Faith, fashion, (white) feminism

Earlier this week, Caroline Overington published an opinion piece with The Australian. Within it, she criticised the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) for hosting an exhibition in Malaysia and Indonesia, titled ‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion: Muslim Women’s Style in Australia’.

According to DFAT, the exhibition aims to showcase Australia’s booming modest fashion market: ‘Modest fashion is clothing that conceals rather than accentuating the body – and it is quickly increasing in popularity.’

This growing trend is led by young Muslim women who have had the audacity to create a niche market accommodating their religious dress.

Overington is not interested in contextualising this phenomenon. Her concern is simple and singular: If ‘draping yourself in heavy fabric’ is ‘modest’ then, by default, the implication is that any woman who does not do so is ‘immodest’. And what’s worse – the Australian government advocates such a medieval (read: Islamic) mentality! The whole thing is ‘grotesque’.

‘When did this become something the Australian government wanted to promote, and celebrate?’ Overington raises a pertinent question here. There is nothing subtle about it. Rephrased, it could read: ‘why are we allowing Islamic ideals to adulterate our society?’

Overington assumes the role of the modern-day moral apocalyptist. She the herald, her vulnerable (white) society in danger. She has the precarious task of highlighting the government’s failings toward secular democracy.

I would not call Overington’s piece controversial. Something ‘controversial’ should have a morsel of novelty to it. The article itself recycles the worst of white feminism’s tired questions. Like any good Islamophobic piece, it also has a dash of emotive orientalist imagery: ‘Depressingly, it is booming,’ Overington concedes, ‘as the corruption of Sharia in the name of Islam, and its attendant misogyny, expands around the globe, sweeping all before it in an orgy of violence and terror.’

‘Sharia’, ‘misogyny’, ‘sweeping’, ‘orgy’, ‘violence’, ‘terror’. Overington marries all the right hysterical buzzwords with a call for action. Hey DFAT, how about we put all that tax-payer money into abolishing child marriages? Or sending girls to school? Or ending genital mutilation? You know … all those nasty ‘Muslim’ problems? Overington becomes concerned for the Middle Eastern woman and her freedoms. Don’t you know that Muslim women overseas are fighting for the right to refuse the hijab? Don’t you know they’re being kidnapped and imprisoned?

Or: Why is the Australian government playing into the hand of Islam, covering its flaws when it should be exposing them?

Overington’s opinion piece is interesting not because of its stale Islamophobic message, but because it confirms for the shrewd reader two things. Firstly, women’s bodies – particularly Muslim women’s bodies – are still being politicised to host national discussions about the compatibility of Islam and the West.

Is that not the nature of the beast? The Australian government will not discuss our foreign policy, our offshore detention centres, or our draconian anti-terror laws. What of asylum seekers. Female asylum seekers? The vulnerable and pregnant, those still nursing? It won’t even admit to institutional racism’s accountability in the recent increase of Islamophobic violence and discrimination. But it will obscure systemic injustices by funding an initiative that uses Muslim women’s dress as a ‘platform to showcase Australia’s diverse, tolerant and open multicultural society.’

The plight of the Australian Muslim woman is indeed a bizarre one. By reducing her to her dress, to her body, the Islamophobe often renders her passive. She is nothing but her burqa, her hijab – in other words – her oppression. She is spoken about and spoken for, her visibility is highly selective. But then comes the kicker: the same power structures that reduce her to limbs and fabric now demand she use her body and her hijab to prove her liberation.

The Muslim woman becomes excited: finally, she is to speak! But she does not recognise that her voice is there because it was ‘permitted’ to be. That, often, its only channel is through her body. How does she speak? Perhaps she participates in the ‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion’ exhibition.

This is the second observation of the shrewd reader, that perhaps Overington is right: there is something ‘grotesque’ about this whole thing. Hear me clear: what’s grotesque is not the modest dress, or the Muslim women that embrace it, or even the well-intentioned Muslim women in the exhibition. It’s not even Overington’s comical remark when she asks, ‘how about we tell them: Australia is an enlightened country, where women can dress as they please?’ in an article that actively polices Muslim women’s dress as ‘fashion backward’.

It’s the fact that decades down the line, the Muslim woman is still dancing to the same silent tune of the same crippling discourses. After all, what is the ‘Faith, Fashion, Fusion’ exhibition but a badly decorated demand for Muslims, particularly women, to prove with their bodies their normality, their humanity, to whiteness? What is its purpose if not to ease white anxieties by making ourselves more palatable, to prove with the otherness of our beautiful fabrics, our bright smiles, and our coloured faces that we, too, deserve a place in this world?

I am reminded of the many Muslim women years ago who, in attempt to combat Islamophobia, would don the Australian flag as their hijab to prove their ‘Australian-ness’. They were disappointed to find that it didn’t manifest in any tangible change. I look at the exhibition and I see no difference; the latter is simply a more elaborate mirage in which Muslim women appear to have taken control of the discourse. This is not the reality.

The reality is neatly tucked into DFAT’s recent blog: ‘the emerging modest fashion market can help advance Australia’s public diplomacy objectives.’

By erasing power from our discourses we become blind to its operations. Interestingly, both Overington and the Muslims that participated in the exhibition likely believe that it is a symbol of empowerment. For Overington and her like-minded peers, this ‘empowerment’ is a sign of a very real Islamic excess that threatens to rupture the societal fabric of our good liberal society. For the moderate Muslim, it’s a tool to ‘talk back’ and take the reins, to speak on the myth of ‘our terms’.

Neither can see how the exhibition is in fact the product of an institutional racism that first places Muslims in the witness box and then decides when, and how, they can defend themselves. Sometimes that defence is requested in colourful smiles and cultural dress and an ever-repetitive reaffirmation of ‘see, we’re people too’, but it is no less dangerous, and no less damaging. Worst of all, it is insatiable.

The cycle needs to be broken. That so many Muslims have been socialised into participating in – if not initiating – similar programs for their anti-racist activism indicates just how deeply they have internalised the idea that Islamophobia is a result of the Muslim community’s (as if there is just one) failure to dismantle stereotypes, as opposed to something institutional and systemic, produced from ‘top-down’ discourses. And these are the conversations we need to be having.

The fact that DFAT’s press release announcing the exhibition was titled ‘fashion in diplomacy’ is quite telling. The Muslim woman is still only useful to us insofar as her body can sell our propaganda. That is a very real tragedy that Overington’s brand of feminism is quite content to ignore.


Image: MAMA & Library Museum – Paul Temple / flickr

Claudia Sirdah

Claudia Sirdah is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

More by Claudia Sirdah ›

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  1. For me the most interesting thing is that DFAT didn’t commission this exhibition; it’s a pre-existing show first mounted by the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney in 2012, which has since been touring museums around the country. I wrote about it in my 2013 book ‘Out of Shape’, in which I praised it for foregrounding “the stories Australian Muslim women wanted to tell about their clothes”.

    Now I think Claudia’s right that the exhibition can be viewed as part of a top-down project to domesticate Muslim identity and recuperate it into dominant white Australian culture. But ‘modest fashion’ (which I’m considering purely as a garment industry euphemism, like ‘plus size’, rather than any moral statement about modesty) is a huge international market and the exhibition does showcase the Australian entrepreneurs who make and sell in this market, so it’s not unexpected for our trade department to get involved in the exhibition.

  2. This is a truly fascinating and eye opening read. I never would have considered that an exhibition celebrating women could actually be an institutionalised form of oppression itself.

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