What The Modest Movement Can Teach Every Woman About Choice

The United States of America just elected as president a man who promised to ban Muslims from entering the country. Given that passports, mercifully, don’t list a person’s religion, our guess is that what Muslims wear will be one of the key indicators of their "otherness." Of course, it remains to be seen if Trump will actually follow through on this, or any other of his dog-whistle campaign declarations. But for those who have been following recent political controversies about how Muslims dress, the election cycle — and the evident public appetite for Trump’s way of thinking — is the latest installment in a worrying pattern.

⚪️⚫️ Art Direction: @ha.w.a Photography: @delriophotography Model: @thing.a.majiggy #Abaya

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In recent years, global headlines have seen effort after effort by governments to restrict religious dress — most frequently, how conservative Muslim women dress. No doubt you remember France’s burkini ban this summer, which was ultimately struck down in court. That country in particular has been a repeat offender, banning headscarves and other "conspicuous" religious symbols in schools and face veils in public places. The logic behind these bans goes like this: Muslim women are uniquely oppressed by Muslim men and religious patriarchies, and so it's the responsibility of the secular French government to help them escape. The government takes on the power of defining what counts as liberation, ignoring the ways in which society continues to judge women based on their appearance. The irony? They are also presenting Muslim women with another no-choice situation: assimilate, or else.

Assimilate, or else.

But, the premise of all of this — that Muslim women have no choice — just isn't true. As evidence, just look at how modern Muslim women interact on social media; there are a range of fashion stories celebrating modest designers (from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian backgrounds) whose headscarves, long skirts, and tunics are enthusiastically snatched up. Instagram buzzes with modest fashion galleries that feature every aesthetic from minimalist to frou-frou, accompanied by cogent commentary about women’s choices and rights. Waking up to this faith-related creativity and seeing a market opportunity, the mainstream fashion industry has begun to value Muslims as a consumer segment. And especially in a worldview that presumes that Muslims who live in the West are separate from or hostile to modern society, Muslim women’s wardrobes need to be considered an act of style first, not politics.
Here's where politics does enter a Muslim women’s wardrobe: Clothes, and personal style, are about an individual's right to choice. Choice, and respect for different choices, has been a key tenet of feminism and an overriding characteristic of the modest fashion movement. By and large, on blogs and social media, women celebrating modest fashion have managed to self-regulate an ethos of respect for different interpretations of modesty. For example, women of all faiths have weighed in to defend bloggers who post about stopping covering, whether this includes Muslim women “de-jabis” who have relinquished their headscarf, or Jewish women who have stopped covering their hair. Of course, this being the internet, trolls still exist, and women are still attacked by self-designated (often male) "guardians" of women’s morality. But, the modest fashion style community is quick to rise to their defense.

This important conversation about choice has entered into churches, temples, and mosques as well. No matter the religion, it used to be common to demand conformity as a sign of allegiance from your members, but these days, religious institutions are embracing individual “choice” as a valid and important consideration. If you want to argue for your own religious rights and individual choices, you have to be able to accept that others — inside and outside your community — will make different choices.

In the Muslim space, that means that there’s a pervasive understanding that the government shouldn’t police which women wear headscarves and which don’t. Nor should a woman’s decision to stop wearing a headscarf constitute grounds for stigma or backlash — which is unfortunately a reality for many women in that position. As one woman told altmuslimah.com when she first de-hijabbed, “I live in a rather large and suffocating community, so the idea of the gossip...scared me.” (This change is also playing out in conservative Jewish and Christian communities; rabbis try to shame ultra-Orthodox Jewish women for wearing brightly colored dresses, and Christian women are often told that they are responsible for men’s behavior.)
Politics adopts extreme examples, and the media favors spectacular visuals. The image of a fully covered woman in a burka against a nearly naked woman in a bikini can be provocative. But the reality is that a religious woman looks many different ways. Most Muslim women in the West don’t wear abayas and many pious Muslim and married Jewish women don’t cover their hair. In fact, many women who are immersed in their religious communities don’t dress in any way distinguishable to the external observer — essentially making their faith as invisible as any other aspect of their personal life. But for every Muslim woman who chooses to don skinny jeans, uncover her hair, and wear colorful clothing, we need to allow there to be a Muslim woman who chooses to cover up. We also shouldn’t be surprised that the same bright colors and skinny jeans might form part of someone’s modest styling. We as a society don’t get to say that one is better than the other or should exist over the other — as long as the individual has made that choice without coercion or fear, she should dress as she chooses.

Working together is not always easy — within and between divides of faith — but in the fight to protect choice regarding how women’s bodies are cared for, protected, and also clothed, the modest-fashion sorority have a head start in that conversation, extending their sphere of influence from style to society. As the U.S. moves into a new era of government, it's going to be more important than ever to foster inclusivity and teach one another how to not only accommodate differences, but to embrace them. Let’s hope that religious and political leaders learn a little something from the modest fashion community about the importance of choice, in every decision a woman makes.

We’ll be hosting a cross-faith conversation on modest fashion at Princeton University this weekend, in which members of diverse religious communities can discuss governmental, religious, private, and public influences and controversies related to modest fashion. It will be an important step in an ongoing, and increasingly crucial, exploration of how faith and fashion influence each other — and the world beyond.

Reina Lewis is professor of Cultural Studies, London College of Fashion, UAL, and author of
Muslim Fashion: Contemporary Style Cultures.

Asma T. Uddin is the founding editor-in-chief of altmuslimah.com (“altM”) and director of strategy for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Islam and Religious Freedom.
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