Art and People

Wear Your Values: Fashion's Role in the Fight for Freedom

Céline Assaf Boustani & Michelle Gulino | September 19, 2019

In the midst of the Sudanese anti-regime protests in April, a young woman stood atop the roof of a car and chanted lines from a revolutionary poem, calling for freedom in the wake of dictator Omar al-Bashir’s fall from power. Draped around her body, was a long white piece of cotton cloth, known as the toub, while large gold disc earrings accented her ears. Within days, the image of Alaa Salah had gone viral, and brought the Sudanese revolution to the world’s attention.

Salah was ethereal and powerful in the white garment, a vision of hope in the midst of chaos, anger, and despair of the Sudanese people. With this simple yet daring dress, Salah reinvigorated a historical symbol of independence, strength, and purity in the Sudan Uprising.

The intersection of fashion and human rights deserves more attention. To that end, the Human Rights Foundation launched the Wear Your Values initiative to bridge the gap between these two worlds. Fashion plays a significant role in the struggle for human rights, and is often used by authoritarian regimes as a tool for oppression. The initiative’s recent exhibit, Banned—displayed at the annual Oslo Freedom Forum this past May—showcased fashion that has been banned by dictatorships, as well as fashion that is used by people as an instrument of expression and nonviolent activism.

Human Rights Foundation's exhibit Banned at the 2019 Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway.

Beyond aesthetic expression and fantasticism, fashion—as Salah showed us—is both a movement itself, and an exercise in symbolism in campaigns for change. Symbolism is vital to the building and strengthening of socio-political movements, and fashion’s symbolism is in the form of a physical manifestation of unity in protest—a particularly potent and threatening notion for authoritarian regimes.

In this context, fashion has proven to be a catalyst and inspiration in the fight to advance individual liberties in pro-democracy movements. The close history of the toub and women’s struggle in Sudan allows us to rethink our relationship with fashion as a powerful symbol and unifying agent. The toub dates back to the 8th century B.C., when it was first worn by the Kandaka warrior queens of the Nubian Kush Dynasty as an emblem of their resilience and independence. It was later incorporated into national and cultural dress, and remained part of Sudanese women’s identity, consistently re-fashioned to meet the needs of each uprising.

In 1953, women wore the toub as they marched to demand equal pay and the right to vote. Last March, students at Ahfad University for Women wore the toub during a peaceful demonstration and inspired others to wear this garment as a sign of protest in Sudan and the diaspora.

But fashion has been targeted by the al-Bashir regime, to repress and control women’s freedom to choose. Under Sudan’s 1991 Penal Code, women have been subject to heavy fines, arrest, and flogging, for the simple liberating act of wearing trousers—deemed “contrary to public morality.” In 2009, 50 women were arrested for protesting Oslo Freedom Forum speaker Lubna al-Hussein’s arrest for wearing trousers. And 24 women who wore trousers to a Khartoum party in 2017 were arrested by Sudan’s “morality police.”

Eván Mawarire with the original flag he wore for his movement, #ThisFlag Movement.

Instances where fashion is concurrently used as a means of resistance and unity in protest, and as a weapon in the hands of dictators, are found around the world. In Russia, members of the punk anti-regime protest band Pussy Riot have used colorful balaclavas to conceal their identities during underground performances. After the group was arrested, people worldwide began donning balaclavas in a show of support, demanding its members’ release. In Zimbabwe, the national flag has itself symbolically become a garment after Pastor Eván Mawarire wore it to protest the economic crisis under then-dictator Mugabe’s regime. What became known as the #ThisFlag Movement, spurred the regime to launch a campaign of intimidation against its members, and culminated in the criminalization of wearing the flag without official permission, under the Flag of Zimbabwe Act.

As a sign of resistance to the compulsory hijab, Iranian women have united through the My Stealthy Freedom movement and its White Wednesdays campaign. Iran’s regime has prosecuted these activists, who wear white headscarves on Wednesdays or remove them entirely in peaceful opposition, and arrested several women known as “the Girls of Revolution Street.” Their lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, is serving a collective 38-year sentence simply for defending their right to protest a garment that has historically been used to limit women’s freedom of choice.

The importance of color as a critical element of fashion is also evident in various revolutions. After yellow clothing was banned in Malaysia due to its association with the Bersih (Malay for “clean”) opposition movement, protestors were arrested for wearing the color and demanding the resignation of the former prime minister. In Ukraine, demonstrators from Viktor Yushchenko’s 2004 opposition campaign formed a sea of orange as they marched to Kiev’s Parliament to protest Viktor Yanukovych’s regime and his ties to Russia. And in 2003, during Fidel Castro’s Black Spring crackdown on dissidents, the Ladies in White (“Damas de Blanco”) of Cuba marched peacefully through the streets of Havana, wearing white to symbolize the innocence of political prisoners. Although members of the group have been blacklisted and arrested, they persist in their cause.

All of these examples demonstrate the power of fashion as a tool for expression, resistance, and a means of galvanizing support for human rights movements.

The word “fashion” connotes a trend that is en vogue, and temporally-linked. But in continuously wearing the toub to protest, the women of Sudan have shown that fashion also transcends different time periods and trends, in part due to its symbolic powers. One garment or piece of fabric can take on different meanings, and its uses might have different purposes and repercussions for its wearers, depending on the regime and cultural era. This month, as we follow Fashion Week around the world, fashion should be celebrated not only as a form of art, but also for its greater role in uniting people in their causes to achieve freedom and maintain human dignity.


Céline Assaf Boustani (L) is an international lawyer, and Michelle Gulino (R) is the Legal and Policy Fellow at the Human Rights Foundation.

The Human Rights Foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on authoritarian countries. HRF unites people in the common cause of promoting liberal democracy, to ensure that freedom is preserved around the world. The Oslo Freedom Forum is a transformative annual global conference produced by HRF, which brings together the world’s most engaging human rights advocates to share their stories and brainstorm ways to expand freedom. Tickets are available for the next Oslo Freedom Forum in New York, to be held at The Town Hall on October 23, 2019.

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