Freedom to Express…through Dress

September 14, 2012 | Elizabeth F.

Last week marked the first time in the last nearly 50 years that a woman wearing a headscarf was permitted to appear on Egyptian state-owned television. During former Egyptian President Mubarak’s reign, women were banned from wearing this traditional Muslim scarf on public television, but Egypt’s recent revolution has sparked a heated debate regarding some changes to the public sphere – one of which is women’s attire.

Some observers fear that this event in Egypt is just the beginning of a new standard of female repression. Others, however, see this as a step towards improving women’s freedom to clothe themselves as they desire. My question, however, is did anyone even ask the Egyptian anchorwoman – who by the way is named Fatma Nabil – how she felt or why she wore the headscarf?

Fatma Nabil

While reflecting on this recent event, I started to think about women’s dress here in the United States. How free are we to dress as we please in public? Radical feminists may argue that we should be allowed to wear or not wear whatever we want, but this should include conservative attire as well. This can certainly be a touchy subject, but because of that, it deserves a closer look.

One of the fundamental aspects of embracing freedom in society means that we are free to express ourselves, so long as it does not impede on the freedom of others. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, (better than I ever could),

The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.

What I fear is that society has accepted this notion of freedom for socially progressive issues, but not for conservative ones. Women have the right to wear short dresses, to show their shoulders, to wear low-cut shirts and high-heeled shoes, and all of this is great! But, what about the women who want to wear long dresses, a shawl over their shoulders, or even a scarf over their hair? Should they not be afforded the same freedom to swing their fashion fist, so long as it doesn’t strike their neighbor’s nose?

This past summer I was intrigued to notice the change in trend of women’s dresses. Rather than short, halter-top dresses, (which, for the record I love and happen to own many), the trend seemed to be long, flowing dresses that nearly touched the floor. When offering fashion sense for this summer, Shirley Applegate of Ezine @rticles advised,

As you look for dresses this spring and summer season, step away from those short, cute looks and instead focus on the options that are a bit longer.

I was further intrigued to see that earlier this year, Ladies’ Home Journal published an article entitled Dress Codes: Mixing Fashion with Faith, which explores how five women of different faiths exercise their freedom to dress conservatively. Because of their desire to be faithful to their religious beliefs, they choose to dress in a way that empowers them as women of faith, regardless of how others see it.

Dresses to impress.

The point here is not to force or even promote conservative attire. If that is what you’ve read, then I am sorry, but you have misunderstood. The point of this piece of reflection is to promote freedom. If you want to wear a tight-fitting shirt, then you have the freedom to do it, just as if you want to wear a loose-fitting dress. Similarly, if you want to cover your hair because you feel you are being more faithful to your religious beliefs, then you have the same right to do that as someone who wants to whip her hair back and forth.

Regardless of how Egypt progresses in regards to freedom and women’s rights, I am thankful to Fatma Nabil for making me reflect on what freedom as a female here in the United States should look like: the freedom to express…through dress.

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