This post was written by Sahar and originally published at Nuseiba.
Last week was ‘Fashion Week’ here in New Zealand, where both emerging and established designers show off their ‘creation’ on long impressive catwalks; a moment of ego basking in the glory of all of New Zealand’s fashionistas. Not surprisingly, I hadn’t taken much notice of this ridiculous display of unnecessary expenses; shamelessly paraded before its admiring audience, until I was notified to check out an article in our national paper on one designer in particular. This designer was new to the industry and claimed she was ‘inspired’ by Afghan culture. I groaned upon reading this, knowing what it really meant. To my utter disgust, the article came with images of models wearing traditional Afghani clothing walking down the catwalk. I was furious. Not because I could not be part of this oh-so momentous and proud moment of Afghan ‘triumph’—which I’m sure many would deem it such. On the contrary, it was yet another horrendous appropriation of a culture for the benefit of the fashion industry. Like the appropriation of the Palestinian symbol of self-determination and cultural identity, the keffiyeh– worn from Hollywood celebrities to their tragic 14 year old mimics– this designer has taken upon herself to do the same; to appropriate Afghan culture and make it more ‘fashion friendly’, repackaged, and easily consumable.
It became clear from the images I saw, the exoticisiation of Afghan culture was the dominant image– with models wearing brightly coloured, extravagant clothing, on display like ornaments in a museum. The implication here is, this disconnects Afghans from the broader daily world and marginalizes them as exotic Others wearing ‘costumes’ (as oppose to clothes in the West), existing to quench the insatiable Western desire to look, and ready to ‘inspire’ and serve Western political and artistic needs. Afghan culture, which is in reality, rich and complex, is reduced to orientalist caricatures. Essentially, these ‘exotic’ traditional dresses (as well as the burqa) summarises everything the Westerner needs to know about Afghan culture and its people.
But there’s more. The show itself began with a model removing a burqa before she strutted boldly down the catwalk in her skimpy outfit. The burqa here is immediately presented in classic orientalist terms: oppressive and inhibiting. Chandra Mohanty observes how the ‘third world woman’ is produced in all of her stereotypical glory often using such orientalist iconography, in order to maintain the discursive contrasting representation of Western women being liberated and advanced. The burqa here is used to produce the Islamic otherness—the silent Afghan woman, who lacks agency and lives a life of subordination. Grotesque media images of women in burqa, stoned or shot to death under the brutal Taliban regime are invoked. As Judith Butler has described, the burqa is seen as not human. By removing the burqa, she is unveiling the Afghan woman to mark her ‘liberation’. This gesture reflects the neo-colonial sentiment to ‘humanise’ (Westernise) the Islamic other, so she becomes like her ‘liberated’ Western sister.
These neo-colonialist frameworks produce what the Western capitalist gaze deems as the ‘norm’ of how a woman should present herself: Like her Western sister, she must paint her face, wear the latest fashion attire– buying into the Western signifiers of what it is to be woman. In other words, to display the female body for all to see, freed for manipulation for the new capitalist economy. The Afghan woman, upon removing the burqa, is then convincing her audience she is participating in the consumer market, just like the rest. To make the female body more accessible to the market, ready to dissect her and repackage her in accordance with the markets. French philosopher and activist Alain Badiou highlights this crushing objectification of Western women, when he states she “must show what she’s got to sell. She’s got to show her goods. She’s got to indicate that, henceforth, the circulation of women abides by the generalized model, and not by restricted exchange”. And continues “Whoever covers up what she puts on the market is not a loyal merchant”.
Through her participation in the consumer market, the Afghan (Muslim) woman is proving she is a ‘loyal merchant’, and is therefore feminised– as opposed to the non-person in the burqa. Using such reductive imagery, the East is stereotypically produced for Western consumption. Conveniently, the wars raging in Afghanistan and Iraq are legitimised and rationalised to the Western audience, the only audience. The atrocities of the coalition and American presence in Iraq become justified, all for a ‘good’ cause. Imbued with these ideas of emancipation through the removal of the burqa on stage, the Western consumer observer is thus persuaded that this fashion production is part of a philanthropic mission. That even the fashion industry is doing their bit!