Many Westerners view modest clothing as the ultimate sign of Muslim women’s oppression. They assume that the concept of the veil, whether a headscarf or a full-body covering, is based on the outdated idea that women’s bodies are overly sexual and must be hidden.
As I was scrolling on Facebook recently I came across an article titled “Melania Trump in Saudi Arabia: Hijab-free and Proudly American.” As if one couldn’t be proudly American and wear the hijab at the same time… The article went on to describe Melania’s fashionable outfit that included pants and, importantly, a bare face. The article closes with the author calling for a familiar narrative- Trump to implement a burqa ban in the United States. All across the globe bans of the burqa and hijab have been, and continue to be, implemented. For example, in 2016 the Dutch parliament approved a partial ban of the burqa in public places. Such bans are often put under a guise of a broader ban of “public displays of religiosity,” or as a precaution/need for security– like the ban just mentioned, which claims to be for “security reasons.”
However, it seems quite evident that these various bans are underwritten by an ethos of Islamophobia. The veil is portrayed more often than not as in tension with nebulous concepts of “modernity” and “secularity.” This is evident in the bans of the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, France and Bulgaria where the bans being employed are seen as a promotion of “secularity” and therefore in contrast with religiosity- or at least the public display of it. Yet, in reality, they are not much more than uninformed discrimination as we see evidenced through narratives of the “Islamic threat” to “secularism.” The whole argument has a Samuel Huntington Clash of Civilizations vibe and while this argument is clearly racist and problematic, it persists. And, although Islamic women all over the world are proving that they view themselves as religious and simultaneously secular is not an issue, the rest of the world continues to perpetuate the idea that the two simply cannot coexist.
But why do Islamic women seem to be at the center of the debate? Associate Professor of Geography at UNC Chapel Hill, Banu Gorkariksel, notes that “Clothing may be the most visible and easily identifiable corporeal marker of religiosity or secularity.” So while some Christians have no visible markers that make them visibly Christian, Muslim women, and especially those who are veiled, are visibly religious. And while Gorkariksel also argues that to the Western and secular eyes the veil is seen as hiding women’s bodies or making them invisible in public spaces, I believe that this invisibility inversely makes them hyper visible. It is in this way that Muslim women’s veiling, and modest clothing in general, becomes the ultimate sign of Muslim otherness. I hope to show here the ways in which Muslim women use their clothing to communicate a variety of things from fashion to religiosity. The issue that the women, like those discussed in Jeanette Jouli’s book, are facing is that while they see themselves as being visible, distanced, members, “their orthodox piety [cannot] easily be rendered intelligible through a mainstream (liberal-secular) discourse” — and therein lies the biggest issue. Secular society has got it wrong. By looking at Islam through an ethnocentric, etic, lens one completely misjudges and umbrellas a whole religion. Rather than viewing Muslim women’s clothing as a problem that needs fixing, we ought to be aware of the multiplicities accompanying this pious fashion.
In her book titled Pious Fashion Elizabeth Bucar explores how the veil and fashion are articulated and lived in Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia. She shows us that in all of these locations pious fashion is influenced by standards of beauty, has a variety of meanings and is expressed in a multitude of colors and textures which express “individual tastes and challenge aesthetic conventions.” In this way the idea of fashion is encapsulated in the conversation surrounding the veil. For some women pious fashion may look like a hijab in the form of a stylish scarf paired with Doc Martin boots, designer jeans and a top. For another woman this may mean something completely different. What is notable is that it is all pious fashion.
It is the Indonesian stay-at-home mom who decides to wear jilbab and share her experiential learning through her blog. It is the Tehrani youth who stands up to the morality police who harass her for wearing jeans as part of her hijab. It is the recent college graduate in Istanbul who critiques the styling on the cover of an Islamic fashion magazine. These women are all pious, even though they do not agree about what modest entails…They are pious because they are using clothing and adornment to cultivate their own characters, to build community, and to make social critiques.
Fashion can be pious. Fashion is pious! Project Runway contestant Ayana Ife shocked the judges when she was able to make modest clothing look modern. But why?!
