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What Miley Cyrus and the debate about Abaya in France have in common?

The Minister of Education has announced that Abayas will be no longer allowed in schools. Young Muslim women are once again targeted by this new rule after the ban of the hijab. Young women and their clothing choices are again targeted here after the crop tops were banned last year during the heat waves. France has an obsession with the headscarf, but what if they were right, this time, about the Abaya? Maybe not 100% right but clearly onto something quite interesting to dissect. Miley has been discussing her very sexual era in a new documentary and it has something to do with the Abaya I just mentioned. This is the crossover between pop culture and politics you have been waiting for.

Abayas shop and a bubble with Miley Cyrus
What Miley Cyrus and the debate about Abaya in France have in common?

Unveiling the Abaya's Political Connotation

The Abaya is a long, loose-fitting black robe worn by some Muslim women. The Abaya is often worn over other clothing, and may be accompanied by a headscarf or veil. Without knowing it a lot of people who wear the Abaya are wearing more than a simple garment. The origins of the Abaya are unclear, but it is thought to have originated in the Middle East. Some historians believe that it dates back to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, around 4000 years ago. Others believe that it was introduced to the Middle East by Arab tribes during the Islamic conquests. The Abaya is traditionally worn in Gulf countries and is used to control women. In Saudi Arabia it is mandatory for all women to wear the Abaya. They have no choice but to wear a black Abaya when leaving their house. This is used to reduce women public appearance to a black shape that strip them from their freedom, individuality and humanity altogether. Its apparition in western countries is the result of the influence of gulf countries and especially during the pilgrimage that takes place in Saudi Arabia. We have witnessed the past years a blatant appropriation of Abayas by fast fashion companies to cater to Muslim women all over the world.

Abaya: A Fashion Statement or an Ideology?

In recent years, there has been a growing trend of fashion-forward Abayas. These Abayas are designed to be stylish and comfortable, and they are often worn by younger women. The twist brought to this garment is varied; it could be colors, design and shape. I believe that when a piece of clothing is rebranded to fit a modern lifestyle with the intention to cater to a special need, for instance the need for Muslim or Jewish women to have access to modest clothing can be understandable. It is not perfect in terms of ethics but it works as long as there is a demand. The simple copy past of a model from one culture to another can create a cognitive dissonance. People might not be aware of the impact of their choices wearing Abayas. People need to know why one chooses to dress a particular way, not because they want to control it but because it does not make sense to them. So instead of giving strength to one side without having a discussion, Muslims feel excluded and like they don’t deserve to be part of their own nation. As our global cultures grow and influence each other, it is important to keep an open mind and accept that some evolution were just bound to happen.

My personal preference would be that young lady did not feel the need to wear black Abayas from Gulf countries in school to show modesty and their belonging to a community. But would I make them not wear it? I don't know there is a fine line I am afraid to cross. Can a simple black dress be considered an Abaya? Difficult question and a lot of grey areas... Phew, I am glad I am not a politician... I personally find black Abayas to be boring - on top of being historically and still today an oppressive tool to control the bodies of women - compared to the growing fashionable Muslim women who have their own sense of style. I am amazed at the creativity Muslim women have to make any piece of clothing trendy while keeping in mind their need to be modest. This is the "normal" evolution I personally would expect from Muslim women in the West to go and strive for. It combines their need for modesty while incorporating fashion pieces according to their sense of style and modern lifestyle. Why choose something that has nothing to do with you and your culture when there are not just one way to be Muslim? The beauty of modest clothing I have seen on social media and in the streets is that all aspects of one’s personality can be expressed. Rock and roll? Casual? Punk? Chic? Bohemian? Street wear? Classic? The sky is clearly the limit. My mother who decided to wear the hijab quite late. She has since become a fashionista since the offers for modest clothing is varied and fashionable. She owns many flower dress and many printed patterns. Being religious and wearing the hijab do not have to be associated with austere colors and strict rules. Being Muslim is evolving every day and there are as many versions as there are muslims on the planet.

France's Approach to diversity and its Limits

When the French government wants to keep young women from wearing Abayas, it actually contributes to reinforcing political Islam as well as give fuel to all the extremes views from both the right and the left. As a secular state, France needs to chill when it comes to policing women’s bodies. It has become increasingly worrying to see how Muslim women have been vilified for wearing the Hijab. France has taken a dark path when it forbade muslim women to wear the hijab almost everywhere or from wearing a burkini at their local swimming pool or at the beach if the mayor has decided so. Those French women do not enjoy the same rights as their peers. They have a hard time finding a job or even just enjoying the simple things of life like going for a swim. What did the government expect would happen if he showed no compassion or understanding to Muslim women who are actively choosing to adopt a modest style and the hijab? I feel compelled to say that a part of the rise of fundamentalism in France is the government own doing. By excluding a part of the population from pursuing a "normal" life, it has created ghettos where communities come together and reject the state completely.

