Dress codes & modes – women’s dress in some Muslim countries and communities

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This exhibition looks at the diversities and commonalities of women’s dress through space and time, highlighting the influence of many forces – class, status, region, work, religious interpretation, ethnicity, urban/rural, politics, fashion, climate etc.
Dress codes are one of the crucial elements which contribute to the construction of a ‘Muslim’ identity by both local and international forces operating from within Muslim societies as well as from outside Muslim contexts.
The exhibition celebrates both this diversity and our historic as well as contemporary similarities. Comprised of 20 large printed panels focusing on women’s clothing in Muslim contexts generally, and then in 7 specific countries and regions: Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Northern Nigeria, South Asia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the exhibition uses 250 images (paintings, drawings, photos), past and present, and over 85 quotations from a rich variety of sources plus some explanatory original text.

Diversity and commonality through space and time

We briefly look at men’s dress and at clothes worn by women from communities other than Muslim, in order to show continuity beyond gender and community/religious divides. We see variety and uniformity across space and time, which highlight the influence of the many forces which create dress – politics, class, status, region, work, religious interpretation, ethnicity, urban/rural divides, fashion, climate. We also see how people change or modify dress to suit new and different situations and places.

Identity, morality and autonomy

Recording the changes in dress that have and continue to take place within various Muslim contexts has a political meaning.

“The different parts of the structure (of costume) are consciously manipulated to assert and demarcate differences in status, identity and commitment (support or protest) at the level of personal, national and international relationships.”
Costume and identity, Hilda Kuper, 1973

In the current context, the spread of supposed ‘Islamic’ dress for women and enforcement of such dress codes through law and/or the threats and actions of self-appointed male ‘guardians of morality’ is well-documented. Indeed morality and the control of autonomy is at the core of norms and values that influence dress codes – as this Egyptian male advocate of women’s rights highlights as early as 1899:

“Are men considered less able than women to control themselves and resist their sexual impulse? … Preventing women from showing themselves unveiled expresses men’s fears of losing control over their minds, falling prey to fitna [chaos] whenever they are confronted with a non-veiled woman. The implications of such an institution lead us to think that women are believed to be better equipped in this respect than men.”
The Liberation of Women, Qasim Amin, 1899

International agendas and individual agencies

However, lesser known is the fact that particular styles of ‘Islamic’ dress being imposed and adopted often have no basis in the tradition of the country and are being imported from other Muslim contexts to further specific political ends. For example in Sudan (after the coup led by the National Islamic Front in 1989), the “Islamic Dress Law” effectively banned the traditional Sudanese women’s dress (“Toab”) in favour of ‘Islamic’ dress. The Sudanese state successfully imposed this new outfit onto women civil servants by prohibiting any woman dressed otherwise from entering government offices. The new dress code was identical to the Iranian ‘model’ and, in fact, Iran financed the mass production of these uniforms.

It is precisely the invocation of “tradition” and “indigenous values” which blurs the fact that practices and legislations supposed to be “Islamic” are in fact carefully crafted to fit the agenda of conservative Muslim forces.

Where women do endorse particular ‘Muslim’ dress codes as a marker of identity and consciously choose to adopt specific styles of dress in order to assert their own identity – religious or otherwise – this is invariably based on a homogenous model of ‘Muslimness’. Whether this reinforces conservative discourse or enables women to recapture the discourse around Muslim women’s role continues to be a subject of debate.

The exhibition is designed for display at events and conferences. It travels in 9 sturdy cases which contain the banner stands, clothes stands, some clothing and lighting. These boxes weigh a total of 215kg. Normally, the exhibitor will be responsible for travel costs and insurance but there is no fee for renting the exhibit.

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