Gender Questions

    Fashionable, Yet Recognisably Islamic
    A New Sartorial Presence in Europe

    Islamic Fashion © Zeynap Rather than framing the issue in terms of ‘choice versus force’ – the question whether the women concerned choose to wear a headscarf or are forced to do so, as is often the case in public debate – my starting point is that sartorial practices always entail various measures of conformity and distinction. Neither do I engage with doctrinal questions about whether Islamic sources consider wearing covered dress as recommendable or even obligatory for Muslim women, another focus of public debate. Instead, I will discuss the various ways in which the women themselves relate the worlds of religion and fashion, based on observations of changing styles of dress and extensive conversations with women wearing such styles of dress.

    ‘Islamic fashion’ as a global phenomenon

    ‘Islamic fashion’ is both a concept that has rapidly gained widespread use, as a quick search on the internet indicates, and a sartorial practice that is simultaneously inspired by Islamic notions and structured through the fashion discourse. What then are the genealogies of Islamic fashion?

    After European styles of dress had gradually spread to parts of the Muslim world in the course of the twentieth century, with the emergence of the Islamic revivalist movement in the early 1970s, an increasing number of women, often young and well-educated, began to wear Islamic covered styles of dress (also called wearing hijab). This new trend, in academic literature often referred to as ‘the new veiling’ (MacLeod 1991), began as a grassroots, oppositional movement, especially popular amongst students. Critical of the increased secularisation of everyday life, it was a form of resistance to Western dominance as well as to local authoritarian regimes and an increasingly materialist culture (Deeb 2006, El-Guindi 1999, Göle 1996, Mahmood 2005). Many of those involved expressed the desire that the new veiling would do away with fashion, especially with sartorial distinctions between the wealthy and the poor (Navaro-Yashin 2002; Sandikçi and Ger 2007). As a part of this trend, a rather uniform and sober style of covered dress emerged. 

    It did not, however, take long for more fashionable styles to develop out of such simple, austere, and distinctly non-fashionable forms of Islamic dress. In the later 1980s and 1990s, the Islamic revival movement became more heterogeneous when it began to transform itself from an anti-consumerist radical movement to a more individualised and fragmented reformist trend with identities increasingly produced through consumption (Navaro-Yashin 2002). This led to a stronger fashion consciousness among younger, more affluent Islamic women, a greater heterogeneity of Islamic dressing styles, and, more generally, a normalisation of Islamic fashion (Abaza 2007; Kiliçbay and Binark 2002; Sandikçi and Ger 2007). Simultaneously, there has also been a turn to more fashionable styles of dress in settings where wearing covered styles of outer wear had remained normative throughout the twentieth century. If the literature on veiling and fashion has largely traced the emergence of Islamic fashion from such austere oppositional forms of Islamic dress, the Arabian Peninsula, for instance, has also seen the widespread commodification of mainstream covered styles of dress, such as abayas, jilbabs, and kaftans, with an increasingly rapid change in what is considered fashionable (Al-Qasimi 2010; Moors 2007).

    The net result is that a global market for Islamic fashion has come into being. With the turn from rather austere to more fashionable styles, the production of Islamic fashion has become a lucrative, no longer overtly ideological, commercial field. By the early 1990s, Islamic fashion shows had started to spread globally, with Turkey an early trendsetter in this field (Navaro-Yashin 2002). In fashion hubs, such as in Dubai, Indonesia, and Malaysia, avant-garde designers (Muslims as well as non-Muslims) have come together to participate in a variety of fashion contests. Catalogues of Islamic fashion can be found everywhere, and a host of new women’s magazines catering specifically to those looking for fashionable styles of Islamic dress has emerged. Cyberspace is yet another site where desires for Islamic fashion are created and disseminated. From the late 1990s onward, web stores selling Islamic fashion started proliferating, and have become especially popular amongst those who do not have Islamic shopping centres around the corner; new Muslims and, more generally, Muslims in Europe are one of their target groups.

    The Dutch example

    In this global field of Islamic fashion, Europe is a relative latecomer. In settings such as the Netherlands, it is since the later 1990s that young women, often the daughters of guest workers, and to a lesser extent refugees and converts, have moved towards styles of dress that are both fashionable and easily recognisable as Islamic. Usually far better educated than their mothers, increasingly interested in their own religion, if only because they are addressed as Muslims, with an income of their own (even if still in school), these girls take an active interest in engaging with fashionable styles of Islamic dress. It needs to be stressed here that many young Muslim women in Europe do not wear a headscarf, and hence are not easily recognisable as Muslim. Some of them consider positing a relation between religion and particular styles of dress in itself problematic, as they consider religion a matter of private belief; others evaluate wearing a headscarf positively, but do not succeed in doing so on a regular basis. Women who wear a headscarf may hold a variety of ideas about the relation between dress and religion. For some wearing particular styles of dress may function as an expression of a particular identity, while others consider covered styles of dress as a means of fashioning a pious self. Finally, there are also women who consider Islamic fashion an oxymoron. To them, Islam as the realm of the spiritual and the sacred, of eternal values and virtues, is incompatible with the mundane, wasteful concerns of ever-changing fashion. Still, the growing presence of producers, designers, and women wearing fashionable styles of Islamic dress indicates that a considerable number of actors in the field do not find it overtly problematic to combine Islam and fashion.

