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You Are What You Wear: How Clothes Became Politicized… - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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If you have little or no knowledge of football, the easiest way to follow the fortunes of your or your son’s favorite football team is to track the team’s colors and the players’ uniform.

Sport is not too different from politics; in both fields, competition is intense. In the past few days, two events have caught my attention.

Firstly, during the crowded street demonstration that Hezbollah in Lebanon organized in alliance with the Maronite movement of General Michel Aoun, to protest against the government’s economic policies, I noticed the presence of Hezbollah supporters, with their Iranian-style beards, hijabs and the black chadors.

Their uniform appearance sent a strong message and evidence of numbers that could not be ignored or sidelined. It was as if the Shiaa group was saying, “Look at us and measure our strength in the number of beards, tie-less shirts, chadors and hijabs!”

Secondly, I noted with interest that the Iranian parliament approved a draft bill for “national dress law” on Monday, which is expected to replace Western-style dress. The bill is one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s projects. According to IRIB, the law has yet to be finalized as it needs to be approved by the Guardians Council.

The new law stipulates that financial aid must be given to Iranian dressmakers and designers to encourage them to focus on producing clothes that correspond to the “national and Islamic identity of Iran.” A committee, which includes representatives from the ministry of culture, the ministry of trade and the cultural committee in parliament, as well as government television, is expected to be established. It will be responsible for defining the new national dress. Meanwhile, the ministry of trade has received orders to impose higher taxes on imported clothes and Iranian banks will have to give out loans for local designers and clothes manufacturers.

Men in Iran would dress like their counterparts abroad, except they would not wear a tie as it is banned, while women would have to respect the laws on national dress.

Ever since Khomeini’s revolution succeeded in governing the country in a fundamentalist manner, changes have occurred to the Iranian dress code, with all its political and cultural significances. But, because of the differences in Iranian society, the birth of a new generation with no memory of the revolution, and because of the revolution’s failure in achieving social justice, as promised, women in Iran have become less accepting of the strict chador and more likely to wear colors and replace it with a Manteau (coat). It is true that the Iranian constitution, after the Khomeini revolution, specifies wearing the hijab as a duty for all women in public spaces, but women have interpreted this law differently. Indeed the Manteau has become laden with political significance and has emerged as anti-chador!

Dress, under the mullahs in Iran, was transformed into a tool for control and domination. The government interfered in the minutest of details and sought to eliminate differences in appearance in order to, ultimately, put an end to any intellectual differences. With the mind controlled by defining its realm of operation and drawing the aims of its activity, the body is controlled until total subjugation is achieved.

Herein we can understand the emphasis placed by organizations on the unification of dress, language and thinking, especially those with fundamentalist or national tendencies, even outside the Islamic world, such as the Nazis in Germany.

Looking at Sunni extremism, we can also understand the tendency of militant groups to focus on the issue of dress and appearance, beyond what is laid down in Islamic jurisprudence books. For example, the issue of growing one’s beard is one of a series of issues and is not as central and crucial as it is presented in popular religious discourse. The same applies to music and the details of the veil. These issues are highlighted on purpose and are used as a mobilization tool. Hezbollah in its latest march sent the same message as Hamas in Gaza City: the more we conform to a set of rules, the stronger we are!

I am not seeking to dispute the central position of the veil in Muslim societies. I do not find it peculiar if women in southern Iraq wear a black robe; it is a type of dress rooted in the area and free from political connotations. The same can be said of Saudi women and in many rural areas across the Arab world. However, what about Lebanese women wearing the Iranian chador in 2006? Is this their national dress? Is it an innocent choice or is it laden with ideological and political connotations? According to Hazem Al Amin, from Al Hayat newspaper, Hezbollah actually supervises the shops that sell veils, to ensure a unified dress code amongst its supporters.

The Lebanese female supporters of Hezbollah are not acting naturally or spontaneously. They are publicizing a specific political and ideological message.

The current politicization of the dress code is part of the attempt to re-create the Arab and Muslim society and re-construct its ideology in order to become the carrier of a particular political project, on behalf of parties such as Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Islamist revivalists in Saudi Arabia, or the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt. In the meantime, our governments are either idly standing by or encouraging these groups for their own political gains, amid the weakness of Arab critical thinking hoping it will prosper once more!

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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