International: The diversity of dress

Aisha L. F. Shaheed
A presentation by Aisha Lee Shaheed, an independent writer-researcher and WLUML networker upon the Canadian launch of the "Dress Codes and Modes: Women's dress in some Muslim countries and communities" exhibition in August 2006.
WLUML is not organized in a traditional structure; rather, it is a transnational solidarity network which links together groups and individuals in our collective struggles for gender equality and social justice, especially in Muslim contexts.
For over two decades, Women Living Under Muslim Laws has provided information, support, alliance-building and a collective space for women, and has now grown to encompass over 70 countries. WLUML works with individuals and organizations whose lives are affected by - and indeed, are often shaped by - laws and customs which are said to derive from Islam.

This includes: women residing in countries where Islam is the state religion, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia; women in secular states with Muslim majorities, like Turkey; as well as women from Muslim communities governed by minority religious laws, as in India. WLUML also extends to women living in secular states - such as this one - where certain non-state-level political groups demand the implementation of religious laws, as we have recently witnessed with the thwarted attempt to introduce religiously-based arbitration in Ontario. WLUML also addresses itself to non-Muslim women who may be subject to Muslim laws, part of diasporic and migrant Muslim communities and, indeed, those women born into Muslim families who are automatically categorized as Muslim but who may not identify as such.

The sheer diversity of these women - and their families - who fall into these categories is staggering. From regions as diverse as Turkey and Iran, Uzbekistan and Indonesia, the suburbs of Paris and northern Nigeria, the concerns of women who live under Muslim laws are shaped by local customs, colonial history and gender relations as much as by Islam. When members of WLUML decided to collectively produce a visual exhibition on the history and politics of clothing in Muslim contexts, it was clear that the focus of their research would have to be equally as diverse.

As a network, friends and colleagues from four continents shared their ideas and suggestions, and partner organizations and individuals passed on references, photographs, newspaper clippings and all types of quotations. The actual exhibit was primarily compiled by Caroline Simpson, of WLUML's international office in London, in 2002 and its successful fruition is truly a result of her efforts, combined with the sharing of resources throughout the network and the utter dedication of a handful of individuals.

I will return to the creation of the "Dress Codes and Modes" exhibit but first, I want to address the issue of why the Women Living Under Muslim Laws network became interested in this project to begin with. Why do we even speak of a 'politics of clothing'? are clothes political? What are the differences between official and unofficial 'dress codes'? What constitutes a 'traditional costume' in contrast to 'modern fashion'? How have the histories of dress been the same across regions and how have they been different? How are different members of a society demarcated through their clothing? Why are the issues surrounding veiling such an inciter of passionate responses has it always been so? And, to what extent do people really choose what they wear? Such issues merely skim the surface of these debates, but these are the types of questions concerning clothing and society that have captured the attention of writers and other commentators throughout recorded history.

At this stage I would like to make two very basic statements: namely, that clothing varies drastically between different Muslim countries and communities and secondly, that there is always a great variation of dress within any given society. First, that clothing varies from region to region may appear obvious, yet I routinely find myself coming across the terms "Muslim clothing" or "Islamic clothing" - terms used by Muslims and non-Muslims alike - as if there were some sort of solitary uniform prescribed under Islam. Of course, there is no more a singular example of 'Muslim dress' than there is of Christian, Buddhist, Atheist or Jewish dress; [and in my opinion,] there are only socio-politically constructed subjects and how individuals dress is a reflection of this social construction. Likewise, the politics of veiling are uneven across regions: today, in some contexts veiling is mandatory; in others it is illegal; and still others leave it up to the wearer's own discretion.

So then, for both women and men alike, modes of dress always display regional variations; and, we do not even need to travel far to find these differences, which are sometimes evident even between villages or between districts of a city. Nonetheless, the diversity of both clothing choices and restrictions are equally marked within any given society, based on a number of variables such as an individual's status, class, occupation, rank, gender, religious denomination and age. The panoply of social meanings that are thereby written into the clothing of the individual not only places the wearer within the society as a whole (for example: as a widow, a soldier, or a marriageable young woman), but simultaneously serves as a boundary-making device, capable of making visible who is inside and who is outside of a specific group within the larger community. Bearing this in mind, any reference to "the Muslim dress" or "Islamic clothing" is soon shown to be as imprecise and patronizing as referring to "Canadian clothes."

Confronted with such presentations and re-presentations of clothing in Muslim contexts, WLUML decided to create this exhibition to highlight the variety and fluctuations of women's clothing, on a regional basis. From 1996, WLUML member discussed the political issues of clothing and apart from a commitment to produce more written analyses of dress code issues within the network, it was also decided that a visual exhibition was needed to describe what is primarily a visual phenomenon.

Those who began collecting materials were interested in what women in each region (i) wear every day, (ii) what their community deems to be 'decent' apparel, and (iii) what they and/or their community considers to be 'Muslim' dress. Other issues also had to be considered, such as the impact of international relations on clothing; (for example, in 1983, the Iranian government donated 50,000 hijabs to Sri Lanka). It was also important for us to highlight examples of women's responses to imposed dress codes.

The countries you see represented here were decided upon by committee, with the acknowledgement that many others could have been included. Indeed, we hope that, as time and resources allow, we will be able to create more country-panels for the exhibit, in the future.

During 2002 the traveling exhibition about dress codes was created, which could then be shown at conferences, lectures, and at networking organizations. So, initially it was conceived of as a tool for WLUML networkers to use as they saw fit, but was also designed to share with women in the network the clothing histories of their sisters from other regions. We are also delighted to share the material with the general public, in order to inform and educate as to the rich historical variety of the codes and modes of women's dress.

Now, we are thrilled that Rights and Democracy, the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, and Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan have brought the exhibit here to Canada, where it has so far traveled to Vancouver and Ottawa and will continue on to Calgary, Winnipeg and Victoria. We are delighted to present it to you now, here in Montreal. I hope you all enjoy the exhibition and tell your friends and colleagues that it will be here until the 24th of August.