Quito, Ecuador – What a difference a piece of cloth makes. Indigenous’ polleras, or Muslim headscarves tend be read as signs of poverty and subjugation whereas a mini-skirt usually asserts a woman’s emancipation. Of course, women’s rights do not reside in dress. Yet the way one dresses has political significance. A mini-skirt or a headscarf can both be symbols of oppression or emancipation, depending on the context.
At first sight, indigenous women wearing polleras in the Bolivian Congress do not seem to have much in common with young Muslim women defending their right to wear the scarf to attend French universities. Looking closer, however, their insistence in bringing cultural attire into public realms points at similar practices of resistance. In both cases, clothing becomes a strategic site of political contestation to negotiate rights and authority.
Polleras, the vibrant wool skirts one sees indigenous women wearing in national-geographic-like imagery, depict a supposed cultural authenticity. Dressed in colourful textile as they harvest millennia-old grains, indigenous women are portrayed as guardians of pre-Colombian languages and practices.
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In fact, the current Venezuelan Constitution claims to “protect” indigenous women as “guardians of tradition”. Imagined as the quintessential descendants of the Incas and the Aztecs, indigenous women are perceived by the dominant society as isolated in time and space, untouched by political or social modernity.
Polleras are a marker of ethnicity as much as marginality. They are the dress of the uncivilised,evoking poverty, scarce opportunities and restricted agency. The women who wear them often work in poorly remunerated jobs, in fields and markets or labouring in the houses of wealthier women, surviving at the political and economic margins of society. Despite representing strong cultural identities, polleras are read as the absence of choice.
Other cultural clothes evoke a similar backwardness, the one of “other” cultures, exotic but inadequate to development, civilisation and, yes, gender equality. Take the veil, for instance. Less exotic, perhaps, it too is a loaded symbol of oppression, signifying multiple un-freedoms. This is apparently the thought process of French parliamentarians, who voted to forbid its use in public spaces in the name of women’s rights, protecting the nation’s modern national identity against the barbarian invasions.
Both polleras and veils are perceived as signs of cultures that keep women down, cultures that have not yet achieved political modernity. As different as they may be, in the collective imaginary both are signs of the oppression of women, visual reminders of gender inequality and implicitly indicators of underdevelopment.
The politics behind cultural attire
Since women who wear polleras and use the veil are perceived as victims of their cultures, they cannot be understood as possessing political agency. Hence, the surprise when veiled women exercise leadership roles in the Arab Spring revolutions or the dismissal of indigenous women mobilising for water rights across the Andes. The assumption is that indigenous women wearing polleras personify inheritances from the past, disconnected from the politics of today.
Of course, to objectify veils and polleras as symbols of the immutability of cultures misses the point of their dynamism and inevitable interaction with a globalising world. It also misses the point that culture is relational and that public displays of cultural belonging are directed not only inward to one’s own community, but also outward at society at large. Politics takes place everywhere, in myriad forms, from ministerial decrees to the food we eat. Dress is one of the ways women use to practice politics whether in the form of the veil, the pollera, or the miniskirt.
In fact, dress is the façade of deeper political struggles. Forbidding the headscarf in public spaces in France will neither make women safer from domestic violence nor expand their economic opportunities. The problem is not the headscarf, but the dangerous non-white other it represents, the “terrorist” societies of which it is emblematic.
Prohibiting the headscarf does not empower French women as much as condemns being a Muslim to a stereotypical threat to European notions of its own cultural superiority. Likewise, the expensive, hand-woven polleras represent the “other” against which the nation-state in the Andes continues to imagine its modern, European political identity.
Veils and polleras are not the sources of oppression from which women are seeking their emancipation. Imposing global fashion trends will not improve their well-being. What is at stake is how national discourses and governmental policies continue to invoke culture as a border, a difference to objectify or exclude people from the project of the nation.
At the end of the day, it is, yet again, the state regulating women’s lives – enforcing mandatory dressing and marginalising expressions of cultural belonging. Women’s dress thus becomes enmeshed in the exercise of state authority. And that is when dressing stops being a “private” choice to become a form of political defiance.
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Daily sites of political contestation
Whether they are sitting at the UN or ploughing a field, women wearing colourful, traditional attires are manifesting political allegiances. They are visually articulating demands for political autonomy. Just like the mini-skirt became a symbol of women’s liberation, polleras represent ethnic emancipation.
Joan W Scott has analysed the French headscarf controversy, pointing to the assumed superiority of gender relations in France and the racism embedded throughout that political debate. Scarves and polleras are relational to the state and can easily be used as sites of resistance. Strong ethnic movements frequently lead more women to reclaim cultural rights by wearing their attires in public spaces. Polleras may represent the Andes on touristic ads in Europe. They also represent forms of social and political authority that precede the contemporary state.
Indigenous dress does not necessarily indicate oppression, nor does it connote the antithesis of feminism. To the contrary, in subtle ways it often manifests collective struggles for self-determination – struggles which are at the core of feminist ideas. Discourses aimed at protecting women from their cultures must give way to a practice of creating spaces for the voices and concerns of all women.
Far from being signs of allegedly immutable cultures of the past, veils and polleras are in fact modern expressions of political contestation and negotiation between state and society, like mini-skirts once were. These pieces of cloths represent today a vanguard practice of global politics because they make sense of international women’s rights in their cultural contexts – the only way any right can be exercised.
Perhaps polleras and veils disturb, in a way mini-skirts no longer do, because they pose the challenge of how to recognise politically the once-colonised other, redefine national identities and redistribute access to rights more equitably. Changing attitudes towards cultural attire implies addressing in substantial ways current structures of power and inequality.
Women need policies that enable more complex forms of citizenship compatible with the diversity of their own realities, not repressive legislation that perpetuates the homogenising authority of states.
Political contestation is not only to be found in the formal corridors of power, it also expresses itself in daily acts of transgression. Coco Chanel challenged gender norms in the 1920s by dressing Parisian women in men’s clothing. Today, wearing polleras on the floor of the Peruvian Congress or headscarves in French universities represents a more fundamental challenge to oppressive power structures than women donning high fashion silk “power suits” as they struggle for conventional forms of success in the executive suites of governments or multinational corporations.
Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.