How Muslim Women Dress with Elizabeth Bucar

Elizabeth Cable, Elizabeth Bucar

Elizabeth Bucar, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Northeastern University and one of our Senior Fellows, has a new book out this September called Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress. Elizabeth Cable, a doctoral student in Thelogy, Ethics and Culture at UVA asked her about it.

Q: What prompted you to research this topic and write the book?

A: I actually avoided writing about Muslim women’s clothing for many years, even though as a scholar of Islam and gender I get asked to comment on this topic all the time. My hesitancy was because I think non-Muslims put too much importance on the Islamic headscarf, and assume it symbolizes the patriarchal and radical strands of Islam. And frankly, after a while, I grew tired of trying to explain to various audiences that Muslim clothing has so many variations that it couldn’t possibly mean one thing.

Then a couple of years ago while I was in Indonesia, I began to think about the connections between aesthetics and ethics, beauty and character, fashion and piety because much of the cut, color, and fabric used there differed from other locations I was more familiar with, such as Iran and Turkey. And I realized that the fashion in those three countries was reflecting local politics, values, and taste in interesting and unique ways. So I decided to try my hand at focusing on the fashion of Muslim women’s dress, as a way to explore larger issues of authority, consumption, nationalism, innovation, and social control.

Q: What surprised you during your research?

A: I realized very early on that modesty was defined and enacted in different ways, so I spent a fair amount of time trying to understand how this was the case. And I was surprised by how even though trends and styles were radically different among the three, there were some themes that continued to pop up.

Take the case of the incorporation of traditional cloth in each location. Pious fashion featuring batik is a distinct feature of clothing fashion in Indonesia. It asserts Indonesian identity, national pride, and local aesthetic values. But when this cloth is made into a modest dress or a headscarf it is also the expression of a particular version of a modern Indonesia which is publically Muslim in new, more visible ways.

In Tehran, forms of urban fashion also use embroidered cloth from the region. This “ethnic” style challenges existing aesthetic standards by asserting the value of the taste and style of minority groups over that of the dominant tastemakers. However, this valuation of minority taste or village life only pertains to fashion. “Village chic” can only be adopted by fashionable women in Tehran because there is an immense distance between these women and the poor rural people they are imitating.

In Istanbul, we see a recent reclaiming of forms of clothing reminiscent of the Ottoman Empire which links a Turkish Muslim identity to a period of regional power, wealth, and opulence. This trend is a far cry from the 1970s when Turkish Islamists were promoting an anti-consumerist lifestyle as a way to combat what they saw as the moral corruption caused by materialism and capitalism. In today’s model, religion is not corrupted by consumption; rather, consumption, such as buying and wearing pious fashion, becomes the mechanism through which religious ideals are transformed into aesthetic style.

Q: What would be one “take-away” from this book for academics, policy-makers or journalists covering religion?

A: 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.

Q: Which scholars have played a significant role in shaping your thought in this work? How might you compare your work with that of Saba Mahmood, or Judith Butler, or other feminist theorists?

A: I have learned a tremendous amount about how to think about gender, consumption, and ethics from scholars outside religious studies who have written about Muslim women’s fashion. I am thinking especially of the careful work of Banu Gökarıksel and Anna Secor, geographers who focus on urban Turkey, and Carla Jones, a cultural anthropologist working on contemporary Indonesia.
My book adds something new to this conversation, by comparing pious fashion in three Muslim-majority locations. Comparison, arguably one of the trademark methods of religious studies, prevents us from viewing one particular form of Muslim dress as representative of piety or style. 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. The three countries treated in this book have fraught political and cultural relationships with Arab nations and societies, which play out in interesting ways in how women dress. Observing pious fashion in non-Arab countries underscores the global diversity of this practice.

In terms of the feminist theorists you mention, I assume something like Judith Butler’s theory of performance in my book, emphasizing the idea that clothing choices involve a kind of role playing. Much like Saba Mahmood, I also conceptualize clothing as a practice that occurs within structural constraints—whether based on social class, religious authority, or political institutions. As a practice, I think Mahmood and I would agree that pious fashion is not entirely “empowering” for Muslim women in a liberal sense, since it relies on traditional gender ideologies and structural injustices. However, wearing pious fashion is an expression of agency, one that can succeed as a political critique, the habituation of virtue, or a shift in the visual culture of public religion. Where I think I depart most from Mahmood’s work is that I have made the material and aesthetic aspects of women’s clothing central to my research. Fashion is not a peripheral or trivial matter to Muslim women. Their clothing matters, and not only to non-Muslims trying to make sense of it. Within Muslim communities, there are multiple, competing opinions about what pious fashion should look like. The story of pious fashion is not a simple one of patriarchy or orthodoxy; rather, it is one of religious politics grounded in local debates about taste, nationalism, authenticity, and public norms.