The stigma of being a Muslim in France has a lot of negative consequences on the community. So instead of having an approach where it’s clearly "my way or the high way", it is crucial to start discussing and simply talking. Not a debate but a basic discussion. Bringing local academics and experts on various subject to educate and inform students on their origins, their town, the influences they are subjected to… It is not about looking down at students and teaching them life, it is about creating an open dialogue about their environment, their identities and how they express themselves. When will we finally be able to listen instead of judging or dictating? When we stop, we will witness a beautiful dynamic that will eradicate the "us vs them" discourse. France is like a spoiled child who is not willing to change his minds on how people should be and act as French instead of celebrating the diverse expression of being French. France has been contradicting itself more than once on those subjects of freedom and what it is supposed to like to be a French citizen.

What’s the Connection between Miley Cyrus and Abayas?

In a recent documentary (Used To Be Young Series), Miley discussed her career and especially her provocative period. In 2013, her VMA’s performance was memorable because of her twerking on a foam finger and her suggestive sexual poses and moves on stage. At the time, Sinéad O’connor wrote an open letter to Miley in The Guardian. Sinéad was warning Miley about the exploitation of young women in the music industry. The main argument in O'Connor's letter is that the music industry has a tendency to exploit young women by commodifying their sexuality. She argues that this can be harmful to young women's self-esteem and can lead them to make poor choices about their careers. She also warns Cyrus that she is in danger of being used and discarded by the industry if she allows herself to be exploited. I am not digressing, this is necessary context for what’s coming. So, during the documentary Miley adresses this letter and dismissed Sinéad’s warning and words of wisdom by bringing up her mental health as an excuse not to take her seriously. The way Miley reacted is ingrained in sanism and shaming. Big mistake on her part… Sinéad suffering from a mental health condition does not discredit her opinion and what she is known to have been standing for for years. So Miley keeps on going on how much freedom she had in the industry to make her own choices. So, she openly rejects Sinéad advice and doesn’t even take a moment to question the "why" of that particular period of her career.

Of all the choices Miley could have made, she chose to conform to the male gaze and desires? Shocking in a patriarcal society, right? Of all the pieces of clothing available, some young women choose to wear the Abaya which is a direct reference to women’s oppression and submission in some countries? Both cases, while being different, perpetuate the oppression of women and the illusion of freedom.

Romanticizing our freedom to the point where we never question the reasons why we do the things we do is dangerous and can sometimes serve a purpose we had no idea about. One thing for sure is everything is political so it is important and vital to be informed on the choices we make. Even if we can’t help it, but at least we know and when the time comes for us to make different choices, we will. For example, if a women doesn't know where her clothes are made and how but she can't afford a brand with great transparency and a large choice of modest clothing; well, the day she will be able to invest in better quality brands that have a transparent policy, she will change her spending habits. The same issue is shared by plus size women and men who are unable to find proper clothes that fit their style while being truly conscious. It is not about shaming people for having certain behaviors but understanding that this is the reality we live in.

For example, China is a great provider of fast fashion Abayas. And, Saudi Arabia is a great ally of China. Both countries use their international influence to set trends and grow their markets. China actively torture Uyghurs who are a Muslim minority. Uyghurs prisoners are forced to work in factories to produce fast fashion, and probably Abayas, to be sold in western countries at Zara and local markets. How can people be so vocal about defending a piece of clothing from a culture that could not care less about their existence but when it comes to do something like boycotting fast fashion for its human rights violations, nothing is said or done? This cognitive dissonance is alarming. There are more important battles to be fought than the right to wear Abayas and there are better ways to show up as an artist than to simply comply to the male gaze and contributing to women's oppression and exploitation in any industry. Many countries like Egypt and even Morocco were on the path of women liberation and extremists started to preach harsher version of Islam making men turn on women and strip them from their freedom. Is that what we want for Muslim women in France? Why does the government run the risk to make people become even more radical in their religious practices by excluding them from work, school, public spaces and so on? How can we show up for the causes that are worth fighting for? How can we make our politicians actually create new laws that have a real impact? How can we educate ourselves better about our choices and their consequences?

This is an open discussion, I don’t have the answers but I have a ton of questions. I will be more than happy to read your opinion.

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