The right mix of fashion and faith

If you asked me to conjure up an image of what a Muslim looks like in Ramadan, aside from the caveats about diversity of cultures, I would imagine a picture of serene looking men and women in long, pure white robes and headcoverings.

Not so, according to haute couture brand DKNY which has just launched a fashion range especially for Ramadan aimed at Middle Eastern women.

Two well-known Arab fashionistas were part of DKNY’s Ramadan collection, which features high necklines and longer lengths that include maxi dresses and long sleeved blouses. Dubai-based designer Tamara Al Gabbani and Styles magazine fashion editor Yalda Golsharifi, who is Kuwaiti, styled the line and are featured in the lookbook.

It’s the first time that a designer brand has made such an overt global outreach to the Muslim consumer audience. To be honest, it was just a matter of time – Muslim fashion is one of the growing but untapped fashion markets. Bloomberg estimated its worth around $100 billion.

In any city around the world with a Muslim population, young fashionable Muslim women are likely to float past. It’s a trend that has taken root since the millennium, as Muslim women assert an identity that is both fiercely Muslim but also adamantly modern, believing both are part of who they are, and they have a right to both. September 11, 2001 forced a choice on Muslim women who have been targeted since the event either to hide or be proud of their faith and the public expression of their faith through their dress is the result of this decision.

The growth of Muslim fashion also indicates something curious about women’s self-empowerment in religion. Excluded or at best heavily policed in traditional spaces of religiosity, fashion has offered Muslim women an open field in which to explore their religion and how to express it. Ironically, the traditional male voices that define how women should or should not behave are absent from fashion as it is considered frivolous, and this leaves women free to explore their faith and their identity.

Muslim fashion is itself contentious – on the one hand modest dress is an important expression of faith. On the other hand, there are worries about whether such fashion really adheres to the “modest” and humble aspects of Islamic dress, but more so whether it leads Muslims into the same consumerist and image-conscious domain that women globally have been increasingly fighting, and which modest dress is supposed to combat.

The Ramadan timing also highlights the commercialisation of Ramadan. Trade, business and shopping have always been part of Muslim cultures, including during Ramadan. But with prices rising in Ramadan for staples, and soap operas and advertising campaigns bursting out every minute of the blessed month, Muslims worry Ramadan will go the way of Christmas – all shiny baubles, and the meaning sucked dry.

Both controversies are rooted in the same challenges of asserting consumer rights and voice, of balancing the spiritual with the worldly. But what should give us pause for thought is that the determination of this cultural and religious balance in both of these controversies is not in the hands of clerics and institutions but in the hands of women traditionally excluded from those arenas.

With purses in their hands, and a consciousness of self and faith, women have the power to determine our expression and embrace of faith in the modern world.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk

Published: July 11, 2014 04:00 AM

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