It seems that the most notable contention promoters of secularity and modernity seem to have with Islam is the supposed oppression and invisibility marked by the burqa. Public discourses name female Muslim subjects through European “meta-values and self-descriptions, such as freedom or autonomy” labeling such women as premodern. Women who choose to wear the veil are assumed to be forced or conceding to male pressure. The interlocutors of Joulis’s book recognize this and are actively aiming “to prove their compatibility” with European modernity not in spite of but because of their Muslim-ness.
Do Muslim women need saving? Do they need to be liberated? These are the questions liberal feminists and secular societies are asking. Perhaps these women are already liberated, maybe not- either way these women are full modern individuals who are choosing the constraints in which they are living. Perhaps they are even more modern because they understand both the secular and the religious and are choosing one over the other. Either way it seems abundantly clear they they do not in fact need saving.
Rather than oppressive, the veil/burqa is seen as a liberating and freeing force- in Abu-Lughod’s book she notes the shock of one of her informants at her suggestion that she was oppressed by her religion in any way. The veil has a force of “cultivation of self-confidence or pride” for the women of Jouli, Abu-Lughod, and Gorkariksel. It seems in fact that the biggest imposition and constraint present in the lives of the Muslims who choose to wear the veil is that of secular society. Muslims dressed in the burqa are denied jobs, education and access to everyday things- this appears to be more oppressive for those women.
In the complex geography of the secular world, these Muslim women are forced to [re]signify what the female Muslim body is in a world with increasing pressure to secularize. What happens here is an ethical labor involved with the “creative employment of body, space, and time, as subverting in multiple ways the constraints of secular public spheres that seem to render impossible the public exercise of “illegitimate” religious practice.” The idea of the foreign, over there vs over here, alien “Islamic society” is not a new concept, and there seems to be an “unbridgeable gap between the West and the “Rest;”” where Muslims are presented as the most troubling of the Rest. Muslim women, in this sense, have come to symbolize “just how alien this culture is.”
What is important to recognize is the violence that is being done to these women with narrative such as these. By assuming the veil equals ignorance and oppression we are forcing Muslim women to suffer the psychological and socio-economic consequences that accompany these views. Young Muslim women are being forced to invest energy in establishing themselves as thinking, rational, literate students. In essence, we are taking away their agency, which is somewhat ironic as these Muslim women see the veil as giving them agency.
There is an intertwining or entanglement of “religious” and “secular” powers in real time marked by place and time, and formed through specific “sets of political and social relations, ideologies, and practices in particular sites” that needs to be remembered. And Wendy Brown reminds us in Abu-Lughod’s book that secularism has not brought women’s freedom nor equality in the West, and our views are based on the “tacit assumption that bared skin and flaunted sexuality is a token if not measure of women’s freedom and equality.”” In general, our views are largely shaped by “the perpetual bombardment of negative, or at best incomplete, representations of Muslims in the media.” If we are to ever recognize the fallacy of binaries such as “religion” and “secularity” we must recognize the variety of expressions of religion and secularity and how such experiences are not confined to bounded spaces, but lived as part of everyday life in a multitude of spaces and scales.
 Bucar, Elizabeth M. Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2017. Page, 1.
 Gorkariksel, Banu. “Beyond the Officially Sacred: Religion, Secularism, and the Body in the Product of Subjectivity.” Social and Cultural Geography, Vol. 10, No. 6 (September 2009): 657-74. doi:10.1080/14649360903068993. Page, 665.
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 Jouli, Jeanette. Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015
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 Hoodfar, Homa. “The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women.” Resources for Feminist Research 22, no. 3/4 (1992/1993): 5-18.
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Abu-Lughod, Lila. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Bucar, Elizabeth M. Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2017.
Gorkariksel, Banu. “Beyond the Officially Sacred: Religion, Secularism, and the Body in the Product of Subjectivity.” Social and Cultural Geography, Vol. 10, No. 6 (September 2009): 657-74. doi:10.1080/14649360903068993.
Hoodfar, Homa. “The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women.” Resources for Feminist Research 22, no. 3/4 (1992/1993): 5-18.
Jouili, Jeanette Selma. Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.
Peterson, Kristian. “Representation and Muslim Identity.” Journal of Religion and Society, 13th ser. (2016): 113-23.
Wheeler, Kayla. “It’s “Been” Cool to Cover: Why Ayana Ife Matters.” Sapelo Square. November 21, 2017. https://sapelosquare.com/2017/11/21/its-been-cool-to-cover-why-ayana-ife-matters/.