Islamic Veiling Meets Fashion: Struggles and Translations
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The political controversies surrounding Muslim veiling today involve specific rhetorical elements deriving from long histories of colonialism, post-colonialism, and neocolonialism and Muslim responses to these. A number of different languages – political, religious, patriarchal, feminist, sectarian, aesthetic – often get mixed up when Muslim veiling is talked about by diverse types of people, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Sartorial fashion is also spoken about in multiple registers: in terms of aesthetics, commercial considerations, social distinction and stratification, art, design, and creativity. Both veiling and fashion have nonverbal languages, too. This chapter looks into the relationships between languages of veiling and languages of fashion. What happens when veiling becomes fashionable? What happens when fashionable forms of veiling appear, and an Islamic fashion industry emerges? There are three relevant types of language used here: those within Muslim communities, those outside Muslim communities, and those operating between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. These are shaped by power struggles of many sorts. As Foucault recognized, languages shape, hide, and (re)produce power relations, such as in Orientalist forms of representation (Said) and in localized forms of silencing subaltern groups like lower-class women (Spivak). Such struggles become more complex when fashion languages and veiling languages meet. Fashionable veiling, or veiling fashion, can be a powerful tool for a Muslim woman, but it can also be rejected as (supposedly) oppressive or demeaning. These contradictory and intertwined elements of veiling languages and fashion languages are subjected here to cultural-historical sociological analysis.
KeywordsVeiling Fashion Muslim women Orientalism Gender
In a very short time, hijab fashion has become a world-renowned phenomenon. In 2015, H&M featured the hijabi model, Mariah Idrissi, in their “Close the Loop” campaign. In 2016, Dolce & Gabbana launched an autumn/winter abaya collection. In 2017, hijab-wearing Halima Aden made quite a storm: she was featured in the cover of Vogue Arabia, was listed by IMG Models modeling agency, made her catwalk debut at New York Fashion Week in Kanye West’s “Yeezy Season 5” show, and was the cover girl (wearing Nike’s performance hijab) of Allure, a US-based women’s beauty magazine. Likewise in the New York Fashion Week, Indonesian designer Anniesa Hasibuan displayed her collection, in which every outfit featured a scarf, long sleeves, and covered legs. In 2018, L’Oréal cast hijabi fashion blogger Amena Khan for their haircare campaign (but later dismissed her due to her previous anti-Israel tweets). The May 2018 cover of Vogue Britain, under the new editor Edward Enninful, featured a truly diverse group of nine models, one of them Halima Aden in her hijab.
But modest fashion, or fashionable hijab, are not a new phenomenon. Back in the 1980s, a burgeoning fashion industry was developing in places like Turkey and Egypt (Navaro-Yashin 2002; Lewis 2010). Through diaspora connections in Muslim minority contexts, and work and study migrations within the Muslim world, fashionable styles and garments spread, and the Islamic fashion industry became transnational and increasingly globalized (Abaza 2007; Gökarıksel and Secor 2013). Meanwhile, diaspora entrepreneurs, often veiling women themselves, sought to facilitate local access to desirable garments, thus serving their communities in diaspora as well as creating careers for themselves (Österlind 2013; Mossière 2012). Eventually, the Islamic fashion industry grew to such prominence that the first fashion days and fashion weeks emerged in locations such as Istanbul, Dubai, and London. While the industry initially simply recognized a gap in the market and sought to fill it, increasingly professionally organized, displayed, and presented producers, brands, and fashion events “translated” Islamic fashion into the established Euramerican fashion languages. This has by no means been a centralized process. Instead, the industry has in many ways grown from grassroots to relative prominence. For example, a designer might be educated in Europe or the USA and would then use the capital they gained through their training to establish a professionally managed fashion label. A fashion retailer could use their personal transnational networks to source garments and import them into a Muslim-minority country. At the same time, there have also been more focused efforts to create fashion centers, such as in Dubai (United Arab Emirates), where fashion investment has gone together with seeking to attract young designers and install local fashion education (often with the aid of already established Euramerican institutions).
Yet for most Western Europeans and North Americans, the ideas of fashionable hijab or Muslim fashion remained a mystery. Particularly since the New York terror attacks of 2001, Muslim veiling had widely been framed as restrictive, patriarchal, and deeply suspicious (Droogsma 2007; McLarney 2009; Meer et al. 2010). Against powerful mainstream media discourses, Muslims often found themselves as defendants, with limited possibilities to speak for themselves, and limited means in which to do so, as we will see below. As Foucault (1977) recognized, languages shape, hide, and (re)produce power relations, such as in Orientalist forms of representation (Said 2003) and in localized forms of silencing subaltern groups like lower-class women (Spivak 1988). In order to understand veiling languages, and veiling/fashion languages, it is therefore essential also to ask who gets to speak and who is heard. We cannot understand the languages of veiling/fashion, unless we understand the significance of who speaks and in what platform.