    In the following I zone in on how these young women engage with the religion-fashion nexus in everyday life. First, I will address the question of whether the turn towards more fashionable styles can be considered a shift from sociabilities grounded in religious convictions to those based on a shared aesthetic or style. In the next section I then discuss how their visual, corporeal presence in public relates to public debate about Islam in Europe. I will do so through reflections on the dress narratives of three women that centre on their sartorial enactments of particular fashionable, yet recognisably Islamic styles. While these stories should not be considered representative of women wearing Islamic fashion in the Netherlands, they enable a better understanding of the diverse ways in which young Muslim women bring together Islamic commitments and the world of fashion.

    On convictions and styles – three examples

    The world of religion with its eternal, profound values and that of fashion centring on surface and always in flux may easily seem incommensurable. How then do young women who wear covered dress combine Islam and fashion? Does the turn to more fashionable styles of Islamic dress entail a move from religious commitment and ethics to that of taste communities and their aesthetics? Three briefly summarised dress stories point in a different direction.

    Feride, a migrant girl from a poor village, who habitually covered her hair with, in her own words, ‘no feel or concern for style or fashion’, started to change her style in her late teens, when the economic situation of her family improved a bit. A strong example of upward social mobility, she has turned into a consciously Muslim professional, wearing smart, elegant full length suits with matching headscarves. Having redefined herself as ‘religiously Turkish’, her sense of belonging now is to cosmopolitan Istanbul rather than to eastern Turkey, from where her family originated. To her, covering is a ‘form of worshipping the Creator, a form of devotion’ in itself.  She is well aware that not everything she wears (‘clicking heels’, a skirt with a split) is Islamically acceptable, but does not consider this a major issue. When asked whether wearing covered dress was also important to her as a means to avoid attracting the attention of men, she answered directly that she does not consider herself responsible for men’s feelings.   

    Malika’s dress trajectory has been very different. The daughter of Moroccan migrants, she had experimented with all sorts of distinct youth styles – varying from a ‘gangsta’ period to more elegant, but revealing dress – before she first turned to wearing a headscarf and then to full-length outfits with a large veil in subdued colours. To her, wearing covered dress is the enactment of Koranic obligations, the last step in a process that included other embodied forms of piety, such as daily prayers, not shaking hands with men, and refraining from listening to music. Her aim was to follow the example set by the first generations of Muslim women, while she also intended to contribute through her style of dress to creating an asexual public presence.

    Lisa, the daughter of a mixed Hindustani-Pakistani lower middle class family, explained how her move toward covering was the result of a longer mental journey in search of what Islam really means for women. Growing up with somewhat conservative mainstream but not recognisably Islamic styles of dress, as an adolescent she turned to more sporty and urban styles of dress. When her commitment to Islam developed further and she became active in a Muslim student organisation, she gradually started to combine her urban style with a headscarf, wearing jeans (but not too tight), tunics, sneakers, and always a hoodie. She understands covering as a way of expressing one’s love for God, with her convictions allowing for a wide range of styles of Islamic dress.

    These three examples indicate that although these young women speak in different ways about the relation between their religious convictions and sartorial practices, they strongly link their styles of dress to Islam. They all consider the style of dress they are wearing as a corporeal religious practice par excellence. Although they practise Islam in different ways, they all employ a strongly reflexive language in which they distance themselves from habitual forms of being religious, and instead stress that they have made a well-informed choice to be so. It is only when moving away from a discussion of ‘covered dress’ as a generic category to the particular styles young women wear that the relevance of ‘taste communities’ and their particular aesthetics become evident. For the outfits they wear are strikingly different. Feride is most comfortable in elegant suits, combinations of floor-length skirts and well-cut jackets of high-quality materials, often brought from Turkey. She pays much attention to wearing matching headscarves, but does not like the style that many younger Turkish girls have adopted, using underscarves and other materials to produce a high and voluminous head shape. Her style is more personal, inspired by the various ways of veiling prevalent in eastern Turkey. Lisa, in contrast, is not interested in elegance, sophistication, or, for that matter, high-heeled shoes. She describes her style as casual, sporty, urban, and cool. She usually wears jeans with a tunic or a blouse on top, and ‘always a hoodie, combined with a cool bag and Nikes’. It is only on special occasions in the Dutch-Pakistani community that she may be spotted wearing shalwar qamiz, often brought from Pakistan. Malika’s outfit shows the least variety. She wears a long, loose, all-covering dress, made by a seamstress who specialises in such clothing, and combines this with a very long, all-enveloping veil; sometimes she also wears gloves. Yet Malika has not relinquished her earlier interest in fashion altogether, as she wears fashionable brand-name jeans underneath, while her long overdress is well-cut and adorned with embroidery and other forms of decoration.

