I learnt a valuable lesson the other day during my weekly English club, in which we discuss different controversial themes each week. Today, the topic was fashion. Having worked in the fashion industry myself, this is a personal interest of mine and I was excited to hear their views.
After working through the ready-prepared questions about modelling, animal products and international fashions, I realized that the fashion world, as I know it, had no presence here. Fashion modelling is not a career in Sudan; the culture would not allow it. The Sudanese make shoes out of crocodile, snake and tiger skin, and none of them could see an issue with wearing fur. As for fashions around the world, they unanimously agreed that the best clothes come from China, but that Sudan receives the shoddy leftovers after Europe and America have taken their pick. I felt sure this was all a somewhat simplified view of the clothing industry.
As we were coming to the end of our discussion, I sensed we had still not broached the elephant in the room; religion. In a Muslim country, how could we discuss fashion without mentioning how it is affected by religion and culture? Would it be improper to ask? I cautiously ventured the matter and waited with baited breath. The men answered immediately, with “of course, it sets limitations”, and I asked them what dress code was dictated by Islam for men and women. Women were expected to cover up and wear loose clothing and men should do the same, however it was fine for them to wear T-shirts.
I glanced across at the women in the room, who by now were shifting uncomfortably in their seats. One wore a Sudanese tobe, another a jilbab and there were two girls in burkhas. One girl bravely voiced that her favourite international style was clothing from India, as these were both beautiful and appropriate for Muslim women to wear.
When the class was over and the students begun filing out of the classroom, the woman in the tobe held back to speak to me. She wore an indignant look on her face and communicated to me in her broken English that what she was wearing was still fashion, and that I did not understand the customs here. In fact I had not meant to offend anyone’s femininity, and was surprised that this topic had caused her so much upset. I think the language barrier had caused her to misunderstand my intentions a little. Nevertheless, I apologized profusely, telling her that I think Sudanese women look lovely and are always dressed in very colourful clothes.
Although this was something of a cultural misunderstanding, this woman did make me think. Perhaps, due to my own frustrations and limitations here, I had expected the women here to feel just as bothered by them. As our culture in the West allows us to wear tighter clothes and closer cuts, we can wear more of a variety of shapes and styles. For me, this was the definition of fashion. But now I see that people have their own ideas of what fashion means and have found ways to express their individuality within the boundaries preset for them. Also, in some countries traditional dress still plays a role in fashion. I will never again make such an assumption, and continue to admire the gaudy patterns and colour-coordinated style that the women here pull off so well.