Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Globalized Fashion a Political Statement in the Middle East

Jun 22, 2006

In a region where governments have long tried to curb Western influences, the women of the Middle East increasingly use fashion to make a political statement—blending Western concepts with distinctively Islamic elements.

In Iran, a black headscarf and loose-fitting black manteau (a long, coat-like covering) became obligatory after the 1979 revolution, but many women have challenged the state dress code by wearing colorful, fashionable coats with head coverings to match. The way women wear the manteau has even become a fashion statement in and of itself, with lengths and colors changing from season to season. In response, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced national-dress legislation last May calling for a boycott of Western fashions in Iran. Ironically, during the reign of the last Shah, Iranian women challenged a government prohibition against head coverings by specifically wearing the garment in large numbers.

In Saudi Arabia, a country that follows the most traditional interpretation of Islamic dress, women have always had access to high-end designer clothing and makeup, worn indoors in mostly female settings. Despite its strict dress code, which requires women to don a flowing, black, head-to-toe robe, Saudi Arabia surpassed the more liberal Dubai as the biggest importer of German fashion products in the Middle East.

Western fashions and influences are not banned in Saudi Arabia, but sometimes adjusted to meet Islamic standards. For example, girls all around the Middle East have replaced their Barbies with Fulla, a doll with a Muslim, Middle-Eastern look. Fulla has displaced Barbie as a top seller in Middle Eastern markets.

In a similar trend, Elle magazine recently launched its Middle Eastern version, featuring glossy pages of women in conservative clothing and a mixture of Eastern and Western fashions. The first issues appeared on newsstands in Lebanon, Morocco, and Jordan in June 2006 and will arrive in Syria, Egypt, Dubai, and Kuwait in the coming weeks.

Related ResourcesGlobalization and Women in the Middle East Valentine Moghadam, September 2002, Middle East Women's Studies Review

Arab Human Development Report 2005 United Nations Development Programme

Women and Globalization in the Arab Middle East: Gender, Economy, and Society Eleanor Abdella Doumato and Marsha Pripstein Posusney, eds. Lynne Rienner, 2003.

Globalization and the Middle East: Islam, Economy, Society and Politics Toby Dodge and Richard Higgott , eds. Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2002.

"The Arabs, Islam and Globalization" Fauzi Najjar, Middle East Policy, Fall 2005. Volume 12, Issue 3.

"Islam, Globalization, and Economic Performance in the Middle East" Marcus Noland, SAIS Review, Volume 24, Number 2, Summer–Fall 2004, pp. 105–116.

"Structural Impediments to Economic Globalization in the Middle East" Mehran Kamrava, Middle East Policy, Winter 2004. Volume 11, Issue 4.

"Challenges of Growth and Globalization in the Middle East and North Africa" George T. Abed and Hamid R. Davoodi, International Monetary Fund, 2003.

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