Veiling Struggles: Between “Modernity” and “Backwardness”
Historically, both before and after Islam, veiling has been associated with a woman’s high social status and sexual unavailability (Ahmed 1992). In the Islamic context, veiling was initially connected to the wives of Muhammed, communicating high social status, respect, modesty, and protection (Ikran 2000). The multiple rhetoric and linguistic strategies connected to Muslims and Islam more generally, and to veiling in particular, have a long history, and to cover all its subtleties is well beyond the reach of this paper. The languages involved include colonialist, postcolonial and neocolonialist, state-sociopolitical, religious and sectarian, patriarchal, feminist, artist, aesthetic, commercial, and resistance languages. But there are some elements that can be discerned from the debates, and those are linked to powerful contested expressions, particularly to “modern” versus “backward,” both of which carry multiple connotations that have been evoked in veiling debates for well over century.
“Hijab,” the word often used to refer to Islamic veiling today, is a fairly recent term as it comes to female clothing. The Arabic word means a barrier, something that prevents, conceals, covers, or protects. In the Qur’an, it has both positive and negative connotations; it may refer to a metaphoric obstacle or division, as well as spatial separation (using a cloth to divide a room), but it is not used to refer to women’s dress codes (Ruby 2006, pp. 55–6). Today, hijab refers to both modest dress and modest dispositions, including behavior, intentions, and motivations (Almila 2018b).
Debates and Trends in the Muslim World
While colonial powers sought to encourage (or enforce) unveiling in the name of women’s rights in areas they occupied or controlled (Abu-Lughod 2002), veiling was also debated by many Muslim groups. In the Ottoman Empire – especially in Egypt, Balkans, and the capital Constantinople (Istanbul) – veiling was a topic of increasing interest in the late nineteenth century (Neuburger 2014). Especially young male intellectuals defended both female education and unveiling, arguing that educated women need not veil (Kejanlioğlu and Taş 2009). Some of these discourses date back to the late eighteenth century, when Ottoman travels in Europe resulted in ideas of social and governmental “progress” (Zahedi 2007). In the late nineteenth century, individuals and newspapers increasingly crossed borders, which meant that similar ideas were debated across the Muslim world from North Africa to Central Asia. These debates involved ideas about women’s position, education, and role in society. Women became more active in these debates in the early twentieth century. Those who argued against veiling justified their position using ideas to do with women’s health, benefits for the nation state through women’s contribution to society, as well as individual’s rights (Kamp 2014).
Egypt was an important center for the changing definitions and understandings of veiling. Both traditionalists and modernists considered veil as one focal point of either encouraging or hindering social change. While traditionalists saw the veil as a sign of “honor” and “modesty,” for modernists it communicated the “backwardness” of the nation (Baron 1989). During this time, fashions and fashionable garments were imported to the Ottoman Empire both from Russia and from Europe via Constantinople (Kashani-Saget 2014). Imported fashionable garments from British India started to shape elite fashions in Afghanistan, yet elite women remained physically secluded (Wide 2014). In Egypt, European fashions were considered by some as proof that Egypt could be modern, while others saw them as a threat to local customs. Such sentiments were elevated in the wake of British domination since 1882 (Baron 1989).
Women themselves were active in these debates, particularly in the emerging women’s press. Veiling touched not only Muslims. Also wealthy Christians and Jews had customs of veiling, and they seem to have given these up earlier than Muslims did. This went hand in hand with the increasing association of the veil with Islamic doctrine and religious affiliation and, in the case of Christians, was influenced by foreign missionaries. Unveiling was encouraged in missionary schools where girls studied unveiled and were also photographed unveiled, providing “proof” of the effectiveness of missionary work among local Christians. An important element of veiling debates was “women’s rights” – however these were understood. Some “Islamic feminists” defended both the veil and Islamic legislation that they saw as protecting women. They soon learned that their position pleased no one: neither the modernists for whom the veil communicated backwardness nor the religious traditionalists who were not keen on women’s education (Baron 1989).
The tone of these debates changed in the wake of WWI. In the 1920s, a language of “backwardness” in terms of veiling, and in some locations referring to Islam more generally, was widely adopted in the construction of nation-states. Unveiling was in many locations defined as loyalty to the new (often secular) state. In the Soviet world, the Communist Party took over women’s activism, in effect silencing women and enforcing unveiling through male members of the family, as an indicator of loyalty to the Party (Kamp 2014). According to the Soviet rhetoric, both the Russian Empire and Islam had “oppressed” women, while communism would “liberate” them (Neuburger 2014).