    In other words, through their sartorial practices these women simultaneously enact a religious obligation and participate in particular taste communities. The styles they opt for are not only the result of what they consider Islamically acceptable; other elements are at stake as well. By wearing particular styles of dress they fashion not only a religious self, but simultaneously also enact other subjectivities, including those pertaining to class mobility, ethnic identification, professional achievement and youth cultures. Although Feride distances herself from the more conventional styles worn by young Turkish women, her style nonetheless expresses and produces a sense of Turkishness as well as professionalism. In contrast, neither Malika nor Lisa wear styles of dress that relate directly to their ethnic background, at least not in everyday life; at most they do so on festive occasions. Whereas Malika’s range of styles is the most restricted, she takes great care in choosing the materials, cuts and decorations of her garments in order to present a harmonious and well-groomed look. For Lisa wearing an Islamic yet urban style functions to fashion a particular sense of self that combines being Muslim with participating in a particular youth culture. If both Feride with her elegant Turkish suits and Malika with her ‘Arab (Gulf) style’, as some would call it, are a distinct stylistic minority, Lisa’s frequenting of fashion chains, such as H&M and Zara, using mainstream items and combining these with a headscarf to put together a fashionable yet Islamic outfit is far more common among young Muslim women.

    The politics of corporeal presence

    Islamic Fashion © ZeynapHow does this turn to fashionable styles of Islamic dress amongst young Muslim women relate to debates about the public presence of Islam? The often-heard argument that wearing hijab is a sign or symbol of women’s subordination – independent of whether the wearer herself would agree with this view or not – makes it difficult for covered Muslim women to actually be heard. Hence, other forms of interaction in the public sphere – in this case through a visual, corporeal presence – become a means of presenting an alternative position to the public, one in which, moreover, a far larger number of women are able to participate. As wearers of fashionable styles of Islamic dress, young Muslim women in Europe create a presence that can be the ground from which some of the entrenched positions in the public debate can be destabilised.

    Covered Muslim women themselves emphasise that they are involved in ‘telling through showing’. They are generally hyper-conscious of the fact that, as a marked category, they can never escape the burden of representation. Because they are immediately recognisable as Muslims, they feel a strong responsibility to counter negative stereotypes about Islam by presenting a positive image. This is the more so in the case of those with a strong public presence, be it because of their employment or because of other public activities in which they are engaged (see also Jouili 2009). Even Malika, who does not want to compromise by wearing less covering Islamic styles of dress, takes into consideration how the public perceives her, adding lighter colours to her outfit.

    What, then, do these women communicate through the aesthetics of their corporeal presence? Wearing fashionable styles of dress, first and foremost, works against the image of Muslim women as dull, downtrodden, oppressed, and out of sync with modernity. Precisely because fashion has historically been linked so strongly to modernity, it is through such corporeal aesthetics that they are able to distance themselves from the stereotypical image of an older generation of disadvantaged women from backward rural areas who live in isolation from Dutch society. Their styles of wearing hijab not only define them as Muslim, but also simultaneously present them as participants in the world of fashion, and, more specifically, as belonging to particular style groups, varying from ‘beautiful, elegant, and sophisticated’ to ‘sporty, urban, and cool’. In their careful selection and harmonious putting together of items of dress, they are part of a world of modern, creative consumers. 

    Whereas the turn to more fashionable styles of Islamic dress is certainly a trend, there are also dissenting voices. Muslim publics hold a variety of opinions about the substance of dress requirements and the need to abide by those requirements. Whereas some of those in favour of wearing covered dress refrain from criticising others and argue that also less successful attempts at covering may be seen as a step in the right direction, there is also a concern about some of the more ‘risky’ aesthetic choices, such as combinations of flashy headscarves with increasingly tight T-shirts and jeans, skirts that only just cover the knees, short tunics worn over leggings, and sleeves that are far from full length. To some, the dissonances between the headscarf as a marker of Islamic modesty and the lack of modesty that, in their eyes, some of these styles display are painful to bear.

    Amongst the non-Muslim majority public there is a strong current expressing an almost celebratory tone about such fashionable styles of Islamic dress. One effect has been that women who do not opt for such styles turn into a negatively marked category. Some complain that employers do not object to women wearing a headscarf, but rather to them wearing particular styles of headscarves (and styles of dress) that they consider as too covering, too dark, insufficiently ‘up-to-date’ or, in short, not ‘fashionable’ enough. How the majority public perceives the public presence of Muslim women has also become increasingly dependent on how aesthetically pleasing Islamic styles of dress are to the majority gaze.
    Annelies Moors
    studied Arabic at the University of Damascus and Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. She is the author of Women, Property, and Islam: Palestinian Experiences 1920-1990 (Cambridge University Press, 1995), and has published in edited volumes and journals on such varied topics as gendering Orientalism, debating Islamic family law, writing life stories, visualising the nation-gender nexus, and wearing gold. Since 2001 she is Professor and ISIM Chair at the University of Amsterdam.

    Translated by
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    January 2011

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