Like many Muslim women across the world I have had a complicated relationship with the way I dress. Although I have never covered my hair, the importance of my body and the clothes I could wear was impressed upon me from a young age. Well into my early twenties, my Pakistani grandmother had a habit of assessing my apparel before I left the house to discern the level of ‘piousness’. This sexualisation of me, my sisters, and many of my other female relatives, was not deemed unusual or problematic in any way. Women were told to protect themselves from the advances of men but men were not taught to view women in any way other than as sexual beings.
I did not grow up with role models like Dina Torkia, a mixed race British Muslim woman like me who has managed to retain her ‘pious’ identity while also being seen as someone who can dress any other fashionista under the table. My mixed heritage confused me further; I had Scottish cousins who were allowed to wear frilly dresses and strappy tops in their teens but my Muslim background and Pakistani grandmother vehemently forbade the showing of more skin than necessary for fear of whipping any passing man into a sexual frenzy.
Throughout my formative years I toyed with what it meant to be a mixed race Muslim woman in Britain. I considered wearing a hijab to more easily fit in with my Indian and Pakistani relatives, but then eschewed the idea for fear that it would alienate my Scottish ones. I never really understood how I could consolidate all of my identities.
There were also some completely intangible rules that I still cannot make sense of. My maternal grandfather was from Hyderabad Deccan, India, where the wearing of a sari is a rite of passage for a woman after her marriage. It is a sign of graduation to a higher plane of being. I looked at the women around me and could not understand how it was deemed acceptable for them to have at least five inches of their back and stomach showing but I was nearly disowned for not wearing a baggy top over my apparently extremely tight jeans. I was even more flummoxed by the rules that my mother and grandmother imparted to me regarding the ‘pious fashion’ around us. It was perfectly permissible for me to wear a short sleeve shalwar kameez but anything that revealed a shoulder would be frowned upon. The same rules did not apply to women who chose to cover their hair – they were to be held to a higher standard. I vividly remember the strong critique of a second cousin of mine that my mother, grandmother and sisters launched into when they had seen that she decided to wear a headscarf but then also wore short sleeves. Did she not realise that the rules had now changed for her? Elbows were a big no-no.
I was also bewildered as to why my style of dressing was permitted to become less ‘pious’ when I would eventually and apparently inevitably get married. My grandmother’s favourite phrase to us when she was critiquing the piousness of our dress was to announce that once we got married we could ‘run around all day in bikinis’ for all she cared.
As a Muslim woman with lived experience of navigating the rules of dressing myself, I approached Pious Fashion with some anticipation. Perhaps Elizabeth Bucar could explain all those intangible rules that I could not comprehend. Bucar’s research shows us how important the topic of clothing is for women in Muslim communities around the world. Just as it is for non-Muslim women, the female body has and always will be a hot topic. From debates regarding the taxation on women’s sanitary products to the #MeToo movement, there has been a significant and long-awaited upsurge in the prevalence of discussion about wrongs done to women.
One of the most common arguments made against Islam is that women are deemed to be oppressed and the physical expression of this oppression is the necessity for women to veil themselves in all sorts of ways. Bucar attempts to unravel the assumption that the Islamic veil is a sign of oppression. Instead, she proposes that ‘pious fashion’, as she defines it, has different connotations based on its context. Her chapters cover three locations. She intentionally decided that she would veer away from more traditional Arab regions of the world when focusing her research and as a result landed in Iran, Turkey and Indonesia.
Each of these countries has its own rich history of and relationship with women and the way they present themselves. Iran has had quite a reputation for using apparel for both women and men as a political instrument. The Turkish state has also had a controversial relationship with the headscarf. It was banned from public institutions under ‘public clothing regulation’; women who chose to wear headscarves were denied entry into universities and barred from civil serve and government jobs. The ban was eventually lifted in October 2013 by the AKP government. Nor surprisingly, recent years have seen an upsurge in the number of women choosing to wear the headscarf. Indonesia’s Muslims make up 87.2 per cent of its population, making it the largest Muslim country in the world by population, and the interpretations of appropriate Islamic dress for women are as diverse as its population.