In the newborn Republic of Turkey, the “new” Turkish woman was contrasted against the “backward” Ottoman woman, and there were active campaigns to promote “new” female dress (Libal 2014). Yet, the Turkish, elite-driven, anti-veiling campaigns targeted only specific styles of veiling: the face-veil and the full-body cloak (Adak 2014). Such campaigns and the efforts to enforce unveiling also triggered forms of resistance, such as using umbrellas to hide unveiled heads and faces (Metinsoy 2014). In Iran, unveiling was associated with “civilization” and patriotism and presented as compatible with Sharia and religious doctrines. The anti-veiling campaigns were mostly targeted at urban women, particularly those working in certain public professions or married to government officials (Rostam-Kolayi and Matin-Asgari 2014). Also in Afghanistan, veiling was declared “backward,” and anti-veiling campaigns initiated (Wide 2014). Egyptian women likewise associated unveiling with “emancipation,” an idea that was strongly linked to “western” liberalism and feminism. Huda Sha’arawi (1897–1947) publicly removed her veil when returning from the International Feminist Conference in Rome in 1923 – a gesture that spoke to educated higher-class women like herself. During Naseer’s rule (1956–1970), increasing educational and employment opportunities for women were created, but many also needed to enter labor outside home due to economic pressures. Thus, an increasing number of women entered the public sphere, and many of them quietly unveiled (Ikran 2000).
For the European countries that had formerly been part of the Ottoman Empire, such as Bulgaria and Albania, the very idea of Islam was more challenging. Bulgaria sought to homogenize the nation through the definition of Muslims as “backward” and the veil as “backward,” foreign, and “non-European” (Neuburger 2014). In Albania, secular intellectuals south to “westernize” and “modernize” the state. Unveiling was seen as an indicator of loyalty to nation and compatible with “modern,” “European” Islam. Young, educated women were particularly keen on such changes (Clayer 2014).
When the “new veiling” emerged in various urban locations in North Africa and the Middle East in the 1970s, it was largely associated with anti-fashion (while “fashion” was considered “western”). This type of veiling differed from “traditional” veiling in various ways. Most importantly, the new veil must be donned for much longer periods of time than the “traditional” veil, which often was quickly thrown over one’s home attire, when one needed to briefly leave the domestic space or when a man sought to enter the house. The new veil was worn for hours in time in urban mixed-gender settings and therefore needed to have functional qualities that allowed it to stay in place and not become easily disarranged (Almila 2017). The veil was a visual statement that facilitated the lives of women who had recently migrated from rural settings into urban centers, in order to study and/or work there. By veiling, they were able to reject fashion competition (which they could not afford to partake) in university campuses, as well as protect themselves in crowded mixed-gender spaces in public transport and lecture halls, which they found uncomfortable and often threatening in terms of unwanted advances from men (Abaza 2007). In Iran, the new Islamic attire was associated with reclaiming “authenticity,” as opposed to “westernization.” But veiling was seen also as a socially significant act of solidarity: non-veiling was considered as an undemocratic attempt to distinguish oneself from the masses. Such an elite practice went strongly against what the dark chador – established during and after the revolution – indicated about solidarity, particularly among and with the working classes (Zahedi 2007). This was a characteristic element of the new veiling everywhere it emerged: unlike the unveiling campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s, the new veiling was driven by the lower and middle classes. There was also an important difference in what the new veil communicated about women in public places. While, traditionally, veiling rendered women invisible in public places (Mernissi 2003; Fay 2012), the new veil was more likely to make a woman and her religious affiliation visible, sometimes strikingly so.
Non-Muslims Talking About the Veil
The “Orient” has fascinated Europeans for centuries (Said 2003). Muslim women have played an important part in this, being constructed as symbols of multiple sensations. In the pre-eighteenth-century literature, they fell in love with Christian knights, indicating pleasure and sensuality. Muslim men, on the other hand, were framed as violently sexual and abusive. In the eighteenth century, the idea of “unhappy harem” emerged, suggesting that Muslim women were prisoners in their homes. By the nineteenth century, Muslim women had come to be presented as possessing enormous, abnormal sexual appetites, thus dehumanizing them. Similar themes were present in paintings, where Muslim women were portrayed with a light skin and men as dark-skinned (Haddad 2007). All such representations continue to be bound up with veiling discourses.
