x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

What is the colour of freedom?

Black typically defines Muslim women, denoting supposed anonymity and opression. But does the colour pink liberate, or also oppress?

One of the first decisions I made when I set up my blog about being a Muslim woman was that the colour black would be nowhere in sight. In Britain, like many other European and American areas, black is the colour that typically defines Muslim women, a shorthand way of denoting our supposed anonymity and oppression, and a lazy way to instil fear and pity about us in equal measure. It was time for people to see Muslim women as individuals, with their own personalities and stories, so, I chose the colour for my blog that was in my mind the furthest away from black - pink.

My mini-me, who welcomes readers to my website, is a small cartoon that looks a bit like I do, wears a pink headscarf with sparkly pink shoes, and has a cheeky smile. In her own small way she restores individuality and agency to the debate in the West about Muslim women. I suggested a similar approach to some lovely Emirati women I met recently on a visit to the Gulf. They were dressed in gorgeous couture black abayas, which oozed sophistication and expense. Of course, in the Gulf, black has a totally different meaning for women. The black abaya is a symbol of all things womanly, and the best of Arabic culture.

The individuality of these successful professional women was obvious in the tiny embroidered details at the edges of their sleeves, the expensive crystals sprinkled across the black fabric and in the glimpses of the bold coloured lining as they glided elegantly around the room. I was surprised that for women who clearly have had to be determined and focused to progress in the professional fields that they had chosen, in a society that is only now slowly accepting women into the workplace, when they stood together they all looked, well, the same.

I wondered if this was about creating organised power through a collective representation of women, or whether it was a cultural mechanism to keep women's individuality out of the public space, and turn this vibrant half of humanity into an undifferentiated anonymous mass. Born of my own experiences in the West about the meaning that a simple piece of clothing like a headscarf and its colour can convey, I proposed to the women that they should form a Pink Abaya Club. It would be an invitation-only group, where a designer pink abaya would be worn on special occasions by women who had excelled in their field and who through their day-to-day lives were showing that women were part of the burgeoning, innovative culture that is emerging out of the Gulf.

The women were enchanted by this notion, and giggled initially with some excitement in their eyes about presenting themselves in a totally new way. It was a chance to offer their personalities to the outside world in a way that represented their vibrancy as individuals. And then abruptly they said: "But people will talk about us. They will say bad things because we are not wearing the black abaya." It was clear from their words that the way to succeed as a woman was by keeping femininity and individuality to linings, crystals and sleeves, and blending into the social definition of acceptability for what it means to be a woman. The Pink Abaya Club was dead.

I returned to London, reflecting on my possibly irrational phobia of black. But, as a young woman, I had had an equal distaste for pink, seeing it as too "girlie". What I am certain of is that I had deliberately used my pink headscarf as a political tool, with a small p. Of course, women have often used their clothing for political purposes. But I'm now beginning to wonder, am I only defying one stereotype of women to be caught by another?

In asserting my own "freedom" from black, is the colour pink as liberating for me in the West as I think it is? The colour pink in relation to the western world has a very narrow prescription for women, a hyper-feminisation that limits them to beauty and shopping, or the rather old-fashioned ideas of domesticity. These are sold as liberating choices where women can be proud of their femininity and freedom, but do their narrow confines mean that they are just as limiting as the black lens through which Muslim women are seen? Is pink culture just as oppressive and anonymising?

There has been a recent revival in discussions about what it means to be a postmodern western woman. Are today's post-feminism women who have greater economic power - in itself a debatable point - and sexual liberation, now confined only to notions of shopping and beauty as markers of success? The more we shop, and the more we adhere to standardised depictions of beauty, the better we are told we fulfil our function as women. The mantras that we follow are seemingly liberating, revelling in femininity: "You can never have enough shoes" (really?), and "Because you're worth it" (so buy this product). Shopping and beauty are the two domains in which women are permitted to excel. It creates a strange conformity, with the only individuality that is permitted being in the detail and in the degree of being a woman in this hyper-feminine way. It's all on the edges: what is your hair like, which brand of shoe do you buy, how big are your breasts. Just like the gorgeous and feisty abaya-wearing women of the Gulf, individual expressions of the personality of women and their characteristics as human beings are confined to the fringes. This is "pink culture" where Cheryl Cole becomes Britain's sweetheart through her manufactured perfection, spending £200,000 every year on clothes and beauty; and where the glamour model Katie Price is considered a role model by teenage girls. Price has even just announced a make-up range for children.

I was given most food for thought while caught in this trap of negotiating my way between contrasting stereotypes of how to be a woman when I came across a campaign called Pink Stinks. The founders say: "We have always wanted to offer girls an alternative to all this 'princess sparkle make-up body-image popstar fantasy world'. "We believe that body image obsession is starting younger and younger, and that the seeds are sown during the pink stage, as young girls are taught the boundaries within which they will grow up, as well as narrow and damaging messages about what it is to be a girl."

One of their aims is: "To challenge the 'culture of pink' which is based on beauty over brains and to provide an alternative." Being a woman and having a brain, or being a bit different, demonstrating that as a woman you've exercised your own choices are of course threatening. Culture says it is much safer and much more appropriate to stay within the acceptable boundaries of being pink. Does my pink headscarf play into this notion of "girliness"? A headscarf and associated modest dress is upsetting and even threatening because it is not typically womanly. How will you know if I'm a "proper" woman, if my feminine assets are hidden away? And worse still, some see the fact that I do not put luscious locks on display as inflammatory, as though it is their right that I display myself as a "proper" woman in the mould that has been cast for me.

My headscarf is a defiant expression of my choice to reject pink culture, and be a woman on my own terms. A woman who makes her own choice and flaunts it: that's scary. So, perhaps the reason that my pink headscarf feels approachable, acceptable and reassuring is because it re-casts me into an understandable and "safe" depiction of a western woman, focused on being girlie, beautiful and conforming to accepted standards of femininity. 

It is exactly for these same reasons - but in their mirror image - that the Pink Abaya Club is such a dangerous and inflammatory idea. It would be just as elegant, modest and beautiful as the black abaya, but it would step out of the acceptable limits of the expression of womanhood which have been determined by society. It is the simple act of a woman choosing for herself a colour that she feels best represents her individuality - whether that is pink, purple, blue, green or yellow - that makes it outside of what is "acceptable" for a woman to wear.

Whether East or West, Muslim or not, a woman's personality is limited to being expressed only in the margins. Instead, we should be revelling in the individuality of women, not confining them to a monochromatic choice of either hyper-feminine pink culture, or collective black anonymity. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a British commentator on Islam and author of Love in a Headscarf, a memoir of growing up as a Muslim woman. Read her at www.spirit21.co.uk