S: At MMW, we struggle with not wanting to see hijab as central to Muslim women’s issues, is this something you came across in women?
ET: I was extremely aware of this issue, and didn’t want to perpetuate the idea that the key to understanding Muslim women is “the veil”. I was also very aware that many young Muslim women feel that outsiders are obsessed with the veil. But what interested me was not so much the outsider obsession with covering as the complex internal debates taking place about dress amongst Muslims in Britain and Europe and the USA. With the polarisation of the veiling issue in the media, particularly in the post 9/11 environment, there has been very little space for acknowledgement of the diversity of Muslim perspectives on dress. Instead Muslims are all too frequently blanketed together as if they all think and act alike with the most extreme forms of covering becoming the major point of focus even though face veiling is very much a minority practice which many Muslims oppose. I wanted to bring out this diversity and to show that contemporary Muslim dress practices are not just about religion and politics but also about ethics, aesthetics, identity, fashion, globalisation, community, belonging and so forth. In a way this was also part of larger project for showing how Muslim women, like all women, are juggling with the complexities of what to wear in a context where others project interpretations on them. What is particular in the case of hijabi women is the degree of expectations and potential interpretations and misinterpretations with which they have to engage as they go about their ordinary lives. So I wanted to bring out lived experiences of visibly Muslim women without suggesting the hijab is the most important aspect of their lives or even their appearances.
Oh, shoot. Here we go again with coverage of Fashion Week in Pakistan. Can we do anything in Pakistan without it being linked in some way to either appeasing the Taliban or kicking sand in their faces?
I refer of course to the latest “I-spit-on-the-runway-the-Taliban-sashay-down” type of pieces in the American Christian Science Monitor (titled predictably “Lahore Fashion Week Takes on Talibanization in Pakistan”) and in Britain’s The Times about the just concluded Lahore Fashion Week. The latter may be headlined a bit more soberly (”Pakistan Fashion Week Pushes Back Boundaries”), but the prose is nothing less than a deep shade of purple.
Why do we take the costumes and makeup and tattoos of other cultures seriously and consider them interesting (or at least fetishize them as novelties or put them in museums) while dismissing the fact that such things exist within our own society? Why don’t we bother to think about what is going on in the minds of girls wearing Uggs, because let me tell you my combat boots are just as comfortable, so why are they wearing those things on their feet? What statements does it convey within their social groups, what references does it evoke and what does it imply about their economic and social class? There are serious and fascinating social psychology and sociology things going on here — and they deserve to be talked about too. This isn’t “kid stuff” or “stuff for dumb girls” or even “art” (which is equally dismissive in its own way.) This is society, and self-presentation, and economy, and patriarchy, and sociology, and billions and billions of dollars.
Fashion, like music and art and many many more, seems to be a double industry: there’s a lot of old white guys with money taking advantage of oversexed naive teenagers who are thrust into the mainstream as props, chewed up alive and spit back out and cast aside before they hit 20. There are crazed consumers obsessed with owning the latest trends and epic amounts of marketing dollars and energy devoted to turning 12 year olds (and their parents) into little consumption machines. There’s corruption and a glaring wage disparity and sweatshops and eating disorders and probably rape and murder too; everything is about power and sex and aesthetics. But what industry isn’t like that? And furthermore, why is the existence of these problems (and their heightened visibility in fashion due to its focus on the link between appearances and money) continually used as reasoning for a.) ignoring fashion and b.) dismissing it as worthless? We don’t do that with music, film, art, real estate, or finance and I think we’d all agree they are just as messed up — just in more subtle ways.
Would the world be a better place without Uggs and Ed Hardy? Probably. Are there are lot of morons out there talking about fashion, and are there are lot of desperate consumption-driven miserable humans out there doing horrifying things in the name of fashion, and are there a lot of women making absurd sacrifices and dedicating themselves blindly to stereotypes and standards promoted by fashion and fashion media without thinking about why or how? Undoubtedly. Is fashion deeply fucked up, corrupt, riddled with problems, linked to systems of oppression and some of our most problematic social issues? Yes. Which is why it’s stupid to dismiss it. If it’s so messed up and shallow and bad, why push it aside? Why not cut it to pieces and sew it back together in new ways, talk about it and analyze it and get involved and have an opinion and do something about it? (And possibly even have fun and make some friends while we’re at it?)