Fashion and the re-inscription of Muslim identity – a female only space

In light of the recent burkini ban debacle, which dominated media coverage this past week, here is an academic overview into the intersections of fashion, Islam and Orientalism.

Let’s just get one thing straight: there’s no direct translation in Arabic for the word ‘veil’. Many Muslim women refer to the headscarf, not as hijab – which means modesty – but as a scarf. The burqa is an Afghan garment (usually blue), it is usually niqab photographs that accompany articles on ‘burqa ban’ debates.

Okay now that we have that settled let’s continue with what scholars who have studied these things say…

Representations of Muslim women and Orientalism


There is a long history of critical engagements with discourses that reduce cross-cultural difference to binaries. The most influential in this context has been Edward Said’s 1978 critical theory of Orientalism where the ‘us’ was a perceived ‘West’ and the ‘them’ was a perceived ‘Orient’ or East.  In later work, Said argues that Orientalist assumptions have dominated the development of the way the media and experts have framed and shaped perceptions of Islam and the “rest of the world” (1981: 35, 55). Said’s influential work has been expanded and developed in a number of ways. In particular, many scholars have focused on the way religious veiling and dress practices are used to frame Muslim personhood (Hoodfar 1997; Kahf 1999; Shirazi 2001; Amireh 2000; Abu-Lughod 2002; Hussein 2016). The traditional image of the Muslim woman which has dominated Western media is one of an oppressed and exoticized creature, controlled by men and religion (Ahmed 1999, 2014; Alloula 1986; Kabbani 1986; Macdonald 2006; Said 1979). Presenting her as hidden behind a veil, the image has been intensified to mean supposed powerlessness, creating a stereotype of a helpless, imprisoned woman in desperate need of Western liberation (Abu-Lughod 2002; Said 1979). Building upon Said’s work, Lila Abu-Lughod (2002: 786) attributes Western obsession with the veil to a colonial hangover and points to the “need to work against the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women’s unfreedom” (786) as Western narratives reduce “the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing” (2002: 786).

Scholarship around political, social and cultural contexts of veiling that impact fashion choices, situates how religious clothing, notably the hijab (as expressed continuously in the west), are connected to larger notions of modernity and civilisation (Hussein 2016; Heath 2008; Gole 1996; Scott 2007; El Guindi 1999; Bloul 1994). Alison Donnell (2003) suggested that after the events of September 11, 2001, constructions and discourses surrounding the veil changed from a previous object of mystique, exoticism and eroticism” to a “xenophobic, more specifically Islamophobic, gaze through which the veil, or headscarf, is seen as a highly visible sign of a despised difference” (2003: 123). This suggests the symbol for Islam, the veil, changes with the outlying political events of the day, a sentiment echoed by many scholars (Macdonald 2006; Donnell 2003; Lewis 1996, 2007, 2013, 2015, 2016; Hussein 2016; Heath 2008; Gole 1996; Scott 2007; El Guindi 1999; Bloul 1994; Hoodfar 1997; Kahf 1999; Shirazi 2001; Amireh 2000; Abu-Lughod 2002). Women who wear the headscarves, commonly called ‘hijabis’, have come to be regarded as the standard bearer of Muslim communities in Australia, “regardless of the fact that the majority of Muslim women wear headscarves only part-time, if at all” (Hussein 2016: 78).

In an Australian context, Shakira Hussein (2016) traces the shifting Western stereotypes about Muslim women: from the need to protect them, to an open aggression against them. Hussein (2016) shows how Muslim women face attack in Western societies in which they grew up, or took refuge in, using contemporary examples relevant in an Australian context citing instances of verbal abuse, spitting, minor assaults such as pulling headscarves off occurring in public places. Media moral panics and controversies have erupted over bans of face veiling in public spaces, citing security concerns, debated by key figures such as politicians and lawmakers, and then re-articulated and funnelled through mass-media (Hussein 2016, Dunn et al. 2007). Public discourse revolves around terms of what Muslims are told to do: “Muslims are told by all concerned that they must determine where their loyalty lies, and act accordingly” (Hussein 2016). Regardless of such attitudes, however, the heightened visibility of confident, articulate and stylish hijabis gradually caused the hijab to lose much of its political and media frisson.

Muslim Identity and ‘Modest Fashion’ Discourse

Scenes from International Modest Fashion Week 2016


A number of scholars have identified Islamic ‘modest fashion’ as a key site of negotiation by Muslim women around the re-inscription of Islamic norms and identifications by emphasising particular ways of being Muslim for women, while at the same time also transforming the very content and contours of Islamic piety and femininity. In particular, over a number of works Reina Lewis (1999; 2007; 2011; 2013; 2015; 2016) has critically engaged with fashion, identity, and self-representations of sub-cultures, and religiously inflected fashion cultures, concentrating on the intersections of religion and fashion. Lewis suggests, in-line with Orientalism, that ‘Western’ fashion is often perceived as rooted in modernity which is characterised by rapid changes in style. Conversely, Lewis argues Muslim religious dress is often perceived, parallel to general perceptions of the religion, as backward, not-fashionable and, more importantly, not modern – which is a key characteristic of ‘the West’ (Lewis 2007, 2015, 2016; see also Gole 1996; Entwistle 2000; Moors 2013; Tarlo 2013). In an analysis of fashion discourse, Gökarıksel and Secor (2010a; 2010b) suggest that Muslim women often navigate between particular Orientalist stereotypes that are variably challenged and reified through marketing discursive practices. Gökarıksel and McLearney (2010c; 2014) argue that Muslim identities are increasingly constructed within a neoliberal Western market as the Islamic Culture Industry attempts to work within twenty-first century ideals of modernity overlaid with traditional Islamic cultural values.

