The minefield of women's apparel

Deciding what I want to wear for any given occasion can be a tricky affair. Is smart casual the same as eveningwear? And does it include a light blue dress with small flowers - or is that strictly a cocktail dress? And is it the empire waist or the basque waist which is preferred for the fuller figure? Should blue and green never be seen? And what about pink and red?  Yep, it’s definitely a minefield out there. 

That said, as much as I find deciphering the codes of women’s wear slightly mystifying, there is something quite fun and fanciful about making those choices. 

A woman should be able to wear what she wants, when she wants. In whatever country she wants. That’s why the European Court’s ruling upholding France’s ban on the full-face veil is so startling.

I like being able to wear a miniskirt whenever I like. Equally I want to be able to choose to wear trousers instead of a skirt on any given day. In the same way, if I wanted to wear an outward symbol of my faith, I should be able to. 

Living in London, I know I can do that. But if I were to hop on a plane across to Kampala, I know I’d have to think twice about travelling in a short skirt. I may risk getting arrested at arrivals because they may be banned under Uganda’s controversial Anti-Pornography Bill. While if I were to go to Sudan, I could be fined for wearing trousers.

Amira Hamed lives in Sudan – and who has been previously fined for wearing trousers – more recently has been charged with ‘indecent dress’. Why? Because she’s refused to wear a headscarf. 

For this “crime”, Amira could be flogged with 40 lashes.  

So in Sudan, a woman not wearing a headscarf is a crime. Meanwhile, in France, a woman can still be punished for wearing a full-face veil. 

A woman’s choice to wear a burqa or not to wear a headscarf is exactly that: her choice.  She should be allowed to publicly demonstrate her faith through her clothing or jewellery if she wants to. Just as she should not be forced to publicly demonstrate her faith (or lack thereof) if she doesn’t want to. 

Choosing what to wear is a basic right to freedom of expression which should be afforded to all, whether you live in Uganda, Sudan or France, or anywhere for that matter. There shouldn’t be one rule for me – living in London – and another rule for my Ugandan, Sudanese or French sisters. 

Amnesty International is calling on Sudan and France alike to quash these laws. Women like Amira shouldn’t be at risk of flogging because she doesn’t want to wear a headscarf, and women in France who want to wear a full-face veil shouldn’t be punished for choosing to do that.  

After all, every woman should be free to spend hours working out what (not) to wear.


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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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"A woman should be able to wear what she wants, when she wants. In whatever country she wants."

This has never been true. Why should it be? Are people allowed to walk around naked everywhere? Making blanket statements like this is naïve and intellectually dishonest.

The same applies to religious expression as the author surely knows. A person should be allowed to express their religion as far as possible, but not in ways that are harmful to other people or to detrimental to society.

chrisn 5 years ago

I totally agree with user chrisnewell . If we tolerate this full face mask , then we should tolerate totally naked people walking around us. If I create a religion which demands to be totally naked then (according your way of thinking) I should be allowed to do so.
Please think twice before you make statements like this.

Konstantinos 5 years ago

I was just commenting exactly the same point as previous users. You didn't consider nudity in your argument. And the full face burka is socially divisive and awkward for many people, as well as other things.

peter_124 5 years ago

Chiming in here to agree with the author. People should be free to dress as they wish. My children attended a school where several other moms wore full face covers, and it never bothered me. They were friendly and talkative, even when their English skills were limited. I think the slippery slope argument about nudity is a fallacy, but if not, so what? In many places there are no laws prohibiting nudity, most people simply don't prefer it. If I can wear a cross around my neck to work each day, someone should be able to cover their head or face if they like. It's a personal choice.

pastrkay 5 years ago

Not since AI UK chose radical Islamist Moazzam Begg as a poster child have I so seriously considered cancelling my membership. This superficial article addresses a woman's sartorial "choice" to wear the burqa without unpacking what "choice" may actually mean in the context of radical religious control or examining the deep misogyny implicit in requiring a woman to conceal her features. Neither does the article engage with the isolation that results from segregating women from their wider society and the consequent risk of abuse and oppression that they may experience. Nor does it reflect upon the challenges posed upon a western and pluralistic society - one where facial expressions are a key feature of identification, interaction and inclusion - of veiling such women. While legislation may not be the answer (and I cannot myself point to easy answers, unlike your commentator), these are real issues and your facile dismissal of them, particularly with respect to religious misogyny, is troubling for a body that describes itself as a human rights organisation.

Pimm 5 years ago

Well said Pimm! The point is that there is *no* choice for women not to wear garments decided on by superstitious men in societies dominated by these religious men!

Hazy 5 years ago

And... what's wrong with nudity? I think everyone should be able to go naked anywhere she/he wants...

la pili 5 years ago

Yes, I agree with Pimm that legislation may not be the answer. Pimm’s points about social integration and inclusion are regularly debated around this topic. The point I was making was about freedom of expression. While men and women can actually walk around naked in naturist resorts in France, a woman is banned from wearing a burqa anywhere in public.

A woman in France, a woman in Sudan and a woman in the UK should be able to have free choice in what she wears. If she wants to wear a hijab, or if she doesn’t want to wear a hijab, shouldn't that be her choice?

Yes, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion are limited – not absolute – rights. People should be allowed to express their religion as far as possible but not in a way in which they are harmful to others, or detrimental to society. But how is wearing a burqa in France harmful to others and detrimental to society when wearing a burqa in other European countries is not?

EuletteStaff 5 years ago

I also agree with Pimm and see this position as an error of interpretation of the recent Court ruling because : “The European Court recognised that arguments for the ban based on security and gender equality were unfounded. But it accepted the argument that wearing full-face veils runs counter to established social norms that are necessary for what it described as ‘living together’.”
Everything else around, the discriminatory points, the racist points, the freedom to wear what you want points are valid but second to the first point. If all Countries, Societies, Cultures followed identical rules, including on the way they apply Human Rights, wouldn’t there be only ONE country/culture? Obviously Human Rights are “Universal” by definition, but this does not negate Cultures uniqueness. You have to meet in the middle somewhere, otherwise it is unrealistic in this world of Societies and Countries and Cultures. That is what is “living together”, about leaving your face visible in public space and still being allowed to express your religion and opinions in other choices of clothing, speech, practice etc... in the public space, as the French Republic permits by constitution. Hiding your face in public space is not culturally acceptable in France currently. It might be in the UK or other countries, but not in France and this should be respected and not enforced. This might change in the future but we have to deal with the reality of our world right now.
Comparing this ban to others in other parts of the world is putting Cultures against each other. Each country/culture have their uniqueness which is the wealth of this world. Defending Human Rights true “Universal” rules should also be looking at each culture/country uniqueness and aiming at defending Human Rights within the Culture and not only by levelling all Cultures and Countries to an unique similar ruling which will damage cultures.
As for the choice to go to a naturist resort : it is legislated actually and certainly not allowed in the middle of the public space. Just like the Burqa.

Sof blabla 5 years ago

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Alex.Dwight92 3 years ago