The rebellious potential of an apparently conservative style
I have been researching Muslim women’s fashion since 2004. My comparative investigation has taken me to three locations: Tehran, Iran; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; and Istanbul, Turkey. While there have been studies of Muslim women’s clothing in many individual countries, there are few cross-cultural and transnational comparisons. As I undertook such a comparison over the next dozen years, I found surprise, pleasure, and delight in pious fashion. My conversations about modest clothing with women around the world also challenged those neat intellectual boxes to which I had grown overly accustomed in the United States.
Each of the three Muslim-majority, non-Arab countries where I conducted my ethnographic research has its own history of regulating women’s clothing through official dress codes. These regulations reflect the idea that women’s modest clothing is a sign of something else—whether a “bad” sign that Muslim women need saving or a “good” sign of the honor and moral health of an entire nation. For much of the last 100 years, battles over these signs have been instigated by male elites to further political agendas that have had little to do with improving the lives of actual women.
But there is an unintended consequence of making Muslim women and their clothing important symbols of the nation: Women and their dress are given prominent roles in constructing what modern citizenship means. So, even if modest dress resulted from attempts to politically control women, it has become a practice in which women can exercise political influence.
Pious fashion in Iran is highly regulated. Since shortly after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women in the country have been legally required to wear hijab, or clothing that conforms with sharia. But because there is no clear definition of hijab in the penal code, women have some flexibility in deciding what to wear. The many styles of pious fashion—from the full-body covering of traditional chador to tailored short overcoats and headscarves—show that the modern Iranian woman might be willing to live by rules not of her own making, but she also demands the right to interpret those rules. Some styles are read as expressing allegiance to the current regime, whereas others are viewed as politically subversive. At White Wednesday protests, women wear white headscarves and publicly demonstrate against the dress code. This week, a few women went further, removing their headscarves altogether and waving them around on sticks for passersby to see.
On the surface, modesty in Tehran requires concealing the shape of a woman’s body, especially her waist, hips, and chest, as well as her hair. But pious fashion in this city also expresses a number of related values. For instance, because women’s dress is legally regulated, pious fashion exemplifies the wider cultural value put on stability and conformity. Other values displayed in hijab, however, serve to unsettle this stability and conformity. This is evident not only among women who let a significant amount of hair peek out from under a headscarf, but also in the bohemian look of some styles that reveal a more carefree and informal aesthetic value.
Consider the “Arab chador,” a flowing overcoat that became fashionable in Tehran around 2007. Unlike the traditional chador, it is meant to fall open and has billowy sleeves. One popular style among upper-class Tehrani youth is to wear an Arab chador with a very big headscarf. The Iranian authorities endorse this type of overcoat in part because it is long and loose, and in part because its name links it to the culture and geography of Islam. But the women I interviewed described the Arab chador as a “bohemian” form of dress, popular especially among “artist types.” More than just a breezy look, this style conveys a vision of public femininity that, despite the strict rules of the Islamic Republic, valorizes a free spirit and sense of ease in the face of authoritarian rule.
I also observed the incorporation of so-called ethnic elements into pious fashion. This style included the disruption of local religious aesthetics through the combination of red and green embroidery. Red and green have symbolic meanings in Shiism, the dominant branch of Islam in Iran. Green is positive, while red has a number of negative connotations. In the 1979 referendum on establishing the Islamic Republic, the ballots were color-coded: Ballots in favor of the Islamic Republic were green, while those against it were red. In Tehran today, the strict dichotomy of this symbolism is contested when red and green are incorporated into the same textile or combined in the same outfit. Hijab like this, which breaks the rules of Shiism’s color symbolism—hijab that contains an implicit theological critique—would have seemed unthinkable a couple of decades ago. It is possible today because ethnic prints are in vogue.
Western clothing is seen by some religious experts as having a negative cultural influence, but many women who dress modestly value denim and European brand names as status symbols. In fact, this is why I initially judged street styles as cooler in Tehran than in Istanbul and Yogyakarta. My early preference for some Tehrani styles does not mean that they were objectively better but rather that their aesthetics were more in line with the aesthetics of my own style culture.
