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It should not be “revolutionary” for a woman in a wheelchair to wear a dress!

I am someone who loves fashion, but as a woman, and particularly as a woman who is a wheelchair user, I am acutely aware of how society often dictates the clothing choices we make – not only in terms of active regulation through religious and legal frameworks and socio-cultural norms, but in terms of how clothing choices come with assumptions about character and personality, and vice versa. This is something that many people face and is exacerbated by media practices that, intentionally or not, reinforce these views.

A few years ago, I was attending a conference in Beirut concerning the rights of persons with disabilities with other activists from across the Arab states. BBC Arabic were coming to host a panel discussion and I was invited to the panel to discuss human rights and disability and the protection of civilians during wartime.

Before going to the studio to record the programme, a reporter from BBC Arabic came to make a brief report about the conference. I wore a colourful dress which was a particular favourite of mine, and they were very surprised by it. You can see me in this same dress in the photo accompanying the blog, and so that all my readers are able to picture it too, with or without visual disabilities – it is a white summer dress with big red, yellow and dark blue flowers printed across it, an off-the-shoulder ruffle neckline, and covers down past my knees to mid-calf when sitting in my chair. While it is a nice dress, it was nothing particularly special, but the reporter was surprised to see a woman in a wheelchair wearing a dress in Lebanon. She asked if she could have a separate interview about the dress and how it affects me as a person with disability, and whether I have a message of support for others.

A few days before, I had met an old friend in Beirut who is also a wheelchair user, and she too was surprised that I was wearing a dress at the time, because she said that it is not common in Lebanon. There are practical reasons for this – in the absence of properly accessible public transport and infrastructure, it can be difficult to maintain dignity as a wheelchair user when moving around and wearing a dress. She told me she had never before in her life worn a dress.

As I remembered this conversation and I had experienced this type of question before when I was in Syria, I agreed to the interview with the reporter. I expressed my thoughts about wearing a dress, that it was not inappropriate, and a matter of personal freedom and expression. I also challenged the idea that wearing such clothing is an invitation to harassment – unfortunately women, with disabilities or without, commonly face harassment regardless of what they wear. I also made the point about accessibility – if things were more accessible, women would feel freer to wear what they wanted.

After this I went to the studio to participate in the main programme. There were four women on the panel, and we discussed the topics of human rights and disabilities. However, the presenter could not ignore the fact that I was wearing a dress and repeatedly returned to it. I had to fight with her to make my comments about anything other than presentation and clothing. Whether intentionally or not, she was reducing my activism to the fact that I was wearing a dress. Of course, wearing what I want to wear is an important part of my activism – but it is far from all of it! Questions about human rights were directed to other panellists, and I was referred to as the “rebellious” one, while another panellist was referred to as a “hero” for her activism. My clothing therefore became a distraction from my work – a distraction for others, not for me.

It is important to encourage women with disabilities to appreciate and feel comfortable in their bodies – this is an essential part of my mission, and there are many challenges when it comes to media representation that reinforces ignorance and prejudice. Often this is not intentional, people simply do not understand what they are doing and why it is harmful. For example, in Arabic TV dramas, if somebody becomes disabled due to an accident and subsequently uses a wheelchair, the character is always portrayed wearing large, baggy clothes and their legs covered with blankets. This is used as a signal for disability and implants the idea that this is how persons with disabilities should appear.

Wearing what you want is a right – a fundamental freedom of expression that is important for independence, dignity, and self-confidence. This applies to people of all genders, religions, ethnicities, cultures, and disability status. It should not be “revolutionary” for a woman in a wheelchair to wear a dress, but the fact that it is to so many people, shows there is a long way to go towards equality and respect.

Chavia Ali

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