Sitting with Soraya in the shade of a palm tree along the sun-drenched sands of Balneario del Escambrón in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I could barely stand the heat.
It was 88°F (31°C) with high humidity. Sweat ran down my face as I listened to her talk about her experience as a Puerto Rican convert to Islam.
In the middle of the discussion, she noticed my sweating and laughed. “Hermano, do you think you’re hot?!” Imagine being dressed in a black abaya [loose over garment] and hijab!”
Broaching the subject, I asked her why she chose to wear the hijab – or Islamic headscarf. Soraya replied, “Before I became a Muslim, men always judged my body by its curves, how tight my clothes were and how round I was in certain places. Wearing an abaya donning the hijab takes those evaluations out of the conversation and forces people to take me for who I really am, what I say, what I do – not what I wear.
Even so, Soraya is still stopped on the streets of San Juan and questioned about her clothes, her religion, or if she feels “oppressed.”
For many, the “controversial fabric” is a symbol of subjugation and segregation. Especially right now, as protests continue to rage in Iran over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Ahmini, who was killed while resisting the country’s mandatory laws forcing women to wear the hijab, the headscarf is again become a mark of tyranny and a functional emblem. of fundamentalist religion.
And yet, for millions of religious women, headscarves, veils and other forms of conservative dress remain a treasured tradition, a fashion statement or, as with Soraya, a means of liberation.
While it is impossible to judge the diverse intentions, diverse experiences and inner motivations of women around the world, what follows explores the material contexts and colonial pasts that are imperative to keep in mind when review of hijabs, veils and other forms of modest clothing, religious attire.
Like Soraya, Megan is also battling the hot and humid weather in the Sunshine State.
She wrote that as an apostolic Pentecostal, she belongs to a group of believers who adhere to standards of dress that promote modesty, based on scriptural interpretations of cover “with a little flavor of biblical belt and fashion on top of that. “.
This means that his body is covered from the knees to the neck to the middle of the biceps “in all seasons, regardless of the heat index”.
“Summer in Florida,” wrote Megan, “isn’t the easiest time to be apostolic…the daily task of picking out an outfit becomes a kind of test of ingenuity.”
It also becomes an opportunity, she said, to be “modestly elegant, accessible and even attractive”.
Like Megan, many Muslim women choose more than modest clothes, but also how to wear them and how to express themselves through them.
For them, “godly fashion” is a context-specific style and creative process based on using a range of available clothing and accessories that are both appropriate and attractive.
In his book Religious Fashion: How Muslim Women DressReligious studies scholar Liz Bucar “argues that modest dress represents much more than social control or religious orthodoxy”.
Analyzing fashion trends — and listening to Muslim women — in Tehran, Yogyakarta and Istanbul, Bucar challenges readers to go beyond common Western perceptions of “veiling” to discover a vast world of women’s Islamic fashion that is colorful, aesthetically adventurous, and a major multi-million dollar earner for the fashion industry.
Their dress – like all fashion – is a social practice that depends on a mixture of local aesthetic values, moral authority, embodied consumption and sartorial individuality.
One woman’s oppression is another woman’s liberation?
Alongside the experiences of Megan and Soraya, Bucar’s work invites serious questions about what counts as oppression and what counts as liberation according to contemporary liberal discourse.
For the student of religion, it also confronts us with conundrums around Western perceptions of the veil, modest dress, and other religious practices widely conceived or condemned as repressive or undemocratic.
In her illuminating ethnography of pietistic women’s movements in Cairo, Egypt, anthropologist Saba Mahmood tackled these questions head-on.
Speaking to women who were part of an “Islamic revival” in Egypt in the mid-1990s, Mahmood takes concepts like “piety”, “devotion” and “feminism” and turns them on its head.
To her astonishment, the women participating in the Egyptian mosque movements were interested neither in liberal-secular visions of feminist liberation nor in Islamist visions of a theocratic state.
Showing how liberal-secular conceptions of individual agency disregard the moral frameworks of pietistic women, she shared stories of how these women cultivated virtues and embodied practices within normative frameworks deemed illiberal, not secular and patriarchal.
Their actions, she famously writes, may not have been liberal, but they were full of free will.
Shaping liberal societies.
Although directed directly at Salafist women in Cairo, Mahmood’s findings can also be extended to other contexts where people do not accept or apply liberal secular norms.
They are also relevant for those who seek to enforce these standards in a rather illiberal way.
Take, for example, the so-called “burqa ban” and “anti-hijab” laws.
Several states have banned the burqa – a full body covering, with a mesh screen over the eyes – have introduced some form of legislation restricting the wearing of burqas, niqabs (face veils) or hijabs in certain places or positions, including including European countries such as Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland as well as Cameroon, Chad, China, Gabon, Morocco, the Republic Congo, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and the province of Quebec in Canada.
In the name of liberal democracy — or national security — these states have banned specific dress practices seen by some as religious obligations.
In liberal societies, this poses a dilemma, as they are meant to be spheres in which all citizens are free and equal in terms of rights, as long as those freedoms and rights do not infringe on those of others.
This brings us back to the questions and challenges posed by Mahmood’s research and the cases we have examined above: what counts as oppression? What counts as release? Who’s deciding ? And how to consider modest fashion in the light of such considerations?
What to do with the politics of the headscarf and “pious fashions”
Ultimately, and as with most “religious” things, there are no easy answers to these questions.
When it comes to whether modest clothing is inherently oppressive or explicitly liberating, we must consider multiple and divergent factors and trends.
Headscarf politics and social norms around “godly fashion” – Christian, Muslim or otherwise – are far more complex than we realize.
Whether, why, and how women wear certain garments is not just a matter of divine – or political – decree, but one where historical, cultural and colonial contingencies all play a role.
Even in Iran, the headscarf has several meanings serving women both as a symbol of resistance and oppression.
The danger comes when we try to simplify and categorize an issue too quickly with multiple applications, interpretations and meanings depending on cultural context and individual experience.
At the very least, we might consider this: While religious women may be singled out for having to imaginatively negotiate their clothing within strict social boundaries, the same could be said for many of us who make choices about what to wear or not to wear, how to look or how others might look at us.
For the student of religion, the answers may not be easy to find, but the questions are worth asking.
•Religious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dressby Liz Bucar
•Politics of Piety: Islamic Renewal and the Feminist Subjectby Saba Mahmood
• “Being an apostolic fashionista”, by Megan Geiger Keith