How Muslim Women Use Fashion To Exert Political Influence

But there is an unintended consequence of making Muslim women and their clothing important symbols of the nation: Women and their dress are given prominent roles in constructing what modern citizenship means. So, even if modest dress resulted from attempts to politically control women, it has become a practice in which women can exercise political influence.  


Pious fashion in Iran is highly regulated. Since shortly after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, women in the country have been legally required to wear hijab, or clothing that conforms with sharia. But because there is no clear definition of hijab in the penal code, women have some flexibility in deciding what to wear. The many styles of pious fashion—from the full-body covering of traditional chador to tailored short overcoats and headscarves—show that the modern Iranian woman might be willing to live by rules not of her own making, but she also demands the right to interpret those rules. Some styles are read as expressing allegiance to the current regime, whereas others are viewed as politically subversive. At White Wednesday protests, women wear white headscarves and publicly demonstrate against the dress code. This week, a few women went further, removing their headscarves altogether and waving them around on sticks for passersby to see.

On the surface, modesty in Tehran requires concealing the shape of a woman’s body, especially her waist, hips, and chest, as well as her hair. But pious fashion in this city also expresses a number of related values. For instance, because women’s dress is legally regulated, pious fashion exemplifies the wider cultural value put on stability and conformity. Other values displayed in hijab, however, serve to unsettle this stability and conformity. This is evident not only among women who let a significant amount of hair peek out from under a headscarf, but also in the bohemian look of some styles that reveal a more carefree and informal aesthetic value.

Donya Joshani

Consider the “Arab chador,” a flowing overcoat that became fashionable in Tehran around 2007. Unlike the traditional chador, it is meant to fall open and has billowy sleeves. One popular style among upper-class Tehrani youth is to wear an Arab chador with a very big headscarf. The Iranian authorities endorse this type of overcoat in part because it is long and loose, and in part because its name links it to the culture and geography of Islam. But the women I interviewed described the Arab chador as a “bohemian” form of dress, popular especially among “artist types.” More than just a breezy look, this style conveys a vision of public femininity that, despite the strict rules of the Islamic Republic, valorizes a free spirit and sense of ease in the face of authoritarian rule.

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