Case Study: Fashion and the Burqa Controversy in France

- Justina Lee

The niqab - this will no longer be legal in public places in France starting next week

Starting this month, no one is allowed to cover their faces in public places in France. French politicians have justified this new law by referring to the burqa and framing it as a religious symbol of female repression contrary to French beliefs in secularism and gender equality. As the garment itself poses no tangible harm, the point of contention has rested on its link to these French principles. Fashion, which continuously negotiates the meaning of clothes, thus becomes especially relevant. Vogue Paris featured the burqa in a Arabian-style shoot, mixing it with varied styles and conspicuous sexuality.

“Vogue-à-Porter” by Inez & Vinoodh (Feb 2010)

An international line-up of celebrity designers redesigned the abaya (an Islamic dress) for a fashion show in Paris. Fashion designers such as Hussein Chalayan and Jun Takahashi of Undercover have also reinterpreted the burqa for their runway shows.

Redesigned abayas at George V Hotel in Paris

Similarly, protestors have used fashion to challenge the rationale behind the law. Princess Hijab, a graffiti artist, draws hijabs on sexualized fashion advertisements in the Paris metro.

Princess Hijab

NiqaBitch, a duo of female university students, strutted the streets of Paris in a niqab and hotpants.

Even though fashion may not be able to sway public opinion, it embodies and reinforces the opposing arguments to the ban. The public display of these reinterpreted burqas simultaneously undermines the religious connotations and contradicts the French laïcité, which rejects all ostentatious religious symbols. Even more importantly, the amalgamation of signs - as seen in the Vogue Paris editorial, NiqaBitch's outfit and Princess Hijab's art - attests to the fluidity of meaning and thus challenges the relationship between the burqa and its conventional interpretations. Even though these interpretations do not change as quickly as fashion trends do, fashion embodies the instability of meaning that has come to define the opposing arguments as well as the postmodern culture of our times.