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A smattering of articles have appeared in newspapers lately, aiming to spread the word about how fashionable Muslim women are. These articles seem to refute the idea that Muslim women are against or unreceptive to fashion: “You can be religious and fashionable! Lots of them are! See?”
Is this supposed to be a compliment? Generalizing an entire religious group into a massive worldwide body of snappy dressers?
I wrote earlier on the popular perception of Muslim/Middle Eastern women as label whores, and many of these articles play up that exact angle. The Independent’s article, written by Sarah Buys, openly states, “This [retail development in the Gulf], in turn, has given rise to one of the most sartorially savvy, high-fashion buying demographs in the world. Middle Eastern Muslim women aren’t just prolific shoppers, now they are discerning, prolific shoppers.”
“Quit your bitching,” you might say. “It’s a compliment to be considered fashionable. What’s your problem?” My problem is that, with this characterization of Muslims as rich and fashionable, we slide right into “label whore” territory, which brings along with it labels like “rich Arab teenager” or the “spoiled Persian princess,” both younger cousins to the harmful Jewish-American Princess stereotype. These are class-based stereotypes that attach themselves to specific ethnicities and, now, to Muslims. They are not compliments.
If that’s not offensive enough for you, we can always take a look at the underlying Orientalism surrounding these articles. The title of The Independent’s article is “Muslin women: Beneath the Veil.” And The New York Sun piece, written by Jesse Sposato, is entitled, “Conservative Muslim Women Hide Knack for Fashion Under Their Religious Robes.” All this “beneath the veil” crap is tired. Women who wear more conservative clothes in line with their interpretations of Islamic requirements just wear clothes under those things! But these articles can’t be satisfied with that. What kind of clothes?
Hold on to your fantasies: they wear sexy clothes! Sposato’s article recounts a young woman’s anecdote about what a girl she knew would wear under her abaya: “When I was living in Dubai, there was a girl who wore a closed abaya with a bikini under it! She would just be at university walking around with a bikini under her abaya, and nobody would know. It was great.”
And Buys doesn’t even wait to get into the article to fantasize about what Muslim women are wearing under there. She comes right out and sexualizes us all in the tagline: “…And under that shapeless, monochrome exterior, don’t be surprised to find a daring and imaginative sense of style – not to mention a miniskirt or pink hot pants.”
So, according to these articles, Muslim women walking around in austere black robes are practically naked underneath. Ironic, isn’t it? The majority of these women wear conservative clothes to take focus away from their bodies (in line with cultural practices or certain Islamic schools of thought), and these articles bring it right back to them.
These articles would make more sense to me if these papers were doing some sort of style profile on several different religions; Islam is not the only religion with modesty guidelines. But singling out Muslim women (none of the articles mentioned modesty requirements for men) in order to sexually hint at what’s “underneath the veil” just doesn’t sit well with me.