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Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress

Pious Fashion
  • Book Title:
 Pious Fashion
  • Book Author:
Elizabeth Bucar
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Introduction – PIOUS FASHION

Many Westerners view modest clothing as the ultimate sign of Muslim women’s oppression. They assume that the concept of the veil, whether a head scarf or a full- body covering, is based on the outdated idea that women’s bodies are overly sexual and must be hidden.

The veil covers women, effaces them, signals that they are less valuable than men. According to this line of thought, the veil is either forced on women by Muslim men or is an expression of an over- zealous form of piety. As a global phenomenon, it is regarded as the sign of a worrisome creep of Islam.

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 diverse, both historically and geo graphically, and is connected with much broader cultural systems. The decision to wear modest clothing is usually motivated by social and political rea-sons as well as religious ones. Islam may be an important factor in what Muslim women wear, but it is not the only one.

In Pious Fashion, I investigate Muslim women’s modest clothing in three locations— Iran, Indonesia, and Turkey—in order to describe the wide range of meanings conveyed by what women wear. Colors and textures are combined to express individual tastes and challenge aesthetic conventions. Brand- name overcoats, scarves, and handbags are used to display social distinction.

More than just a veil, this is pious fashion head to toe, which both reflects and creates norms and ideas related to self- identity, moral authority, and consumption. It is part of a communication system that is understood locally, but not always by outsiders.

This book aims to make that communication explicit— deciphering how Muslim women negotiate a variety of aesthetic and moral pressures. Muslims’ lives, it turns out, are not completely dictated by religious dogma or law. In fact, they are not all that different from non- Muslims’ lives.

I do not view Muslim women’s modest clothing as a “problem” that needs to be solved. But I am also aware of the risks involved in wearing or celebrating pious fashion, such as inadvertently validating the gender norms that are associated with it. Indeed, pious fashion is a style of clothing that provokes controversy both within and outside Muslim communities.

At the same time, it has benefits for women, such as creating opportunities to claim a form of religious expertise within Muslim communities and to participate fully in consumer culture. I will be exploring all of these themes in depth.

Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the meaning of some of the important concepts in this book: fashion, piety, and modesty. Clothing is a cultural practice that is governed by social forces as well as daily individual choices.1 I use the term “fashion” to refer to clothing that does more than keep us warm. It can be used to protect and at-tract, decorate and display, reveal and conceal.

Through fashion, people can do a number of things, such as construct identities, communicate status, and challenge aesthetic preferences.2 And these functions are all possible because fashion is situated within a context that makes it intelligible, as I discuss below.

“Modest” and “pious” are two adjectives often used to describe Muslim women’s clothing. “Modest” usually refers to clothing that does not show too much of a person’s body. It is generally assumed that the goal of wearing modest clothing is to be decent and demure, and to discourage sexual attention. Through the course of this book we will see that modest dress has a much wider array of functions, many of which go beyond issues of bodily presentation.

“Pious” is used to describe a person who is devout, or something that is expressive of deep religious devotion. Thus, pious clothing for a Muslim woman is clothing that expresses her devotion to Islam. “Piety” has also become a general placeholder for ethics, so that a “good” Muslim woman is described as “pious.” Similarly, pious clothing is connected with morality because it is a disciplinary practice that helps form a woman’s character and serves to establish public norms of dress.

The nature of piety is constantly being redefined through de-bates about what Muslim women should wear, as well as through their everyday choices about what they actually do wear. We will see that piety is judged not only in terms of personal submission to Islam or sexual docility, but also in terms of public display that is in good taste.

I chose to use the term “pious fashion” in this book for several rea-sons. For one thing, other commonly used terms do not adequately capture the head- to- toe looks that are part of Muslim women’s modest dress. The word “veil” brings to mind a head scarf or full- face covering, whereas I am also concerned with tunics, pants, shoes, and accessories that are all part of the sartorial practices of Muslim women. “Fashion veiling” is too limiting for the same reason.

The terms “Muslim clothing” or even “gendered Muslim clothing” are also not quite right because I focus not on any clothing worn by a Muslim woman, but rather on clothing practices that are intention-ally stylish and respond to global fashion trends. “Modest fashion” is also insufficient, not only because it does not indicate the religious aspect of the clothing I study, but also because part of the goal of this book is to redefine what we mean by the concept of modesty.

 The word “pious” is more appropriate than “modest” because it captures a number of ethical and religious dimensions of this clothing, such as character formation through bodily action, regulating sexual desires between men and women, and creating public space or ga nized around Islamic moral principles.

“Pious fashion” is also meant to be slightly provocative. These two terms do not sit easily together: fashion is often thought of as a way to express materialistic desires, whereas piety is the mechanism through which unruly desires are suppressed. But my goal is to unsettle these assumptions: fashion is not merely superficial, and piety does not ef-face the body. These terms do not conflict but rather inform each other when used together to help us understand the complexities of Muslim women’s actual sartorial practices.

Comparing Style on Location

To study pious fashion, I conducted research in three Muslim- majority countries, focusing on major cities where Islamic dress is common: Tehran, Iran; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; and Istanbul, Turkey.3 The popularity of pious fashion in these locations does not mean it has gone uncontested. In all three cities, political, social, and religious controversies contribute to debates over how Muslim women should dress.

While there have been studies of Muslim women’s clothing in many individual countries, there are few cross- cultural and transnational comparisons of pious fashion. Notable exceptions are Amelie Barras’s work on legal regulation of headscarves in France and Turkey, and Reina Lewis’s examination of Muslim style in Britain and Turkey.4

The limited number of comparative studies is unsurprising. It is complicated enough to study pious fashion in a single location, and analysis across multiple locations is a daunting task. Many scholars devote their careers to becoming experts in one geographic location, learning the language, customs, narratives, and norms. The careful work of these scholars informs many parts of this book.

But comparison of several Muslim- majority cultures can bear its own fruit, at both the local and the cross- cultural level. For instance, the discovery that pious fashion comes in many forms prevents us from viewing one par tic u lar 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 po liti cal and cultural relationships with Arab nations and socie ties, 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 addition, it provides a way to challenge both the conception of an un-changing Islamic orthodoxy and the idea that Islamic expertise is greater the closer one is to Mecca.

Comparison also highlights the local specificity of pious fashion. The presence of skull motifs and bright red in styles in Tehran is all the more striking when contrasted with the lace and pastels of Yogya-karta. The large round shape of a popular Turkish head scarf style is even more obvious once we look at it next to the loosely draped scarves of Tehran or the elaborately pinned styles in Yogyakarta. These de-tails show us how local histories, politics, and aesthetics have invested Muslim women’s clothing with varied meanings.

Finally, a comparative framing of this topic highlights commonalities of Muslim women’s modest dress. While the story of pious fashion is not the same everywhere, we do find similar concerns over virtue, expertise, judgment, consumption, and beauty.

In all three locations, women’s pious fashion styles are influenced by prevailing standards of beauty that are based on viewing women as objects of desire and sub-jects of moral judgment. We will also see similar anx i eties about over-consumption along with an acknowledgment that some form of consumption is necessary for pious fashion. And in each location, aes-thetic failures are harshly judged and presumed to be outward manifestations of moral failures.

When a Muslim woman decides what to wear, she does so within a framework of limits that are specific to her national context. Pious fashion in Tehran, for example, is highly regulated. Since shortly after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women in Iran, including non- Muslims and foreign visitors, have been legally required to wear hijab, or clothing that conforms with sharia. According to Article 638 of the 1991 version of the Iranian Penal Code, women who appear in public without

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