Can a modest and religious woman also be fashionable and stylish? One’s immediate response to such a question can reveal quite a bit about their position in and perspective on the world. As Elizabeth Bucar shows in Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress, there’s no inherent incompatibility between modesty and beauty, and modest fashion represents much more than social control or religious orthodoxy. Bucar’s ethnographic work in the stores and streets of Tehran, Yogyakarta, and Istanbul reveals the locally-determined moral and aesthetic values exemplified by Islamic dress, and the comparative design of the project serves to deepen our understanding of Islamic politics. Ramin Raza, a Northeastern University student who interned with us at HUP this summer, spoke with Bucar about the book and its conclusions; their conversation is below.
Q: For many non-Muslims living in the West, the major source of exposure to Islam and to Muslim dress is through media outlets that depict women’s attire from a Western or even Orientalist perspective. From your time in three Muslim countries, how did your experience of “pious fashion” challenge these notions and highlight the varying expressions of piety through dress?
It’s a good question to begin with since I suspect many non-Muslims and Muslims alike view pious fashion—and a headscarf—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 is radically different from other women. That is just too simplistic a view. All women feel the effects of gender ideologies and this affects how we present ourselves in public—including our dress. But within these pressures and constraints we still have some degree of choice. Even in Tehran, where hijab is required, a woman has to decide every morning what to wear to abide by those regulations—and the options are endless.
Q: In Pious Fashion, you illustrate how a nation’s cultural and sociopolitical ideology materializes in women’s fashion, and consequently, falls on the woman’s body to reflect and uphold. Briefly, how do Muslim women in Tehran, Yogyakarta, and Istanbul navigate these structural forces and assert agency through pious fashion?
The three locations studied in my book are case studies to explore the specifics of how women’s dress can be seen as a response to and even critique of these ideologies. But I don’t think I can summarize each location in a pithy sentence. In fact that is part of the reason I wrote this book. Clothing everywhere can be read, and in our own culture we do it all the time. I might note how my student’s T-shirt, my colleague’s suit, or the height of my friend’s boots convey social privilege, gender norms, or power. But when we try to read clothing in other cultures, we often make mistakes because we base our interpretations on our own aesthetic and moral assumptions. So it is only by thinking about a particular trend or clothing item within a web of moral and aesthetic values that we can see how Muslim women can use pious fashion to express their individual taste, identity, cosmopolitanism, and even politics.
Q: You explain in the book that piety and fashion do not challenge each other, but rather inform one another to bring nuance and broader meaning to Muslim women’s dress. How, then, does pious fashion communicate in a way that is both Islamic and secular?
We think there is a hard line between what is religious and what is secular. But in everyday life, that line is blurred. The same scarf I might buy in a hijab store in Tehran—which I must wear by law in that country as part of a governmental effort to make the public space more Islamic—I might buy in Urban Outfitters in Boston as part of my own effort to add some hipster vibe to my casual weekend outfit. The actual material items are not as invested with special meaning as we might think. And this winter we saw Shepard Fairey’s image of a woman in an American flag headscarf adopted as one of the most prominent symbols of the Women’s March in DC. Influence goes both ways. Secular trends effect pious fashion, but religious clothing makes piety fashionable in mainstream culture as well.
Q: How do Muslim men meet expectations to dress piously in Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey?
Muslim men also have expectations on them to dress modestly. In fact the men in these locations are almost as covered as women. But men’s clothing is “pious” in a different way from women’s clothing. Take the example of Iran. From 1997 to 2005 Mohammad Khatami served as Iran’s fifth president. To the untrained eye, it appeared that Khatami was simply wearing traditional clerical garb: a turban, a high-neck tunic, and a long robe. But in Iran, Khatami was known to be a bit of a dandy. For his robe, he favored the structured labadeh—considered more modern and stylish, with its high collar and semifitted sleeves and torso—over the loose and flowing qaba. He wore luxurious fabrics in bold color choices, including a cream cloak that quickly became adopted by other prominent clerics in the government. Khatami’s “chic mullah” style was the material expression of his reformist agenda, combining traditional Shii garb—which conveyed clerical rank—with modern fabrics and meticulous tailoring—which conveyed a desire to be innovative.
Khatami’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, could not have been more different in his own form of pious fashion. During his campaign, he became well known for his light beige polyester Members Only-style windbreaker, worn over a white button-down shirt and slacks. Once elected, he traded his windbreaker for poorly tailored suits, always worn without a tie. The intentional casualness of his windbreaker and the cheapness of his suits was a way of claiming that he was of the people rather than part of the ruling elite. Going without a necktie was a clear sign of allegiance to the aesthetic values of the theocracy. This leader was pious in a much different way than Khatami, signaling class consciousness instead of clerical status. These two presidents did have one style choice in common, however: a full beard. Although there was some flexibility in how piety could be expressed in men’s clothing, aesthetic and moral values apparently dictated facial hair for the highest elected official of Iran.
Q: Who did you write Pious Fashion for?
I wrote this book in a different way than my previous books. I share lots of firsthand stories from my time in these three cities and in doing so, I try to write the way I tell stories at a dinner party or to my students. My hope is that makes this book engaging in a way academic books (including my own!) sometimes aren’t. So while I hope this book is used in college classes, I also hope it’s the sort of book that can appeal to anyone interested in current debates about Muslim women, especially how their dress does or does not make them so different.
On the one hand my goal was to make what might seem an exotic practice familiar—pious fashion is just what Muslim women wear—but I hope at the same time this book encourages my non-Muslim reader to rethink the sort of cultural, political, and perhaps religious pressures put on their own clothing.