I’ve never been religious, but wrangling my political convictions and a love for clothing taught me the vicissitudes of negotiating two value systems that are seemingly at odds while attempting to craft an image that reflects my beliefs and is aesthetically pleasing (to me, at least). It is this tension that drives Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith, which looks at Muslim women who cover in contemporary England through a series of ethnographic profiles highlighting the diversity of their practices and perspectives. Anthropologist Emma Tarlo attends at length to how individual women reconcile visibly displaying their faith with the desire to dress fashionably and self-expressively.
Tarlo describes in great detail how her subjects adapt and negotiate signifiers of both Islam and style in order to craft their own looks, and she repeatedly emphasizes the great creativity of Muslim dress in the West. Noting that some of her subjects have more than 500 hijabs, she argues that the headscarf serves as “a new form of Muslim personal art” that in many cases “provides the aesthetic focal point of a young girl’s appearance.”
Because her account is so grounded in individuals, she mostly addresses hijabi practices as strategies that enable the women to craft the appearances they desire. Thus, she dedicates a lot of time to what her interviewees’ clothing habits mean to them and how they came to decide whether and how to cover. This entails considerable detail into the minutiae of covering choices, for example how tight clothing should be or whether to hide or display one’s neck or wrists.
Which brings us to one of the more politically fraught themes of the book, how different hijabi styles communicate to other Muslims. Men are largely absent from her account, which is, after all, primarily a study of women who display their faith sartorially. But one chapter attends to a group called Hizb ut-Tahrir, describing the strict guidelines for covering the group recommends for its adherents and its critiques of the women who cover less stringently. Tarlo uses her discussion of the group to introduce one of the book’s more interesting tangents: the paradoxical tension inherent in thinking the hijab as a form of fashion at all. The point of hijab, of course, is to remain modest, following the Qu’ranic injunction for a women to hide her beauty. But how, then, do women draw the line between immodesty and fashion? Tarlo effectively points to the difficulties of reconciling the desire to conform to Muslim doctrine by not being too showy with the desire to appear fashionable where they meet, in the hijab that effectively signifies, in the West, the desire to visibly display one’s faith.
This book is primarily intended for an academic audience, and unless you’re really interested in the subject matter you might not take that much from it. I occasionally found the lengthy ethnographies in the first half of the book boring, although her case studies of political organizations and businesses were more gratifying, to this reader at least. Ultimately, Tarlo effectively addresses a weighty issue in a way that respects the autonomy and individuality of those it depicts.
Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics, Faith by Emma Tarlo, Berg, 2010
reviewed by Emily Raine
photography by Arden Wray