The colonials of the nineteenth century were actively criticizing what they considered “Islamic” treatment of women. It was seen as subhuman and demeaning, particularly in terms of polygamy, gender segregation, veiling, and harems. Europeans attributed the “backwardness” of these customs to Islam and saw the veil as a symbol of this: “To the West, the veil served as a symbol of women’s lower position in Muslim society” (Ikran 2000, p. 107). But scarves and veils had been worn in Europe for a long time with no association with Islam. Therefore, when the veil was constructed as a sign of Islam, it was also stripped of its history. European history of veiling was removed from the signifier, and thus history was transformed and a new meaning of a sign naturalized (Batur 2012). Veiling became “Muslim.” Cooke (2007) has argued that in a similar manner, the signifier “Muslimwoman” – in which religion and gender are so intertwined that they cannot be separated and which erases all difference between individual Muslim women – has emerged and been naturalized since the New York terror attacks.
In European discourses about veiling, forms of “difference” (from the locals) are created, difference of Muslims, and the particular difference of the face-veil – a form of Orientalizing discourse (Said 2003). The face-veil is in such narratives considered as a form of “separation,” both of individuals from society, and wider societal separation, while “real” citizenship is considered to be achievable only through certain levels of conformity. In such rhetorical strategy, national citizenship is defined through what it is not, thus excluding groups and individuals from the reach of “citizenship” (Meer et al. 2010). The frames typically used in this kind of debates concern the perceived “neutrality” of the (secular) state, “gender emancipation,” and individual “rights.” The construction of proper “citizens” and forms of “integration” – how to become a proper citizen through the adoption of “local values” – is filtered through veiling discourses. At the same time, local understandings of “gender equality” and “emancipation” are constructed. Muslim women become an entity left out of such categories (Bracke and Fadil 2012).
In the legislative headscarf controversies of the 2000s, “conventional western liberal notions of autonomy and choice [came] firmly to frame the views and arguments of both the proponents and opponents of various restrictions of Islamic veiling” (Vakulenko 2012, p. 56, emphasis added). Although European legal and political traditions, and thus the national discourses, were seemingly diverse, the frames – “autonomy,” “gender equality,” and “secularism” versus “religion” – were the same across the region. Such a limitation of frames forces the other side of the debate to formulate its arguments accordingly and may actually be restrictive to both sides. According to Vakulenko (2012), the headscarf rhetoric is based on, and reproduces, the opposition of “reason” versus culture/religion, wherein “choice” is exercised within “reason” and “freedom” means freedom from culture/religion, which is considered irrational, non-liberal, and oppressive.
The “headscarf” controversies in Europe emerged in the 1980s, first in Turkey where scarves are still banned on university campuses. France has since banned headscarves in schools (2004) and face-veils in all public places (2011). Complete or partial face-veil bans are also in place in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and in some areas in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. There are ongoing proposals to fully or partly ban the face-veil in Finland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Spain, and Switzerland. In fact, such a ban has been proposed (often unsuccessfully) in the vast majority of European countries. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has repeatedly declared such bans legitimate. In 2016, some French towns tried to ban modest swimwear, also called burkini, but to no long-standing effect – the ban was overturned as discriminatory by French courts.
The “burqa” was elaborately used in pro-war media coverage in the early and mid-2000s USA. In such narratives, the veil was seen as the ultimate opposite to the (sexually) “liberated,” aestheticized female body. “Good Muslims,” so the narrative goes, wear fashionable garments and “western” values (the veil is seen as antithetical to “western values”). Veils, on the other hand, are disturbing, dark and impenetrable, and obviously not worn by “good Muslims” (McLarney 2009). Media coverage largely sought to define the removal of the veil desirable, citing concerns about “radicalization,” “terrorism,” and (lack of) “integration.” Full veiling in particular was framed as perilous to “social harmony.” Ultimately, the veil was associated with fear and a threat to western cultural hegemony (Byng 2010).
This is not to say that there would not be European and North American individuals and groups who defend Muslim women’s right to veil – they certainly exist. In fact, in the USA, the European anti-veiling legislations are often considered to be far too radical and to break against the principle of “individual freedom” (Byng 2010). But the powerful discourses shaping the debates mean that also those who wish to defend veiling must formulate their arguments within the frames offered (Bracke and Fadil 2012; Vakulenko 2012). Thus, the arguments available are strictly limited by the frames created through the history of Orientalizing the veil and its wearers.
