Why Are Governments Obsessed With Controlling Women’s Clothing?


Last Tuesday, Professor at IE University Ibrahim Al-Marashi teamed up with the IE Women in Business Club to give a lecture about Iran’s political situation, Mahsa Amini’s death, an event that sparked massive protests, and the causes of the further conflict. He explained that Reza Shah, the last Shah of Iran before the revolution in 1979, banned the veiling of women in the country. After the revolution, however, power fell to Ayatollah Khomeini who made the veil mandatory in 1983. As such, the country went from one extreme to the other within a generation. Despite the radical change in Iranian society from one regime to another, one thing remained: the policing of women’s clothing.

The reason for this, Ibrahim explains, is that “the ability to dictate how a woman dresses is a reflection of the power of the state.” Governments therefore rely on the tactic to assert power in a visible and indistinguishable way. Since the objectification of women and the preoccupation with women’s sexuality is already deep-rooted in most societies, attacking it does not seem as bad as attacking a man’s attire would be. Thus, this particular method of proving your control over a population has been seen time and time again throughout history.

This is made abundantly clear when looking at other countries that endorsed this phenomenon. When British colonizers arrived in India, they found the traditional Sari to be immodest and inappropriate. Writer Annette Akroyd arrived in Calcutta in the 1870s, determined to build a school for Indian girls. When talking about the women who wore Saris, she said “They cannot go into public in such costumes,” and described the woman who she saw as a “savage who had never heard of dignity or modesty.” The British in India quickly convinced themselves that they had to save Indian women from their supposedly terrible fates, and with time, the sari was slowly replaced with English clothing. 

In September, the French government announced that their athletes would be banned from wearing the veil at the 2024 Olympics. This follows mass discussions about Burqas, a garment worn by some Muslim women, and the banning of abayas, a robe-like dress, worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world, in French schools, indicating that France is on a spree of banning traditional Muslim clothing. Similar occurrences have happened in Belgium and the Netherlands. The reasoning behind these decisions is that governments feel that they are protecting women from being forced to wear the clothing pieces (and their solution is to, again, force women to do something else). This, just like colonizers in India, is done with the belief that they are saving these poor, helpless women.

While women in Iran protested against the burqa, women in France protested for it. Both governments, no matter how different, are depriving women of their right to choose how to dress. Iran forces women to wear the veil as a symbol of their control of the population, while France does so as a symbol of what they believe is the protection of the population. In Europe, this is also linked to the idea that it is “feminist” to ban the clothing pieces, as these are supposedly what is oppressing women. At the end of the day, however, the measure is just to attain more votes. As such, both situations are ways of saying “Hey, look at how great I am” to their populations; and both of them do it to retain power.

Nevertheless, there is an added layer to controlling what women can wear. In his lecture, Ibrahim mentioned the following quote by The Atlantic writer Max Fisher: “After all, [Iran’s] laws and restrictions would not be necessary if Iranian women were as powerless as the religious leaders hoped.” It seems that in the end, governments do not control the helpless, they control those whom you feel threatened by. In the case of Iran, they have to silence half of the population in order to have control. They control what women wear out of insecurity about their true power over their population. 

In the case of France, they control what women wear out of insecurity about their “Frenchness.” Governments police Muslim garments above all because of racism and Islamophobia, but the real reason behind this is insecurity. If you feel as though you need to police people’s clothing in order to either get votes or protect your so-called Frenchness, you are either not a very popular candidate or your Frenchness was weak to begin with. In India, the British felt better about their colonial atrocities if they thought they were saving Indian women. It was what made them feel better about themselves, while simultaneously making India as British as possible.

In one regime or another, women’s clothing is a pawn in the government’s desperate need for power. No matter the reason or excuse, governments attack women’s right to choose what they wear and to assert control over their people. It is yet another example of how governments use women as scapegoats for their own benefit. But in Iran, Afghanistan, France, the Netherlands, or India, if you have to control your “weakest” members of the population for power, maybe they are not so weak after all.

Irene Perez-Lucerga
Irene Perez-Lucerga
A Dual Degree student in Business Administration and International Relations. Born in Barcelona, and also lived in Detroit and Bonn. Currently an Opinion writer for the Stork, and often covers Global Affairs and politics.

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