In the 1920s, Coco Chanel sparked a controversy by ignoring the popular corseted style to create loose and unrestricted clothes for women. It showed that fashion and feminism could be compatible and contribute to a discourse that challenged societal norms. Both fashion and feminism could offer a counter-cultural perspective on society. For instance, we all know that leggings are considered a controversial piece of clothing, due to their tight fit; it is difficult to wear them without looking like an aerobics instructor from the 1980s. But many use them as a quick fix for not shaving their legs, neglecting to consider fashion decorum in doing so. First, leggings don't qualify as a substitute for jeans and wearing them with a short top is rarely considerate of others. Second, brightly coloured leggings are a major faux pas unless you are a 10 or under (in age and size).
Both controversial fashion statements and radical feminist discourse often measure their value by their ability to spark heated debate. But what happens when both a fashion and feminist controversy happen at once? At a recent lecture at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair titled "Feminism in Arabic Literature", Alawiyya Sobh, a Lebanese novelist and Laila al Othman, a Kuwaiti novelist, spoke of the restrictions forced upon women by society.
I will disregard the golden lace-up bootees (or high-heeled sport shoes) that Ms Sobh was wearing with her jeans. But I can't ignore or even rid the horrid memory from my mind of Ms al Othman's red mid-calf leggings, which she wore under an inexplicably boxy dress. Her bleached hair was pale when compared to these leggings. Perhaps she believed that putting on a controversial piece of clothing went well with speaking about controversial ideas.
But both authors also committed a major literary faux pas by discussing Arabic literature in colloquial Arabic. They discussed their literary struggle with the sexual "openness" of their books, which were subjected to harsh criticism. Ms al Othman was introduced as a writer whose books were banned. She was placed on trial for breaking the accepted codes of conduct of Kuwaiti society; she nodded her head with a sense of pride at the introduction.
Their talk didn't attract a wide audience; most of the guests were presumably non-Arab, as they listened to the lecture through headphones. This was in stark contrast to an event where Ahlam Mosteghanemi spoke, packed with men and women taking pictures of her and eagerly waiting to get her autograph. She is a best-selling Algerian novelist who has had a powerful presence on the Arabic literary stage ever since she published her first novel, Memory in the Flesh, 25 years ago. Very few used their headphones to listen to her.
As she gave a poetic speech in classical Arabic, she said that writing requires an ethical integrity to protect society from the nakedness that a literary work might expose. Undressing society is not a personal decision a writer should make, but rather a responsibility bestowed upon her. She then spoke about the restrictions that sometimes face a woman writer, and that writing is a daily exercise in freedom in which one chooses her restrictions rather than abandoning them all together.
Examining women's writing and the representation of the female condition within literature allows us to comprehend the feminist discourse of any given society. But how do we comprehend the writing of writers such as Ms Sobh and al Othman? I know I should judge the art and not the artist, but it is very difficult to separate one from the other. Fashion and feminism might not actually go hand in hand after all - just look at the way the fashion industry objectivises women's bodies. Does that empower women?
But the so-called "radical feminist" writers might be doing something similar: using literature to sexualise and subjugate the Arab woman. Radical feminist writers find value in always acting outside of social norms, but if they reject what society values all together, what are they really trying to achieve? Hissa al Dhaheri is a sociologist and cultural researcher