Thursday, September 11, 2008

Saudi Fashion Police

An article in today's Washington Post tells the story of Saudi fashion designer Yahya al-Bishri. Bishri studied fashion abroad, for which he was cut off by his father. He then tried to spruce up Saudi fashion by creating decorated robes and cloaks. This was met with a storm of criticism and frequent raids by the former criminals and thugs that call themselves the Religious Police or Mutawaeen in Saudi.

"Many people were shocked that I was developing the thobe, which is considered the national costume. I was accused of trying to destroy our culture, of promoting homosexuality and of trying to make men resemble women," he said.

He returned to Saudi Arabia in 1990 and opened a small boutique on a quiet side street in Jiddah. The religious police, or mutawa, raided his shop half a dozen times, accusing him of violating a ban on the mingling of unrelated men and women. His fashion design magazines were confiscated or torn up in airport customs, and the mannequins he tried to import were destroyed or thrown out because of a religious ban on statues.

Bishri's break came when then Crown Prince Abdullah called him in 1997 to ask about his designs. Bishri explained that he was not tampering with a white robe that had been worn with Saudis since time immemorial. Like many other things in the Middle East, a relatively new phenomenon, the white thobe, had become in the period of a few decades something that people jealously guarded as established and timeless tradition. Bishri educated Abdullah, who became one of his customers, creating a breakthrough for Bishri.

Bishri said Abdullah asked him why there was a storm of criticism about his work. "I showed him the book and the coats worn by his father. I explained that the forbidding white we wear now was not part of our tradition but something new to society, something that dated back only three or four decades."
In the 1960s, he said, the kingdom's new oil wealth resulted in a more modern country and a less harsh lifestyle. White robes, which reflect heat, became more practical and easier to keep clean, he said.

"When people started wearing the thobe, everybody was convinced it was part of our culture. But our fathers did not always dress like that," Bishri said. "I was looking for how we dressed in the past because I knew we had no material and no clothes industry here, only what we imported."



I think this story, like others, shows that much of the unthinking conservatism in the region is not created by some innate and long-standing ascetic tradition, but comes more from a modern phenomenon of jealousy, bigotry, and cultural siege that is often driven by an ignorance of one's own history and traditions. A great deal of the "tradition," "custom," and "religious practice" pushed by the radicals are actually new inventions or bid'a, which in itself is considered haram by them. But they operate by one set of rules and expect everyone else to operate by another. To me, people like Bishri and other peaceful mavericks are the true heroes of the region, whose story needs to be spread

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great link Leo, very much parallels the story with the Omani national dress (minus the religious angle).

I jump at every opportunity to let my friends know that our much-vaunted dishdasha+masar in their current forms were actually 'invented' in the 70's.

I was born in the 80's, after said costume became mainstream. But I remember seeing old black and white pictures of the 60's/early 70's and wondering why people dressed differently then. Nevermind the wild differences among the different regions.

And frankly, as someone who had actually worn a masar every day to work for a while, it becomes painfully obvious during the Omani summer that in its current form, it is not what people wore a 100 years ago. I don't know why more people don't realise that.

-Omani in US

ynotoman said...

The exotic old Saudi thobe with ‘bat-wing’ sleeves - here is an image of Princes in 1985 wearing ithttp://www.photius.com/images/sa05_04g.jpg – look at the wonderful embroidery on one mans thobe. I suspect that as 50% of the Saudi (or any GCC state) citizens were not born in 1985 they must think that it has always been plain white - ( English in Oman )

Anonymous said...

Delightful photo ynotoman. Thanks for that.

-Omani in US

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