Making sense of 2016 might be a tricky endeavour. Our anxieties about clothing this past year, however, offer a glimpse of what we have been through, and perhaps even more significantly, why. This comes as no surprise. Fashions mirror values, they are a reliable barometer of change, and whatever trend we attempt to prohibit, more often rather than not, hides a far deeper fear.

A case in point is a Rio 2016 match featuring Egypt’s Doaa Elghobashy, the first Olympian beach volleyball player to wear a hijab, playing against German players in their bikinis. The London Times termed this a “culture clash”, that is, a conflict or a discord resulting from the interaction of (two) different cultures. Some other commentators pointed towards the unifying power of sport.

Beneath these, perhaps, there is lurking something else. Anxieties about clothing tend to be either about what is being concealed or about what is being shown. We either feel threatened by what we do not see in others or we might feel repulsed by what we see of others. We all feel somehow scared. The difficulty, however, might be that we no longer look for what is sacred in others, and for that matter, in ourselves.

Our use of the words ‘we’ and ‘others’ is poor and even blurred but we’re afraid it’s an honest reflection of society when this should be, instead, about all of us feeling empowered. Although this is not the only conclusion one may come to, different states of dress and undress are not just statements against objectification but could simply be expressions of sacredness.

This beach volleyball match wasn’t necessarily a clash but a rediscovery of what is sacred in our lives, especially our bodies and ourselves, men and women. This acceptance of who we are and this respect towards different cultures and challenging attitudes also show that there is no contradiction between faith and modernity here, because interpreting both modesty, and if you will, the lack of it, could become an exercise of true, authentic freedom. No individual decision is isolated from a culture.

The sacred brings us together in respect, without making us alike. Blaming others on either side (the religious faithful or the immoral liberals, for example) only highlights insecurities we fear in ourselves. Instead of serving as a poor reflection on society, rediscovering the sacred in our lives invigorates us to defy gender stereotypes and to look at ourselves in new ways.

Photo: Germany’s Laura Ludwig (R) watches as Egypt’s Doaa Elghobashy reacts during the women’s beach volleyball qualifying match between Germany and Egypt at the Beach Volley Arena in Rio de Janeiro on August 7, 2016, for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. / AFP / Yasuyoshi Chiba (Credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images).

This article has been co-authored by Sara Ezabe.

Jean Claude graduated with an MSc in Anthropology in 2014 from the University of Aberdeen and is currently reading a Bachelor’s Degree in Sacred Theology at the University of Malta.

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