Bucar shows us that fashion is not frivolous. It is an expression of something we need to take note of. Art is a mirror to our times. Fashion is art and like all other forms of art it gives us a unique insight into the world around us. Bucar discusses this early on in the book, citing one of my favourite scenes from the film The Devil Wears Prada. Meryl Streep’s character, Miranda, the powerful fashion magazine editor, verbally obliterates Anne Hathaway’s Andy when she dares to scoff at the pains her team are taking to decide between two items that, in Andy’s eyes, are the exact same shade. In her tirade Miranda explains to Andy exactly how obtuse she is in thinking that her choice of frumpy clothing somehow separates her intellectually from the others at the magazine, when in fact every choice she has made in her clothing has been meticulously orchestrated by the fashion powers-that-be.
Bucar also shows that Muslim women are not a monolith. They do not all dress the same and their fashion choices are not entirely dictated by the men in their lives. It is a book that will make many Muslim women feel vindicated. I felt a sense of camaraderie with many of the women she mentions. They, like me, know that there were some intangible rules about their fashion choices but were not necessarily able to explain the their root causes. Unfortunately, Bucar too is unable to tease out the causes in her study either.
My issue with this book is that it contains relatively little in the way of anecdotes or explanations from the women being interviewed. There were short extracts from interviews but the majority of the work is based on the analysis of these women from Bucar’s perspective. Although this is somewhat helpful, there are two inherent issues. Bucar presents many of these women as blindly fumbling through the world of fashion without having the elevated and academic understanding that she has of their environment. Secondly, her work and conclusions are based on observations she made over relatively short periods of time. How much can her three to four months’ worth of fieldwork across three different highly diverse nations really tell us about women and their fashion choices? This of course does not mean that people outside of communities cannot provide us with a useful analysis of particular situations, but Bucar’s book does not do this. We are given a fleeting understanding of the political background of each city she is in and how that could have potentially affected women’s dress in these nations. This is then followed with Bucar’s ‘fashion snapshots’, which were minimal and – for fear of sounding like a child transitioning to non-illustrated books – had very few illustrations. She then rounds every chapter off with identifying and assessing the fashion authorities in each region. In theory this works well as an academic paper but not as a book hoping to give the reader rounded and empathetic insights.
The lack of quoted dialogue from the interviewees and true appreciation of the motivations behind their choices, in their own words, left me disassociating from the book. It had the overall effect of taking the life out of the prose. This is part of the issue with reading books written by people who do not have a lived experience of the phenomenon they are writing about. Bucar would have benefitted from passing the microphone more often. She did not succeed in capturing me in her journey and the book felt inorganic and dry as a result. I struggle with believing that her study helps us truly understand why and how women in the locations she focused on choose their dress and what influences them on a deeper level.
There is obviously great merit in viewing Muslim women not as an oppressed mass but as individuals with agency. My frustration stems – in reality – from the very necessity, and ultimate futility, of such ethnographic studies. The core message of Pious Fashion is that Muslim women dress differently throughout the world. Their choices are based on possibly hundreds of years of decisions that have been made through a variety of different actors and sectors, which eventually lead to the clothes on their backs today. This is not and should not be a revelation. It is common sense and something that can self-evidently be said of all women everywhere. Why must there be a perpetual separation of Muslim women from the norm?
There is nowhere in the world that is devoid of the trends that Bucar is unveiling in her book. Politics, history, media and a host of other devices have been influencing women and their fashion for millennia across the world. Yes, many Muslim nations are inherently patriarchal, but this does not differentiate them from any other nation in the world. Yes, Muslim women sometimes dress in a particular way. So what? Muslim women do not need trivial and irrelevant explanations for the choices they make. They need space to express themselves however they see fit.