The Miniskirt in the Middle East
If you stroll through a mall or walk down a street in any Arab/Middle Eastern city today (with a few exceptions) you will immediately notice a significant difference between women in their clothing and dress styles. On one hand, you will find women in daffas, abayas, headscarves, and veils… covered up head toe, revealing nothing but their faces- i.e. the archetypal image of Arab, Muslim women depicted by western media. On the other hand, you will notice just as many women dressed up in the latest western fashion, wearing what any western woman would wear as her daily apparel. Despite this wide range of clothing styles, there is one thing you will hardly, if ever, notice in the Arab Muslim street and that is local women with bare legs- women in miniskirts! The reason for that is quite clear and simple: In conservative Islamic Middle Eastern societies, women are expected to dress modestly and conservatively. Even women, who choose not to cover up completely, do make the conscious choice of covering as much skin as possible by avoiding, among many other things, short hemlines.
Thirty and forty years ago, however, the scene was completely different. In the 60’s and 70’s miniskirts were ubiquitous in many Islamic, Arab, and Middle Eastern countries. Women wore miniskirts as their daily apparel. From Kabul in Afghanistan to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, miniskirts were the trend and it was generally acceptable for many women to wear them. This might be surprising to those who never expected miniskirts to have been, at one point in time, so common in the Middle East. I, personally, have many friends back home who were dumbfounded when they first saw old pictures of their mothers, aunts, and other young women from the same generation wearing miniskirts all throughout their youth. How come? They questioned.
Image: Students at Kabul University (1970's, I think)
Indeed! Why was it acceptable for Middle Eastern women to wear miniskirts some 30 and 40 years ago, while doing so today would be considered an aberration? What happened in those past few decades that changed women’s values, attitudes, and behaviour? What are the social, political, economic, and psychological factors that caused this overwhelming change in lifestyle?
Image: Young Bahraini and Kuwaiti ladies in the 1970's
Well, to begin with, many parts of the Middle East since the early 20th century up until the early 70’s were colonized by European powers. There is no doubt that colonization expedites the process of acculturation. Besides adopting or being forced to adopt the language and ideology of the colonial powers, fashion and lifestyle would also seep in. For example, until 1971, Bahrain was colonized by Britain. Looking back at the years of colonization, it is evident that besides the growing number of English-speaking citizens in Bahrain, there were growing numbers of men wearing suits instead of the traditional thoab and a growing number of women wearing more western fashion, and in particular the miniskirt, instead of the traditional dress.
Besides western colonization, the nature of leadership in the Middle East after many countries started gaining independence had a direct impact on people’s lifestyles. Military coups in the Middle East during the mid 20th century and onwards installed new regimes in which the political order was still radical but very secular in nature. In Egypt, Jamal Abdul Nasser promoted Arab Nationalism and imprisoned/executed members of the Muslim Brotherhood who opposed his secular approach. In Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba promoted secularism to the point of banning Tunisian women from wearing the Hijab in state offices. Essentially, people did not have religious leaders with strong political power preaching and dictating what is and what is not acceptable to wear. Instead, they had leaders who encouraged a western liberal lifestyle and that was distinctly, if not primarily, reflected in the clothes people wore and became accustomed to.
Finally, the oil boom played a huge role in liberalizing many parts of the Middle East and especially Arab/Persian Gulf countries. In the 1970s, an immense amount of wealth flowed into the region attracting foreign investors from the west and migrant Asian workers from the East to live, work, and settle in the region. The increased amount of expatriates transformed the Gulf into a cosmopolitan area accommodating and open to new lifestyles. In addition to all that, women started receiving education and entering the workforce, mass media was expanding, and feminist ideas promoting women’s freedom were being voiced. All those were instrumental factors behind the birth and growth of the miniskirt as popular fashion in the Middle East.
“To us, the miniskirt was “cool” because it symbolized modernity, progress, glamour, and everything western we idealized. We looked down upon those who did not wear miniskirts. We thought of them as being traditional, backward, and oppressed.” This is how a Bahraini woman today describes her mentality and that of other young women back then. “We were naïve,” she said. “We regarded miniskirts as synonymous with modernity and westernization.”
So why then did this attitude change? What happened? Why are miniskirts not common anymore?
Well, in 1979, Iran, an important and influential country in the region experienced dramatic political changes. The powerful Shah of Iran was toppled by Ayatollah Khomeini and an Islamic Republic was established, transforming Iran from a country that strived in every single way to imitate the west into a country that was confrontational with the west and unwilling to compromise its values to accommodate western ideals. During the reign of Reza Shah, women were forced to take off the chador and during the reign of his son Mohammad Reza women were encouraged to wear western-style clothing. After the Islamic revolution, the reverse occurred. Women were forced to wear Islamic attire which included wearing the chador or more recently, the headscarf and loose-fitting clothes. My point here is that the revolution in Iran did not only change the political and social dynamics of Iran but of the neighboring countries as well. Basically, the Islamic revolution had a domino effect in the region. Neighboring Sunni countries felt threatened by the emerging Shia presence. They wanted, more or less, to develop a strong Sunni-Islamic identity to keep up with what they perceived an impressive but a threatening Shia victory in Iran. As a result, people became more religious-conscience and receptive to what religious authorities from mullahs to imams had to say. In addition, because the secular leadership in the region had already failed in quenching their thirst for glory, religion became the alternative source of pride. As a result, people’s lifestyles started to change. In Bahrain, even though covering one’s hair was not obligatory many women did so by wearing the Daffa and it was at that time when the miniskirt was abandoned.
The positive response and quick adjustment to the new, more conservative “dress-style and lifestyle” that came about in Bahrain after the revolution was partly due to the cognitive dissonance women were experiencing in the first place. The miniskirt was not part of the Islamic/Arabian culture and in fact it went against basic moral values of modesty and conservatism people believed in. Therefore, when external socio-political factors took place prompting women to change the way they dressed, women willingly responded to the change because it, in effect, helped in narrowing the cognitive dissonance they were experiencing as a result of adopting a lifestyle that was incongruous with their own cultural and religious heritage.
Today, the fascinating contrast between women in “black” and women in “brands” stands out saliently in streets, malls, and other public places in Bahrain and across the region. This contrast stands out as a proof to the strength of the Islamic identity and the sweeping power of western globalization. Is it faith and divine power that shapes people’s lives or is it politics and market forces that people respond to?