“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,” wrote playwright Oscar Wilde. “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” Appearances are as difficult to navigate as philosophy; perhaps more so in a world that seems to be getting smaller, and in which different religions and different peoples are moving and living side by side — not always peacefully. The response of Western nations has been to pretend that appearance don’t matter and that to judge by them is either immoral or plain evil. In fact, material culture matters in politics and in creating a positive image of the future.
Wilde, a dandy who loved dressing up, would not be surprised to see fashion at the heart of politics and controversy. Political movements frequently meld with fashion, in the form of subculture. Hippies, punks, skinheads, have all been associated with politics from the Left-wing to the extreme-Right. Today, increasingly, from Taqwacore (Islamic punk) to underground fashion shows in iran, Muslims are asserting different ideas about their identity, and about what Islam means to them, through dress.
To some degree, the image of the Muslim woman in the West is, and has been, that of oppressed niqab-clad female. In 1992, print adverts for Bijan perfume that appeared in Vogue and other fashion magazines showed two women. The first was veiled, serious, and sober looking. The next was of a laughing, carefree young woman wearing a baseball cap. An American flag appears next to the latter. As Faegheh Shirazi notes in The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture, the Anti-Discrimination Committee complained to Bijan’s management, saying, “being Muslim and American are not a contradiction and should not be portrayed as such.” Many Muslim fashion designers are now asserting that being Muslim, looking and feeling beautiful, and modernity, do not conflict.
Shirazi gives other examples of how the Muslim woman has been portrayed in US advertising campaigns, including the use of a photograph of a veiled woman, whose eyes are seductively outlined with heavy cosmetics, on the cover of a vegetable and couscous soup carton. Still, the image of the Muslim woman as veiled and at least largely oppressed was not made in the West alone. Islamist regimes, such as in Iran, have long prevented Muslims — as well as non-Muslims — from wearing “revealing” or figure-hugging garments.
Fresh examples of this mindset continue to emerge. Shops in the Indonesian provincial capital Banda Aceh will soon be prohibited from even selling tight fitting clothing, according to news reports. Religious police in Banda Aceh earlier arrested 50 women and three men for wearing shorts and other items of clothing they deemed to be too tight. Even in the capitals of some Western nations, like Britain, Islamist vigilante groups have imposed sharia on ordinary Muslims, restricting the rights of Muslim women in particular.
Still, it is Muslims, especially Muslim fashionistas that are challenging the Islamist movement and its attempt to police especially the female body. Earlier this month, Moscow held the first international festival of Islamic Style. The event was organized by the Council of Muftis in Russia. While the muftis may have intended to show a more conservative image of Muslim women today, they did encourage Muslim fashion designer to visit Moscow to participate. While hijabs were part of the overall look, in Spanish media outlet ABC’s opinion, some of the garments were “very tight, while the heels were unusually high, which helped to highlight the elegance of the models on display.” ABC also noted the “mix of classicism and modernity, Islamic traditions and the latest trends.”
Then there was the recent Dakar Fashion Week, which presented Tuareg designerAlphadi with an opportunity to show his latest collection and an opportunity to raise awareness of the military conflict in Mali. Although barely mentioned in the media, the historically tolerant country is being torn in two, as Tuareg separatists and Islamist separatists compete for power and land. Most of the north of Mali has already been captured by Islamist militants.
Alphadi (who was named Seidnaly Sidhamed by his parents) was born in 1957 in Timbuktu, although he now divides his time between Niamey in Niger, Paris and New York. He told AFP news that he was shocked by the violence in the place where he once lived. ”Timbuktu has always been a secular town,” he said, “everyone living together, sharing, blacks and whites, very cosmopolitan. A mysterious town!”
His new “fashion for peace” collection uses hand-polished cotton produced by Malian craftspeople. However, Alphadi wants not only to show off the creativity of Mali, but, he also wants it to be preserved. It should not be stifled, he told AFP, by the imposition of sharia.
Like many other Muslim fashion designers, Alphadi is not only challenging both Islamist supremacism and Western ideas about Islam, he is also helping to articulate a more modern, colorful, and pluralistic understanding of Islam through fashion. It’s about time the media took much more interest in them.