Researching the experiences of middle-class British-Pakistani women: Visual piety

In the third post from Dr Noreen Mirza, she discusses how her research challenges stereotypes about Muslim women, particularly around wearing the hijab.

Reflecting on my own upbringing and experiences of being a second-generation middle-class British-Pakistani Muslim prompted me to want to understand what was happening among other socially mobile British-Pakistani women in Manchester. I was puzzled by the growing trend in ‘visual piety’ – a public and evident expression of religious affiliation among British-Pakistani women, such as wearing the hijab (headscarf), to signify commitment to faith and Islamic identity.

I decided to speak about visual piety to two of the women in my research, Amber and Syrah, who both wore the hijab. Their friendship blossomed when they realised that they both shared a similar lifestyle and religious outlook. More importantly they share a love of fashion, and they exchanged ideas and tips with one another about how to combine style and modesty.

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Muslim Fashion. Source: Shawn Sun (www.flickr.com/photos/abayatrade) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I had known Amber prior to my research and our friendship spanned over two decades. More recently I watched her become increasingly devout in her faith. The deeper she looked into the teachings of Islam, the more she was drawn to it. In the aftermath of 9/11, more and more Muslims were turning to their faith and learning more about Islam. This piety led to increasing number of Muslim women adopting the headscarf and Muslim men wearing beards as an expressive embodied commitment to their faith.

Amber had started wearing a headscarf not long before meeting Syrah in 2010 at her children’s primary school. As they got to know each other, they soon realised they had a lot in common; interests, aspirations, lifestyle, passion for fashion and desire to increase knowledge of their faith. More importantly they relied on one another for motivation and support in their decision to become more religious, particularly when they lacked encouragement from their own families.

Contrary to popular belief that Muslim men order their wives, sisters and daughters to veil, it was Amber’s father and husband who were the most disapproving of her decision to wear the hijab and to become more religious. The first few weeks of wearing the hijab, Amber removed it before coming face-to-face with her father, until she was caught off guard. As she had predicted, her father was not happy. Her husband was also vocal about his disapproval of his wife’s decision to wear the hijab; observing such a strict interpretation of the dress code was a step too far in his opinion. He had liked the way she dressed before becoming more religious and had not considered it immodest. Similarly, Syrah was also the only woman in her family to wear the hijab, a practice that neither her mother or sister observed. Her father could not understand why Syrah was taking religious classes instead of focusing on her career.

This was very interesting to me, particularly when there seems to be a widespread assumption among the general public that veiling is imposed by men and was a misogynistic practice to submiss women. My fieldwork confirmed that, amongst the women I worked with, this assumption could not be further from the truth. The women who wore the hijab did so of their own accord. They did not consult with their husbands, and in many cases their husbands and fathers were against the practice, deeming it unnecessary. Consequently, women choosing to wear the hijab forged friendships with other women who also wore the hijab for support, solidarity and camaraderie. This enthusiasm to know more about Islam and espouse a Muslim identity brought Syrah and Amber closer because they lacked encouragement from their family and relied on one another for guidance and support.

Although Amber’s friendship with Syrah was based on their love for fashion and similar experiences, their commitment to faith drew their friendship even closer. At times, Amber and Syrah wanted to assert their religious identity in public, and wearing the hijab allowed them to do this. Visual piety meant a sense of camaraderie – they were among others who were passionate about their faith, they wanted to celebrate their pride in being Muslim and were not afraid to express it. For Syrah and Amber, visual piety also had a deeper meaning. It was not just about an expression of their religious devotion and identity, it was equally important for them to express their individuality and personality through how they dressed. In the way that they dressed, they wanted to represent that they were modern, fashionable and independent women as well as being practising Muslims.

Related Reading

Politics of piety: the Islamic revival and the feminist subject. S. Mahmood, 2005

Entanglement: The secret lives of hair. Emma Tarlo, 2016

Islamic fashion and anti-fashion: New perspectives from Europe and North America. Emma Tarlo and Anneliese Moors, 2013

Visibly Muslim: fashion, politics, faith. Emma Tarlo

 

The final two posts in this series are coming soon, watch this space….

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