“Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress” with Elizabeth Bucar

Elizabeth Bucar who works as associate professor at Northeastern University wrote a book about dress styles of Muslim women in modern times, the book contains Indonesia, Iran and Turkey. Bucar, who gave an interview to our journal, answered the questions which we asked about the book.

Forum USA – News Desk

In the past few months, the book has been put on the market with the title of " Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress", which shows how Muslim women deal with religious fashion in these three countries. For many Westerners, the Islamic veil is the ultimate sign of women’s oppression. But Elizabeth Bucar’s take on clothing worn by Muslim women is a far cry from this older feminist attitude toward veiling. She argues that modest clothing represents much more than social control or religious orthodoxy. Bucar researched how women approach the question “What to wear?”

In this work, which emerges from a first-hand field study, Bucar is making a round of trips in Istanbul, Yogyakarta and Tehran, where the majority of people are Muslims.

There are a lot of Islamic countries like Egypt, Malaysia and Jordan, so why did you choose Turkey, Iran and Indonesia? On the other hand, why did you prefer specifically Istanbul, Yogyakarta and Tehran.

I selected these three cities for two reasons. For one, they are located in Muslim-majority countries, and are major cities where Islamic dress is common. But the popularity of pious fashion in these locations does not mean it has gone uncontested. In all three cities, political, social, and religious controversies contribute to debates over how Muslim women should dress.

I also intentionally selected locations that are not part of the Arab world. Westerners tend to assume that Muslim dress around the world is based on the styles of Cairo, Mecca, or Abu Dhabi. Observing pious fashion in three non-Arab countries underscores the global diversity of this practice. In addition, it provides a way to challenge both the conception of an unchanging Islamic orthodoxy and the idea that Islamic expertise is greater the closer one is to Mecca.

I first saw your book in social media where the Turkish people argue over your book. When you were writing your book, did you think Turkish people will buy this book or look after your book? Do you get any feedback from these three countries?

The subtitle is provocative, especially when taken out of context. But my point is not that pious fashion is how every Muslim women dresses, but rather for Muslim women who choose to dress modestly and fashionably, it is not merely because of religious pressures.

Your question about audience is interesting. My primary audience for this book is actually non-Muslims living in the US and Europe, who continue to misread pious fashion merely as a sign of religious radicalism. But I suspect some Turks also view pious fashion as a sign of Muslim women’s oppression, that they don’t make their own decisions, that they are controlled by patriarchy in some way that are radically different from other women. That is just too simplistic a view.

While modest clothing can indeed be used as a form of social control or as a display of religious orthodoxy, in practice, it is both much less and much more. Much less, because for many Muslim women, it is simply what they wear. Much more, because like all clothing, Muslim women’s clothing is motivated by social and political reasons as well as religious ones. Islam may be an important factor in what Muslim women wear, but it is not the only one.

From the outside people generally can't recognize which woman is Muslim or not, despite cover one's head, do you think in the Western countries, Muslim women are forced to take off their scarf in the context of rise of Islamophobia?

In the U.S. we are seeing some increased pressure and scrutiny put on women who wear a scarf, because of a particularly anti-Muslim racist president. But I would say that in other ways headscarves are very accepted, especially by progressive Americans, as an expression of religious freedom. And in fact the headscarf has been adopted recently as a sign of feminist solidarity politics. So the situation is both getter worst and getting better, depending how you look at it.

In your book you demonstrate how a nation’s cultural and socio-political ideology actualizes in women’s dress, what is the difference between these three countries? Which country's society is more pressure?

Although some Muslim women have covered their heads since the time of the Prophet, understanding the significance of this practice today requires a look at recent political histories. Take the three countries discussed in my book: Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey. They all became nation-states in the last hundred years. As part of their respective nationalist awakenings and subsequent nation-building, the boundaries between Islam and the state were established and redrawn, often as part of negotiations between colonizer and colonized. And since Muslim women were regarded as the receptacles and conveyers of tradition, they bore the brunt of the burden of national projects aimed at reforming Islam. The headscarf, as the most visible symbol of Muslim women, became the target of political agendas that often had very little to do with Muslim women themselves. Depending on the location, pious fashion was required (Iran), regulated (Indonesia), or banned (Turkey) as the state pondered what forms of Islam and modernity it wanted to promote or suppress.

These three locations can be understood to reflect three distinct encounters with modernity, that are today reflected in clothing trends in each location. Styles of pious fashion in Tehran show us that the modern Iranian woman might be willing to live by rules not of her own making, but that she also demands the right to interpret those rules. As a consequence hijab turns out to be not a single form of dress: rather, it includes a range of styles from the full-body covering of traditional chador to tailored short overcoats and headscarves. In some sense, any woman wearing pious fashion participates in the physical and visual segregation of men and women in public, thus reinforcing a gender ideology that supports patriarchy. But some styles are interpreted as expressing allegiance to the current regime, whereas others are viewed as politically subversive, pushing back against state attempts to regulate public morality and presentation through a dress code. Over three decades after the Iranian revolution, hijab still needs to be enforced, evidence that attempts to refashion the female citizen from above have not been entirely successful. In fact if anything, pious fashion has served to display diversity among Iranian women—whether that diversity is based on identity, class, or political aspirations.

In Indonesia, the government’s vision of the modern woman has always involved ideas about her presentation and comportment in public. But for most of the last hundred years, sarong-style skirts and blouses were the clothes officially promoted by the government. That changed dramatically three decades ago when the popularity of jilbab--as pious fashion is locally called--skyrocketed after Suharto resigned. As young, college-educated women increasingly adopted pious fashion, it became a sign of a cosmopolitan woman. In addition, 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.

Muslim women’s clothing in Turkey has been connected with the complex conversation about national identity. The ideal modern Turkish woman does not aspire to strict secularism anymore, even if she does understand herself to be European. She can have a strong Muslim identity, reflected in a specific style of modest dress referred to as tesettür. The prominence of pious fashion in Istanbul is a sign of the waning of the European forms of secularism that dominated much of Turkish politics in the twentieth century. In many ways, wearing pious fashion is a more politically radical act here than in the other two locations, because it involves a turning away from Turkey’s Kemalist legacy.

This is all to say that it is not possible to say which country puts more pressure on women’s clothing. They all do, just in different ways.

According to your research, what do men think about modern Islamic clothing in these three countries?

Muslim men are also required to dress modesty: to cover their bodies at least from the navel to below the knee and to avoid other forms of exposure, like extremely tight clothing. What is most notable about Muslim men’s fashion in the three countries I discuss in Pious Fashion is the widespread adoption of Western dress norms, such as trousers, shirts, and jackets. Men in these locations are almost as covered as women, so in that way their dress is also modest. But men’s clothing does not have to be “pious” in the same way. Men’s clothing is the marker of the nation’s power and modernity; women’s clothing is the marker of its morality, honor, and ethnic identity. In fact, one reason the modern male Muslim citizen can dress in standard Western clothing is because the modern woman at his side is still dressed in local, religiously encoded, garb.

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