Muslims Responding and Debating
Veiling divides opinions within Muslim communities, too. One reason for the diversity of opinions is that the Qur’an gives very little guidance as regards appropriate female dress (Akou 2010, p. 332). Moreover, the Hadiths – the sayings attributed to Muhammed – have little to say about women’s clothing (El Guindi 1999, p. 135). Consequently, there is a wide field of interpretation by Islamic scholars about the hijab. Individual Muslims discuss the topic both in face-to-face and online contexts, seek information and guidance, and develop their own perspectives on appropriate dress (Akou 2010). “Appropriate dress” for a faithful Muslim woman therefore takes a wide variety of forms, from unveiled to loosely veiled, “fashionably” veiled, “conservatively” veiled, and fully veiled. In terms of legislation, there are formally few dress restrictions across the Muslim world. Iran and Saudi Arabia enforce veiling by law, but in many other locations, it is socially strictly ordained, and the consequences of unveiling may be severe, even deadly. In minority contexts likewise, women may face community or peer pressure to veil, but they may also develop elaborate, religiously grounded rhetoric techniques to resist such pressures and to argue that not to veil is religiously appropriate.
Veiling languages today draw upon both religious and other discourses, and Muslims responding to veiling debates are typically restricted by the historically constructed frames, too. When the veil was made visible by European commentaries upon it, it also became deeply associated with Islam, whereas previously it was often a custom practiced by women of many religions. “It was at the moment when veiling was constructed as a problem that it could become a statement” (Batur 2012, p. 157, my emphasis). Different views on veiling within Muslim communities today must also be understood in the light of a global spread of types of Islam, both more “conservative” and more “moderate” (Roy 2004). In the wake of such spread of religious ideas, also how women justify their veiling in different locations has become more homogenized, with similar answers given to “why” questions everywhere (Ahmed 2011). Veiling is a topic of interest and subject to debates across the world and in all six continents – both in locations where it has a long history, as well as in both Muslim and non-Muslim locations with little history of veiling (Almila 2017).
Several factors influence in the background. Some “western” discourses actively seek to establish “difference” and conflicts between Islam and “the west” as cultural, as opposed to driven by multiple political and economic factors. Such strategies seek to frame Muslims and Islam as somehow essentially different from North Americans and Europeans (Abu-Lughod 2002). Many Muslims feel compelled to react to such claims by stressing their “moderate,” “modern,” or “progressive” religious interpretations and their integration of “western” or “European” values with Islamic ones (Kassam 2011; Roy 2004).
But there are those Muslims that criticize such a position. They point out that the veil, and the supposed low position of women in Muslim societies, was used as justifications of colonialism (Haddad 2007). Indeed, many colonialists and neocolonialists have been guilty of trying to “save brown women from brown men” (Spivak 1988; Abu-Lughod 2002). Some more “radical” Islamic movements argue that “western” values influence Muslim women negatively and state that the only principle to be followed is submission to God. These groups use “clash of civilizations” for their own purposes and employ feminist texts to construct a negative stereotype of “western” women as oppressed by capitalism, patriarchy, commercialization, and sexualization. Against this, a Muslim woman who submits only to God, not to humans or material goods, is created as a desirable ideal. Yet this woman’s right to choose her garments is denied, and conservative veiling declared as compulsory (as ordained by God) (Tarlo 2005).
Such views are by no means shared (or known) by the majority of Muslims, who indeed often prefer the “moderate” and “modern” versions of religious interpretation and lifestyle. Some also argue against certain conformative discursive strategies, employed “by repressive forms of Islam in Saudi Arabia and Iran which seek to promote head-covering as a ‘virtual “sixth pillar” of Islam’ in order to normalize it as a required practice for Muslim women” (Lewis 2017, p. 140, see Nomani and Arafa 2015). Such arguments do not aim to say whether women should veil or not, but instead argue that repressive discourses create pressures for women to veil and evoke judgmental attitudes and social sanctions against those who do not. Women should be allowed to make their own choice and yet to participate fully in religious spaces and discourses. Yet, no discursive strategy is perfect: “it may be that framing the argument about choice in religio-cultural expression through the language of hijab serves unwittingly to promulgate a world view that is not gender inclusive or egalitarian” (Lewis 2017, p. 140). Ultimately, each framing makes some expressions acceptable and renders others unheard (Bracke and Fadil 2012).
Veiling Meets Fashion
Fashion became institutionalized in Europe in a time associated with “modernity.” The institutionalization involved the establishment of “designers” as creators of fashion, the confirmation of Paris as the leading fashion city, and, eventually, a slow democratization of fashion, as cheaper production made it available for an increasing number of consumers. Fashion was also considered to be strictly outside religious order – indeed, clerical and monastery dress were often seen to be the very opposite of fashionable attire. Such understanding of fashion quite understandably renders religiously oriented fashion somewhat of an oxymoron.