The ultimate fashion failure in Tehran is bad hijab, which is defined by a variety of norm violations such as exposure of skin, display of body contours, use of certain fabrics, and application of heavy makeup. Its existence has several consequences in Iran. For one thing, bad hijab influences what is considered proper hijab. Extreme forms of bad hijab make less extreme violations of norms—such as wearing denim or exposing the ankles—more acceptable. In addition, this form of dress has shifted the way hijab is legally enforced. The sheer number of women wearing bad hijab makes enforcement of the legal punishments impossible. There are not enough police in Tehran on a hot summer day to arrest every young woman wearing capris, and there would undoubtedly be a public outcry if everyone wearing nail polish was administered the required 74 lashes. Out of necessity, the authorities have had to loosen the enforcement of the legal dress code. Pious fashion has begun to form, instead of only being formed by, Islamic law and politics in Iran.
Muslim women’s modest clothing looks very different in Indonesia, a difference that results in part from the country’s history. Indonesian women did not historically wear head coverings, as uncovered hair and shoulders are part of the traditional Javanese aesthetic of beauty. In fact, until quite recently, modest dress was synonymous with lack of taste or provinciality. So, the increasing popularity of modest dress cannot be understood as a return to tradition. A headscarf, not a bare head, is what reads as new, fresh, and forward-thinking in this location.
For most of the last 100 years, sarong-style skirts and blouses were the clothes officially promoted by the government. That changed dramatically three decades ago when the popularity of modest dress—jilbab—skyrocketed after former president Suharto resigned. This style arose as an aesthetic critique of a regime that was repressing Islamic belief and practice. As young, college-educated women increasingly adopted pious fashion, it became a sign of a cosmopolitan woman. And since a headscarf and modest outfit were not historically part of Islamic practice in this country, women were free to wear these items to express a thoroughly modern identity that is entirely compatible with national development and progress.
As jilbab became more acceptable and desirable, the opportunity arose to promote local designs and fabrics. Using these local elements was justified for ideological as well as practical reasons. Some Indonesians were concerned that Islamic dress, especially the stricter versions of covering, imposed what they saw as an oppressive Arab culture on tolerant, multicultural Indonesia. If women were going to cover themselves with cloth, the type of cloth mattered. Batik patterns became an important design element in Indonesian pious fashion because they infused an outfit with local aesthetic value. Despite its widespread popularity, batik jilbab is symbolically a little jarring because of the Hindu and Buddhist motifs in its design—imagine a Jewish prayer shawl covered in a Santa Claus pattern. Nevertheless, batik remains associated with an Indonesian genealogy of cloth production that predates colonialism.
I was struck by the distinctive look of pious fashion in Indonesia: It often incorporates tight, form-fitting garments, like an undershirt called a manset, or a belt to emphasize the waist. Modesty is achieved by covering oneself with cloth, not by disguising one’s womanly shape, as is legally mandated in Iran. Softness and lightness are the prominent visual values expressed in pious fashion. Chiffon and pastel colors are popular. This fabric and color combination creates a distinctive aesthetic of primness, wholesomeness, and whimsy. Crystal and sequin embellishments are highly valued; they visually link women to jewels. The influence of Asian clothing, especially from Malaysia and China, is particularly prominent, as seen, for instance, in the mandarin high collars. This valuing of Eastern aesthetics is connected to a view of femininity that takes its lead from Asian and not Western visions of proper womanhood.
The diversity of jilbab styles does not mean that anything goes. My informants were quick to dispense severe judgments against women seen as aesthetically failing at jilbab. For instance, women criticized the practice of allowing long hair to hang out the back of a headscarf. Sometimes they attributed failure to wearing dated styles. These older styles were deemed not only plain and unsophisticated but also impious, because they demonstrated that a woman had not kept up with recent trends and thus was undisciplined. The anthropologist Carla Jones notes this phenomenon as well, in which unfashionable jilbab is judged as “ingenuine witnessing.” One of Jones’s informants declared that oversized jilbabs “make Islam look rigid, unfashionable, whereas in fact our God likes beauty.” Fashion itself is the maker of and the means to piety.
If pious fashion is compulsory in Iran, and rather new to Indonesia, it has a long history of being stigmatized and strictly regulated in Turkey. The choice to wear a headscarf has been interpreted for most of the last 100 years as a challenge to the nation’s determinedly secular tradition. But this is changing. Today, veiling is optional and the acceptance of Islamic dress is possible because pious fashion allows Muslim identity to be expressed in fashionable forms, resulting in both visual and social balance.
