Western fashion as cultural imperialism?

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By Govindini Murty.  Sex and the City 2 continues to generate controversy for its critical depiction of how women are treated in the Muslim countries of the Middle East.  Claudia Puig at USA Today is still fulminating about the film, while Manohla Dargis at the New York Times addresses the hypocritical nature of the critical establishment’s outrage.  Here on LFM, my own positive review of Sex and the City 2 incited a number of female readers to write in.  One of our liberal feminist readers – the self-styled “Feminazi” – attacked my review and called me a “reactionary” for praising the film, claiming that lingering patriarchy in the West and social pressure to look attractive somehow are so morally compromising to us that we have no right to critique the treatment of women in the Middle East.  On the other end of the political spectrum, a Muslim female reader named Hala accused me of “flaming intolerance” toward Muslims, and stated that women in the Middle East are “strong, smart, and well-treated” and that our vaunted women’s rights in the West, such as the right to drive cars, are not so great anyway.  I engaged in a dialogue with both of them and found it interesting that when it came to the issue of Islam and its treatment of women, that both liberal feminists and traditional Muslim women would have the same viewpoint: that the West has no right to claim that its women enjoy any superior freedom to the women of the Middle East because women are supposedly treated in a sexist manner in the West.  I found it striking that I would be defending the West’s advocacy of equal rights for women against both a liberal feminist and a Muslim traditionalist.

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Finally, LFM reader Melissa commented that, while she liked Sex and the City 2, she thought it was “somewhat offensive” to have a scene where the Muslim women remove their burqas to show the Western designer fashions they are wearing underneath to Sex and the City heroines Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte.  Melissa was concerned that this scene made light of Muslim women’s oppression by showing them as being able to wear Western clothes, albeit under their black robes.  I responded to Melissa that this scene depicts an actual reality in the Middle East.  Muslim women, especially those who are affluent, do indeed wear colorful, stylish Western clothes under their dour black robes.  Though they generally can’t wear these clothes openly in public, they can wear them privately at parties and special events.  It is one of their private joys; even if they are restricted in what they can show the outside world, they can enjoy wearing exquisite, colorful clothes underneath.

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Harem pants, turbans, Halston, and Manolo Blahniks: the meeting of West and Middle-East.

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Call me idealistic, but I believe that American and European fashion is a unique vehicle for bringing Western democratic values into Middle Eastern women’s lives.  Western fashion is not just an ambassador for Western style – it is an ambassador for Western freedom.  After all, the freedom to look as you wish, to dress as you wish, to cover up or not cover up as you wish, affects how you think and move and behave.  The more freedom we have in how we are able to present ourselves to the world, the more joy we have in interacting with that world.  Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for Sex and the City 2, in its brave depiction of the culture clash between the West and the Middle East, to show the Western women Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda as having the freedom to wear a joyful, colorful synthesis of American and Muslim fashions in public (see Carrie in a purple turban and Samantha in gold lame harem pants in the picture above) – and to depict the Muslim women they encounter as tentatively expressing their desire for freedom too by wearing the latest Paris and New York fashions – but being forced to cover them up with black burqas.  This is not cultural insensitivity – this is reality.

As a further confirmation of the fact that Middle Eastern and Muslim women do indeed wear Western high fashion, here’s the Wall Street Journal Magazine’s recent cover story on haute couture fashion.  It discusses the fact that many of the top haute couture customers today are wealthy Middle-Eastern women, and that they have in fact taken the place of the American women who used to be the predominant buyers of haute couture.  It is basically the Middle Eastern and Russian women now who are keeping the haute couture afloat.  For example, almost the entire business of haute couture designer Elie Saab is based on customers from the Middle East.  As the WSJ magazine reports, Saab’s customers include the wives of wealthy sheikhs who think nothing of dropping $100,000 or more on one of his gorgeous beaded dresses to wear to a wedding or special party – before hanging it up in their closets never to be worn again.  (An astounding extravagance in the context of the current worldwide recession.)

Also, in the June issue of Vogue, there is an article on Natalie Massenet, the founder of online fashion powerhouse Netaporter.com.  While the article (not yet available online) focuses on the fact that Massenet just sold her share of the business for an estimated $76 million (not bad for a ten-year old business that everyone said wouldn’t work!), it also indicates that a number of Netaporter.com’s customers are in the Middle East.  This makes perfect sense, because shopping online for designer clothes gives Middle-Eastern women who cannot freely travel to the West access to some of the high fashion style that Western women enjoy.  (By the way, Vogue.com, aware of its own importance as an ambassador of global style, recently praised “Sex and the City 2″ for being “culturally aware.”)

The enormous success of Western fashion worldwide, even in the most culturally restricted countries of the Middle East, is an established fact.  As someone who is involved in the creative arts, I cannot help but think that even if the adoption of certain Western cultural forms such as fashion or music may not inevitably lead to Western-style democratic freedoms, it is at least an interesting indication of an urge for greater freedom on the part of the people of the Middle East.  Certainly, that is how the ruling authorities in the Middle East see it.  Why else would they force women to hide their Western clothes under burqas, or ban teenagers from playing Western music (as poignantly depicted in the Iranian film Nobody Knows About Persian Cats), if they did not see these Western cultural forms as harbingers of freedom that are deeply dangerous to their own efforts at totalitarian control?

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4 Responses to “Sex and the City 2 Controversy: Western Fashion as Force for Muslim Female Liberation?”

  1. Alexa m. says:

    I liked the fashions and I liked the film. It is important to defend Women’s freedom around the world.

  2. Very interesting post, Govindini. Really enjoyed reading this one and the earlier review of “Sex and the City 2″. I was a great fan of the TV series. Didn’t watch for a long time after hearing about it and didn’t like Sarah Jessica Parker (or so I thought.) Then one night when I was bored started watching and was hooked! Loved it! Could never get over how marvelous Sarah Jessica Parker was. She really made the show. Found it was actually less about sex than it was about the friendship between the four women and how they supported each other through the trials and tribulations of life. While the latter were usually about their relationships with men, they certainly dealt with a variety of other issues – often of a type faced by many women in their lives so SATC became a sounding board for how to understand and deal with these problems. While it was never a TV series that deliberately focussed on major social “issues” of the day, I find it very interesting that “Sex and the CIty 2″ while still being basically a fun “chick” movie, does deal with two important current social issues, the issue of gay marriage (which is being hotly debated all over the US), and the issue of Muslim subjugation of women. The four women seemed to approve of the first but disapproved of the latter. While I don’t fully approve of the way Samantha so obviously goes about poking an eye at local customs, (being of the “when in Rome” school of behaviour when travelling), it is challenging to many of us to accept the treatment of women in certain Islamic societies. It is interesting to see this artistic take on the clash of cultures – and the adopting of western fashions in the way you describe (and as seen in the movie) – definitely appears to be a way for Moslem women to show a little in the way of inward defiance against their lot in life.

  3. Qazu says:

    Clearly the author of this article does not have a clue of the supposedly “restrictive” culture of the U.A.E.

    See this article/discussion: http://muslimahmediawatch.org/2010/06/sex-and-the-city-2-orientalist-boogaloo/

  4. Lily says:

    I personally enjoyed this movie! I think it actually schooled some individuals when Miranda did some research and shared it with her friends throughout the movie. I think people took it too seriously! It’s just a movie! Check out my blog! http://paragonlifeblog.com/2010/06/10/sexing-the-city/

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