The structuralist Roland Barthes famously claimed in the 1960s that it may be possible to consider fashion as a system of signs other than language. The Fashion System (Barthes 1990) sets out to consider clothing as consisting of three elements: image (as in fashion magazines), written (text about the garment), and real (the physical garment). The “real” garment is never fully seen, and it is transformed into iconic (image) and verbal (written) forms through shifters, which at the same time make it “fashion” through various techniques. To put it plainly, there are both verbal and visual signifiers that serve to place an individual garment or look into the realm of “fashion,” in order to increase its monetary and cultural value. Lurie (2000) later took the idea of “language of clothing” rather further and claimed that if there is a “language” of clothing, there must also be “grammar” and “vocabulary” of it. Her claims have not always met with much acclaim (Davis 1992). While semiotic accounts of fashion have been subjected to much critique (see Carter 2012; Riello 2011), we can draw from Barthes the recognition of some sorts of “fashion languages,” both verbal and visual. How garments and dress styles are spoken of and displayed is extremely important for their cultural and, ultimately, financial appreciation. So, for example, fashion magazine and retail catalogue photograph styles vary significantly, and so do the verbal languages used of garments in each setting.
Pierre Bourdieu (1993) has argued that the field of high fashion is co-created by actors operating within it (or seeking to enter it) and that the field must be created as prestigious by all the actors, as ultimately this serves their mutual benefit. At the same time, each actor seeks to improve and/or defend their position within the field. It is not that a designer is “creative” and that is “recognized” by others, but that a designer must create themselves as a “creator” within the field. The prestige of the creator is much more important than the prestige of the product (just think of how “Chanel suit” manages to keep its prestige decades after Coco Chanel’s death). Yet, people operating within the field also consecrate each other by mutual recognition of “creativity” and “genius.” People thus consecrated have much more power to speak and to be heard than those in lower hierarchical positions within the field. Therefore, who speaks is also crucial.
The platform where the speaking is done matters, too. This is related to who gets to speak, for not everyone has access to high-powered platforms such as upper-end fashion magazines (e.g., Vogue) or upper-end fashion events, such as fashion weeks in London, Paris, and New York. The fundamental interconnectedness of platforms and people can be seen in how both space and time are organized in major fashion events. Who gets to display their collection and when, who is invited to a show, who actually arrives, who is let in, who sits in the front row, and who is allowed to arrive late, all communicate and re-create fashion hierarchies and reflect the hierarchical power structures that shape the field of fashion (Entwistle and Rocamora 2006).
Therefore, we can recognize a number of factors that define who can speak of and in fashion and, more importantly, who is heard when they talk about fashion. These are all crucial when we start thinking of the complexities of what happens when veiling meets fashion.
Creating Fashionable Veiling
It’s 2012. We’re bored to death with debates about the hijab. Why women wear it. Whether they are coerced into it. ‘Oh, but I bet they have a lovely head of hair under there’. SNORE. All this talk neglects the role of fashion in the hijab’s popularity. It’s just easier to be a fashionable Muslim in Britain these days – walk down Oxford street and stereotypes of the hijab as bland and restrictive are laughable. There are gaggles of friends wearing bright leopard print H&M shawls as a hijab, girls with a mountain of fabric piled up to create a beehive style hijab – hell, I even saw a lady wearing a glittery blue cardigan as a headscarf once (I saw the sleeve hanging out). (Ilyas 2012)
The expressions of fashionability are manifold here: the type of print and material (bright leopard, glittery), style (“beehive”), brand (H&M), location (Oxford Street, London’s most famous shopping street), and displayed creativity/eccentricity (cardigan sleeve). These are the types of indicators that can be used by ordinary wearers of garments to speak of their fashion positions. To talk of these in a fashion blog takes the discussion to the next level, as it may potentially reach a different kind of audience. Successful fashion bloggers have in fact won very prestigious positions within the fashion field and consequently hold significant power over definitions of “fashionability” (Pedroni 2015). Yet, in this particular citation, a non-Muslim blogger speaks of hijabs. What about Muslim fashion bloggers?