Because of Turkey’s physical proximity to the rest of Europe and its aspirations to join the European Union, pious fashion in Istanbul incorporates a number of European aesthetics—from wingtip shoes to European brand-name scarves and bags. So, in contrast to Yogyakarta, visions of femininity in Istanbul take their lead chiefly from the West, not the East. Even among modern Turkish women who understand themselves to be European, strict secularism is no longer the aspiration—such women can have a strong Muslim identity. Still, it is considered important to select a modest outfit and headscarf that is visually pleasing in public; this allows women to represent Islamic piety in the best way possible, as well as to avoid the harsh critiques of the secular elite that veiled women are ugly and unfashionable.
In Istanbul, modest fashion—tesettür—is characterized by high necklines, low hemlines, and complete coverage of the hair. Popular fabric choices and tailoring create a more structured look than is found in Yogyakarta or Tehran. Tightness and neatness are the aesthetic values associated with this form, which also conveys a moral value of confining and controlling women’s bodies. The value placed on proportion is evident in the look of a large head created by a padded headscarf. Modesty in Istanbul is about creating harmony through clothing: balancing color, proportion, and cut.
One of the main fashion failures in Istanbul is the full-body covering called çarşaf. Unlike in Tehran, full-body covering is not acceptable as a form of pious fashion to most women in Istanbul. Instead, many regard it as a failure for aesthetic reasons—for being old-fashioned and ugly—as well as an important moral one—for deceptively conveying piety with its yards of black fabric. This judgment of çarşaf condemns it as insufficiently fashionable and overly pious. Women wearing çarşaf are criticized for not engaging with the global fashion trends that are part of being a modern woman. Their lack of consumption is a sign that they are not worldly and thus not as morally and spiritually developed as their pious fashion-wearing sisters. According to this logic, consumption is one of the conditions of being properly pious. A woman who is knowledgeable enough, the thinking goes, can wear fashionable clothing without being vain or materialistic.
By asserting that çarşaf is a failure not only of style but also of piety, tesettürlü women are critiquing a traditional ideology that regards women who are more covered as being more pious. This critique in turn enables other forms of pious fashion to be seen as exemplary of Muslim womanhood.
In all three locations, traditional forms of patterned cloth have become incorporated into local pious fashion. Wearing these “ethnic” styles is not just a way to reclaim local aesthetic traditions—it can also be a way to express social or political critique by valorizing alternative sources of national pride. The promotion of indigenous cloth and embroidery—drawing motifs from local historical identities such as Persian, Javanese, and Ottoman—also pushes back against the idea that what counts as proper Islamic clothing is dictated by the Arab world and then merely adopted in other locations. It resists the idea of a homogenized Islam.
Although local aesthetic values are based on local narratives and ethnic identities, they also sometimes involve implicit critiques of prevalent Western conceptions of beauty. One Indonesian blogger I encountered regarded pious fashion as a “protest” against dominant images of Western beauty. Yet cultural representations of beauty in the West continue to influence ideals of femininity in Tehran, Yogyakarta, and Istanbul. Iran is famous for its high rate of nose jobs to make the nose smaller, rounder, and turned up. Western features are sometimes assumed to be the goal when using headscarves in Indonesia to highlight certain facial features. And when Turkish fashion magazines discuss an ideal body type, it is the same curvy body (small waist, wide hips, and ample bosom) emphasized in the West; in a 2013 article, Âlâ Magazine named Beyoncé as having the body type to which all Turkish women should aspire.
Women spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to counter the stereotype that modest dress is ugly by using the skills of beauty work. Beauty work thus helps to remove the stigma from modest dress by making this style of clothing more attractive to other Muslim women. Beautiful Islamic clothing can also make Islam more inviting to non-Muslims. One Indonesian advice pamphlet refers to pleasing styles of dress as the “friendly” public presentation of Islam to non-Muslims. The Arabic word da’wah, used to describe forms of proselytizing of Islam, is applied to attractive pious fashion, which can normalize and even spread the religion. Fashionably dressed Muslim women, it is thought, have the potential to rehabilitate Islam’s public image.