madonna's Secret -- maybe because she doesn't appear to have any.

But if equating the hijab with patriarchal oppression is reductive and reactionary, romanticizing it is even more so, and the case of Lubna Hussein is a reminder of that. As Wolf's experience suggests, it's fun to dress up if you're truly dressing up, if the fabric that covers you feels more like a fun costume than a state- enforced shield against arrest or worse. Miniskirts may represent their own kind of tyranny, but in this country we have a way of fighting back: We can wear something else.

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mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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