Let Me Make Something Clear Here:

I am NOT endorsing the subjugation of women by brutalizing them into Islamic dress. I am also NOT saying, "Hey, it's for their own good! Look how liberated these women are!"

What I am saying is: Islam, and the style of women's dress associated with it, is far more complex than we think. Everyone can get behind, "Well, we have to stop the traditionalist Islamic regime because it oppresses women, and that's evidenced by the practice of making them ashamed of their bodies and/ or forcing them to cover up." Of course. No one wants to (consciously) subjugate women. But the thing is, isn't this a little of the pot calling the kettle? We say that freedom means exposing ourselves without shame, but I for one am ashamed of all kinds of "imperfections" and go to great lengths to cover them up. We say women are liberated in the West... but are we really? If not, who is doing the oppressing?

So. I'm not saying in this blog that Islamic dress, when used as a tool of oppression, is not actually a tool of oppression but one of liberation. What I am saying is: What would it feel like to dress ultra-conservatively in a country where it's generally seen as a sign of being less educated or less empowered?

My guess: terrifying.


So... What Are You Doing, Again?

My name is Lauren, and by most accounts, I'm "cute." I'm known for always dressing well, and my friends often tell me I'm "super-stylish" and "adorable." I better damn well be: I spend enormous amounts of time and energy on how I look, like most American women. I work out, I dance, I'm a vegetarian and in my twenties with red hair, pale skin and blue eyes. I probably look the best I will ever look in my life.

I'm also more than a little vain. My personal "addiction" is makeup and nail polish. I can't go to CVS or Walgreens because I end up staring at a wall of $12 lipstick thinking, "Which shade will make me look as beautiful/ exotic/ earthy/ real/ fun/ flirty/ whateverthehell so I can accomplish whatever goal I have in mind this week?" Sometimes I'm up nights thinking about what I will wear the next day, and bad hair days upset me more than most things. Really.

So this week I was reading Muslim Women In America: The Challenge of Islamic Identity Today by Haddad, Smith and Moore, and there was a section on Islamic dress: you know, covering the hair, arms and legs. The authors talked about how that kind of garb is interpreted by Westerners as a symbol of the oppression of women in Islam-- we look at a veiled or covered woman and think, "Made to be ashamed of her body! What an oppressive, misogynistic belief system!"

And then, as I sat on the couch in the lobby at school, tummy sucked in so I looked thinner, makeup on my face to hide my blemishes, uncomfortable shoes on that I wore because they matched my outfit even though I had to walk three miles in them, hair with enough $15 product so it lays just so, and my whole "look" completed with a scarf that was always in my damn way and skirt arranged to look natural but was actually perfectly placed to cover my knee socks... I thought, "Is this really any better?"

The book claims that in America, Islamic dress is often a choice, and the women who make this choice say that they're eschewing things like endorsing Western Imperialism, the sexualization of their bodies, the influence of traditional Islam (which does seek to oppress women according to the book) and of course, as a way of expressing modesty and resisting the pressure to expose themselves in order to be scrutinized against Western standards of beauty.

Now, I understand that there's a big difference between being forced to cover oneself, and choosing to cover. I recognize that I have it waaaaaay easier than any woman who is threatened into covering herself, and that I can't really know what it's like for American Muslim women who choose to dress Islamically. But I wonder: How much time and money would I save if I just put all my crap in boxes for six months or a year or whatever, and only wore modest clothing, with no makeup and my hair covered? Would it change the way I constantly compare myself to every woman I see? How would the gazes of those around me feel different than the usual, appraising gazes I get as a young, reasonably good-looking, white American woman? And most importantly: how would my self-image change if I knew no one would ever see my cellulite (except my man) and everyone had already seen my skin without foundation? Would I feel less chained to the "beauty myth" as Naomi Wolf calls it? Even though I have the option to expose whatever parts of my body I choose, I'm still ashamed every day of some aspect of my appearance because I'm constantly bombarded with the message that I'm not beautiful enough. Whether hijab or skinny jeans, I would say that shame is a major mechanism of oppression in both instances.

I want to know what YOU think. No matter what happens, no matter how I decide to go about this project, on March 16 of 2011 I'll be putting away my makeup, covering my hair, and covering my body.

What happens after that, I will chronicle here.