The Muslim fashion blogosphere emerged partly as a reaction to the unwillingness of the established, male-dominated Islamic media channels to take up topics as “frivolous” or potentially haram (forbidden) as fashion (Lewis 2015). Although Muslim lifestyle magazines tended to view fashion more favorably (Jones 2017; Kassam 2011), there was a need for women-led media space for Muslim women interested in style, dress, and fashion. And while the modest fashion blogosphere has promoted a language of “individual choice” (rather than compulsion) in terms of hijab, there has also been a (largely male) backlash in the form of hostility and criticism from other Muslims who consider fashion incompatible with religious values. But for other audiences, modest fashion blogs may operate to destigmatize veiling and religiously inspired forms of fashion (Lewis 2015). The hijab fashion blogosphere has in fact expanded so much that blog commentaries recommending most popular blogs have appeared. In January 2017, hautehijab.com recommended “The 28 Most Influential Hijabi Bloggers You Should Be Following in 2017,” enthusiastically commenting upon each bloggers style, silhouettes, colors, favored materials, and typical garments. Notably, there was no reference to religious topics, illustrating how far the “normalization” of hijab fashions has come, at least in the dedicated blogosphere. Instead, the reader was told that “[t]o help you find hijabi bloggers who best inspire your own style, we’ve compiled 28 of today’s most influential bloggers below!” (https://www.hautehijab.com/blogs/hijab-fashion/28-most-influential-hijabi-bloggers).
The “normalization” of fashionable hijab through media such as blogs can also be considered as part of normalization of the relationship between fashion and religion, which is done by treating fashionable veiling as ordinary, everyday, and established (Moors 2013). I have argued elsewhere that the Islamic fashion industry and Islamic fashion are exceptions to the Europe-driven rule of different social spheres’ independence from each other, when religion gradually lost its power over other spheres of life (Almila 2018a). I have also shown how the Islamic fashion industry is driven by a number of religiously oriented dispositions and motivations, instead of being solely commercial and aesthetic (Almila 2018b). These characteristics of the phenomenon potentially render it as alien to “western” fashion systems, while the normalization of veiling fashions creates space for the hijab to enter established Euramerican fashion platforms.
“Western” Versus Muslim Actors
As long as “western” and “Islamic” fashion industries were seemingly separated from each other, this caused very little schism in the fashion world. While it was true that designers in, for example, Tehran, were mindful of Parisian fashions and followed the yearly cycle of the “western” fashion system and that Parisian designers took into consideration the tastes of their Middle Eastern customers (Balasescu 2007), this was not considered worth much publicity in fashion media. At the same time, Muslim fashion centers were developing in places like Istanbul, Dubai, and Jakarta, again not causing much commentary outside the Muslim world. What caused a media stir was when “western” brands started to include hijabi women in their campaigns and to design garments suitable for veiling women.
These developments were celebrated by some, strongly condemned by others. For example, Laurence Rossignol, France’s women’s rights minister, argued that brands that create such designs are not “socially responsible” and that “from a certain point of view … [their actions] promote the shutting away of women’s bodies.” She went on to say that there “are women who make the choice [to veil] … there were also … American negroes who were in favor of slavery.” The level of outrage that followed her statement is not difficult to imagine. Rossignol later commented that “negro is a pejorative word that should not be used except to evoke slavery with reference to the abolitionist work by Montesquieu. There was, therefore, no provocation on my part nor any desire to shock. It’s a word I would not use in any other circumstance” and that “apart from the slip of the tongue, I don’t take back a word that I said” (cited in Willisher 2016: unpaginated). In other words, comparing veiling to slavery was, to her, acceptable, if the n-word was omitted.
But “western” brands seeking to launch collections and campaigns targeting Muslim women were not celebrated by all Muslims, either, not even all fashion-conscious Muslims. Here, it is good to keep in mind that, for example, H&M had a long-standing Muslim clientele (Moors 2009), which they only decided to “recognize” in 2015 (see also Almila 2017). Many believed that it was the significant monetary value of the Muslim market alone that finally led established fashion brands to take notice of hijabi fashions. Ruqaya Haris (2016) pointed out that given D&G’s very recent use of racist and appropriating imagery, she had a hard time believing in their supposed ethnic sensitivity and inclusivity. (Similarly, Tommy Hilfiger’s 2016 Ramadan collection came only a year after the brand had been at the center of a racism scandal, which may have reduced the producer’s credibility in ethnic inclusivity (Almila 2018b).) White models parading “Islamic” garments, for Haris, operated as a reminder of how “eastern culture may only be celebrated when it is glamorized by western society, which can in turn capitalize on it” (Haris 2016: unpaginated). Meanwhile, Fatin Marini (2016) pointed out that a D&G high fashion collection is not exactly going to help ordinary consumers like her find suitable garments – a task that is recognized as challenging by many veiling women in various minority locations (e.g., Almila 2018b; Moors 2009; Mossière 2012). When talking of platforms, it is worth noting that both Haris and Marini published their opinion piece in The Guardian, which as a platform guarantees international, relatively high-level visibility, especially among cosmopolitan, liberal, left-leaning audience. Such left-leaning media have become increasingly important for liberal Muslim voices during recent years.
