Oppression or Liberation? Sweating Over Modest Clothing


Sitting with Soraya under the shade of a palm tree along Balneario del Escambrón’s sun-soaked sand in San Juan, Puerto Rico, I could barely stand the heat.

It was 88° F (31° C) with high humidity. Sweat was pouring down my face as I listened to her talk about her experience as a Puerto Rican convert to Islam.

Amidst the discussion, she noticed my perspiration and laughed. “Hermano, you think you’re hot?! Imagine being dressed in a black abaya [loose over garment] and hijab!”

Bringing the topic up, I asked her why she chose to wear hijab — or Islamic headscarf. Soraya replied, “before I became Muslim, men were always judging my body by its curves, by how tight my clothes were and how round I was in certain places. Wearing abaya donning the hijab, takes those evaluations out of the conversation and forces people to take me for who I actually am, what I say, what I do — not what I wear.”

Even so, Soraya still gets stopped on San Juan’s streets and asked about her clothing, her religion, or whether 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 after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Ahmini who was killed while resisting the country’s compulsory laws forcing women to wear hijab, the headscarf has once again become a trademark of tyranny and functional emblem of fundamentalist religion.

And yet, for millions of religious women, headscarves, veils, and others forms of conservative clothing remain a prized tradition, a fashion statement, or — as with Soraya — a means of liberation.

Although it is impossible to judge the various intentions, diverse experiences, and interior motivations of women across the globe, the following explores the material contexts and colonial pasts that are imperative to keep in mind when discussing hijabs, veils, and other forms of modest, religious dress.

Holy couture.

Like Soraya, Megan also struggles with hot and humid weather in the Sunshine State.

She wrote that as an Apostolic Pentecostal, she belongs to a group of believers that adheres to standards of dress that promote modesty, based on scriptural interpretations of covering “with a little Bible belt flavor and fashion thrown in.”

That means her body is covered from knees to neck to the middle of the bicep “in every season, no matter the heat index.”

“Summer in Florida,” Megan wrote, “is not the easiest time to be Apostolic….the daily task of choosing an outfit becomes something of a test of ingenuity.”

It also becomes an opportunity, she said, to be “modestly stylish, approachable, and even attractive.”

Similar to Megan, many Muslim women choose more than whether to wear modest clothing, but also how to wear it and how to express themselves through it.

For them, “pious fashion” is a context specific styling and creative process based on using a range of available clothing and accessories that are both appropriate and attractive.

In her book Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress, religious studies scholar Liz Bucar “argues that modest clothing 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 about the “veil” to discover a wide world of women’s Islamic fashion that is colorful, aesthetically adventurous, and a major multimillion-dollar moneymaker for the fashion industry.

Their clothing – like all fashion – is a social practice contingent upon a mix of local aesthetic values, moral authority, embodied consumption, and sartorial selfhood.

One woman’s oppression is another woman’s liberation?

Along with Megan and Soraya’s experiences, Bucar’s work invites serious questions around 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 veiling, modest clothing, and other religious practices broadly conceived of, or condemned, as repressive or antidemocratic.

In her enlightening ethnography on feminine pietistic movements in Cairo, Egypt, anthropologist Saba Mahmood addressed such questions head on.

Talking to women who were part of an “Islamic revival” in Egypt in the mid-1990s, Mahmood takes concepts like “piety,” “devotion,” and “feminism” and flips them on their head.

To her astonishment, the women taking part in the Egyptian mosque movements were not interested in either liberal-secular visions of feminist liberation or Islamist visions of a theocratic state.

Showing how liberal-secular conceptions of individual agency fail to account for pietist women’s moral frameworks, she shared stories of how these women cultivated virtues and embodied practices within normative frames deemed illiberal, unsecular, and patriarchal.

Their actions, she famously wrote, may not be liberal, but they were full of agency.

Fashioning liberal societies.

Although directly addressing Salafi women in Cairo, Mahmood’s conclusions 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 uphold such norms in rather illiberal ways.

Take, for example, so-called “burqa bans” and “anti-hijab” laws.

Multiple states have banned the burqa – a full body covering, with a mesh screen over the eyes -- introduced some form of legislation limiting the wearing of burqas, niqabs (facial veil), or hijabs in certain places or positions, including European nations like Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland as well as Cameroon, Chad, China, Gabon, Morocco, Republic of the 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 sartorial practices seen by some as religious obligations.

In liberal societies, this poses a dilemma, as they are meant to be spheres wherein all citizens are free and equal in terms of rights, so long as those freedoms and rights do not impinge those of others.

This brings us back to the questions and challenges posed by Mahmood’s research and the cases we considered above: what counts as oppression? What counts as liberation? Who gets to decide? And how might we consider modest fashion in light of such considerations?

What to do with headscarf politics and “pious fashions”

In the end, and as with most things “religious,” there is no easy answer to these inquiries.

When it comes to whether modest clothing is inherently oppressive or explicitly liberative, we must take multiple, and divergent, factors and tendencies into consideration.

Headscarf politics and social norms around “pious fashion” – Christian, Muslim, or otherwise – are far more complex than we give them credit.

Whether, why, and how women wear certain articles of clothing is not just a matter of divine – or political – fiat, but one where historical, cultural, and colonial contingencies all play a role.

Even in Iran, the headscarf has many meanings serving women as both symbol of resistance and oppression.

The danger comes when we try to simplify and too-quickly categorize an issue with multiple applications, interpretations, and meanings dependent 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, one might say the same for many of us making 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 come by, but the questions are well-worth sweating over.

Further Reading:

Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress, by Liz Bucar

Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, by Saba Mahmood

•“Being an Apostolic Fashionista,” by Megan Geiger Keith

10/28/2022 9:46:53 PM
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  • Ken Chitwood
    About Ken Chitwood
    Ken Chitwood is a religion nerd, writer and scholar of global Islam and American religion based in Germany. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Religion News Service, Christianity Today, and numerous other publications. He is the author of The Muslims of Latin America and the Caribbean. Follow Ken on Twitter @kchitwood.