Should fashion make political statements? It seems like a frivolous statement, considering Pakistanis have much larger issues to worry about, but last week I found myself outraged and surprised at a conference, that was debating the question. Maybe if I was upset by the incident, other Pakistanis would be too.

The panelists made their points, all were working for western publications and it wasn’t anything too ground breaking, except that a white man in the audience brought up the question of the hijab - ostensibly an innocuous piece of cloth a woman can take in the name of her religious belief, but actually a battle ground of emotions and ideology.

The man in question, was of the opinion, that a woman wearing a hijab in western society need not blame society when she feels marginalised, or attacked. She is herself to blame, for “othering” herself by looking different. Many in the audience didn’t like this comment, probably people who felt that a woman in particular, and all people in general, should have the right to dress as they want, and any society that calls itself “free” should be okay with it. But there are those who believe that one must conform, and try to fit in to whatever is the status quo, trash all notions of pluralism. These ‘conform-or-die’ type of people are found in Pakistan in abundance. Policing what others do is hardly a western phenomenon.

The problem with the idea, that a woman who dresses differently than the majority paints a target on her back, is that there is someone in the public sphere with the paint. You cant “other” yourself. The nerd, the feminazi, the black criminal, the “Paki”, the yellow Asian, all the way back to the savage Oriental… were not categories that were created by their selves. They were externally created as a stereotype that distorted their self identity without them have a say or power to change the category they were put in.

The way we dress has a social function. It communicates our identity, class, vocation or status to others. No one wants to be harassed, bullied or abused because of their clothes, no one communicates that by whatever they are wearing. No one volunteers to be a target, no one is “asking for it”, trust them when they say so.

The idea of clothing probably began when thousands of years ago, someone was cold, and found ways to clothe themselves from leather, or wool, or what have you. One of them draped their leather mantle slightly to the right, thought it looked better that way, and fashion was born. This is pure conjecture of course.  My point it is it doesn’t really matter how anyone dresses, especially women. A woman’s dress doesn’t challenge the status quo, unless those who belong to the status quo get in in their minds that someone else’s individual choice somehow offends their ideals. That’s all there is to it, its all in the head. If those who hold power in our society, or any other society, could just deal with someone’s individual decision in the privacy of their own head, and not have to act out violently, the world might be a lot safer, especially for women.

In 2010 France banned face coverings including women wearing the niqab. Kenza Drider, a protester against the law, said: “I’m insulted about three to four times a day. Most say, ‘Go home’; some say, ‘We’ll kill you.’” In 2013 in Canada, a 17-year old Muslim girl was punched in the nose, that left her bleeding and her headscarf was pulled off and in 2015 A pregnant woman wearing the hijab was attacked by teenagers, when they tried to pull off her headscarf, causing her to fall. In 2007 in Russia, and Imam and his wife, both of whom were dressed in distinctive Islamic clothing, were beaten by people who yelled “go back to your Muslim country”. The “West” is rife with these examples.

The “East” doesn’t measure up well either. In Iran women risk being fined or sentenced to lashings based on the opinion of male and female members of the Basij militia who enforce the dress code on the street. In 2016 a Saudi women who posted a picture of herself on social media in public without wearing a hijab faced outrage on social media, including calls for her execution. One man declared: “Kill her and throw her corpse to the dogs.” The Human Rights Watch and the HRCP cite the number of acid attack victims to be as high 400–750 per year, a key way for unhappy men to destroy the way a woman looks. Women in India are up in arms, tired of women’s clothing being blamed for rape and molestation. And we are no strangers to actors, models and even private individuals, being threatened or ridiculed for whatever they wear by anonymous religious crusaders online.

The fact is, those in Pakistan, who believe that women should dress a certain way and act a certain way. Who believe that that one must conform else suffer the consequences. Who believe that there are sects and religions and peoples that are inferior to them… make a natural alliance with the Western individual on the right and far right, who believes the same, and who they love to hate.

Should people change the way they dress to be safe? What if ones identity is more important to them than their safety? Why should anyone who is not physically harmed by the way someone else looks, resort to violence? It is unjustifiable, unless one is racist, homophobic, Islamophobic, misogynistic, and all-in-all a terrible human being.

Postscript: And to answer the question: Should fashion make political statements? No, not consciously. It should probably stick to innovating aesthetics. However, fashion is political and always will be, from the tie-dye shirts in the sixties, to the hijab today.