It may well be that a part of the critique targeted against these “western” companies is due to the fact that they actually have engaged in very few “translations” when seeking to operate in the realm of Islamic fashion. Fashion companies run by Muslims often use quite elaborate strategies in order to establish their “Muslimness” and their acceptable, halal, characteristics. Such strategies may involve considerations as to how to display the female body (see below), the use of religious language in marketing, and levels of transparency with regard to financing. Entrepreneurs are often forced to consider the sensibilities of the wider community they are associated with, not only their explicit marketing target group(s) (Tarlo 2010). Many follow religioethical principles in terms of funding, modes of production, and treatment of employees (Almila 2018b). How modest fashion is produced, presented, and spoken of, and by whom, matters for (at least some of) its wearers.
Muslim designers and entrepreneurs have worked for decades to create alternative spaces for modest fashion, yet employing “western” fashion languages – such as calling one’s fashion company “Haute Hijab” or identifying as “hijab-ista” instead of “fashionista.” Also, the creation of alternative fashion centers in places like Istanbul, Dubai, and Jakarta has been central to the development of an Islamic fashion system. So has been the creation of modest fashion sphere in established fashion cities, such as London, where the first London Modest Fashion Week took place in 2017. At the same time, there have been some efforts by Islamic or Islamically oriented states to resist what they consider “western” influences by supporting and promoting design and display of Islamic fashion (Zahedi 2007; Jones 2017; Shirazi 2017).
To come back to the question as to how and by whom fashion is spoken of and where, there is a significant difference between the D&G abaya collection and Anniesa Hasibuan’s collection in 2017 New York Fashion Week. D&G is a fully established fashion brand whose reputation is influenced little by one collection. Hasibuan was an emerging Muslim designer whose whole collection and business ideology were about modest fashion, following religious sensibilities. While Hasibuan managed to reach one of the highest-powered fashion platforms, her position still was precarious, as is every emerging designer’s. But her position may have been particularly precarious given that the current trend of recognizing and celebrating modest fashion may be just that – a trend for “western” fashion industries, who are constantly seeking new markets and audiences.
So, modest fashion will likely need to continue its balancing act between fashion and religion. Yes, there are more recognized hijabi models than there used to be: Amena Khan, Halima Aden, Shahira Yusuf, Mariah Idrissi, Kadija Diawara, and Ikram Abdi Omar. There is a range of modest fashion bloggers, some veiling, some not (Lewis 2015). There are modest fashion advocates who both celebrate and normalize religiously informed fashions in their everyday dress choices. But there is also a persistent Muslim skepticism of fashion phenomena more generally and Islamic fashion in particular (Almila 2016). The long-established frames within which these debates happen are unlikely to be changed radically, but it will always be possible to push boundaries and seek to establish connections between seemingly contradictory, but in practice very interconnected, phenomena.
I have explored in this paper some struggles around “Islamic” veiling that have shaped the ideas about hijab and Muslim women throughout centuries. I have recognized that “veiling” has for a long time been constructed as “backward” by its Muslim and non-Muslim opponents. At the same time, “fashion” has widely been assumed to be linked to “modernity.” Increasing pressures to establish oneself as a “moderate” and “modern” Muslim in the wake of the New York terror attacks have created further complexities for veiling women, while some Muslims have chosen to explicitly oppose “western” influences and “values.”
The desire to dress “fashionably” and to establish the idea of “fashionable veiling” is interconnected, but not strictly speaking the same thing. Simply to dress in a manner that one and one’s peers recognize as “fashionable” is an act of “normalization,” but to promote Muslim fashion through various media takes the idea of modest fashion further and actively contributes to the debates surrounding the veil. The very politicization of the veil makes veiling fashion politicized, too – as has been learned by those “western” brands that have sought to capitalize on Muslim clientele.
Fundamentally, these debates, and the attempts to translate veiling into fashion, raise questions to do with the levels of power each person participating in the debate holds in each context. It is well known that European and North American veiling debates tend to exclude Muslim women – it is not uncommon to ask for a “Muslim opinion” from a male Imam rather than from veiling women themselves. Within Muslim communities, women often struggle to be heard, too: especially conservative religious forces tend to be exclusively male. But at the same time, women have throughout centuries managed to forge alternative spaces for themselves and to participate in the debates in their own way. Fashion is one of these ways. If the current trend of allowing hijab fashions to enter powerful fashion platforms continues, there is increasing potential for Muslim women to take advantage of it and perhaps eventually get their voices heard by new audiences.
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