Over the course of the past two decades, along with the rise of the Islamic consumer culture, a move toward more trendy but still recognisably Islamic dress has emerged notably among the fashion conscious youth (Kilicbay and Binark 2002; Sandicki and Ger 2007; Moors 2013). Much of the literature focusing on modest fashion for Muslim women has focused on the global movement and how women maintain piety whilst participating in aesthetic and stylish representations of themselves, thus creating a new public as they engage globally with other Muslims (Lewis 2007, 2013, 2015, 2016; Moors 2007, 2013; Tarlo 2010, 2013; Sandicki and Ger 2007, 2010; Waninger 2015; Gokariskel and Secor 2010). A frame for the development of new Muslim subjective religious dispositions and related Islamic consumer cultures has been made possible by this “imagined community of Muslims” (Amir-Moazami and Salvatore 2003; Lewis 2016) or public, which could be categorised as a counter public as it counters dominant Western-centric discourse, through its interaction with existing ethno-religious norms.

Modest Fashion Online and Micro-Celebrities

Ascia AKF is an A-list social media star within the modest fashion sphere

Lewis (2013, 2015, 2016), Tarlo (2013) and Moors (2013), among others, argue that the emergence of a Muslim fashion discourse of ‘modest fashion’ has been fast-tracked and partly enabled through developments in web-based technologies able to foster user-generated content, thus greater interaction and communication across the globe. Lewis, over the last decade, has shifted her concern to modest fashion and primarily focused on popular ‘A-list’ bloggers – or ‘micro-celebrities’, who are well-known to their communities online. Lewis (2007; 2015; 2016) argues that digital information technologies (DCTs) facilitate and foster dialogue across faiths as the Internet provides a key platform on which self-representations are articulated, evaluated, contested, and endorsed. According to Lewis (2013, 2015), modest fashion blogging goes almost unrecognised, as do modest fashion designers by the mainstream fashion industry. However, within the modest fashion industry, designers and entrepreneurs across faiths attribute the success of their businesses along with market establishment, to blogs and latterly social media (Lewis 2013, 2015). Lewis (2013, 2015) suggests that since the 2000s modest fashion blogs and social media have been coterminous with the development of modest apparel and have come to constitute a zone of women led fashion mediation.

Silverstone (1999) argues that an understanding of fashion enables better understandings of the individual. Furthermore, Emmanuel Mora and Agnes Rocamora (2015) argue that research into fashion blogging must be seen not only as a general contribution to fashion, but also as a contribution to social and cultural understandings of society as researchers have engaged with fashion blogs to discuss issues such as race (Pham 2011, 2013), religion (Lewis 2013), femininity (Rocamora 2011), body size (Connell 2013), as well as global neoliberal capitalism (Luvaas 2013).

Unusual for fashion blogging, the ‘modest fashion’ blogosphere directly situates practices within, and as contributors to, wider forms of social and political discourse (Lewis 2015: 244). Fashion debates are among the several related and internally contested disputes about women’s religious, spiritual, and social agency and authority in which online mobilisation is a central form of ‘visibilisation’ for offline campaigns and practices often centering on forms of public embodiment (Lewis 2015: 245). Lewis (2015) points to Campbell (2013) who built upon Jenson (2011) – who both argued distinctions between online and offline experiences are under erasure – to explain the community building aspect (online and offline) of social media through modest fashion discourses which illustrates a new generation of media users and of new relationships within and between faiths. Lewis (2013) repositions women’s often “trivialised fashion knowledges” to argue digital modesty is creating a new public afforded by user-generated content online free from the traditionally male dominated domain of religious interpretation both online and offline (62).

With a widely recognised cohort of “micro-celebrity” modest fashion bloggers, online modest fashion discourse is creating new forms of religious interpretation and knowledge transmission and generating new forms of respect and authority (Lewis 2013c). In a study of German Muslim bloggers, an overriding theme was the “role of their blogs in enabling them to define their identity and create a sense of community” (Eckert and Chadha 2013: 932). The respondents argued that blogging gave them the opportunity to represent themselves that was otherwise “denied them as a marginalised group within the German public sphere” (2013: 932). This is because blogging provided a space where they could define themselves on their own terms. Similarly, Lewis (2013) argues that online modest fashion discourse is a new form of religious discourse in which women are achieving recognition as religious interpreters and intermediaries.


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