The following book review first appeared in the magazine The Middle East in London, vol.7 no.4 October 2010 p.17.

Emma Tarlo, Visibly Muslism: Fashion, Politics, Faith (Oxford: Berg, 2010)

Emma Tarlo’s first book was entitled Clothing Matters, and this would not have been inappropriate for her latest work because no other items of clothing matter more in our contemporary world than those garments that mark out the wearer as ‘visibly Muslim’. In particular, garments worn by visibly Muslim women have gathered around them cultural and political significances and associations that situate them at the core of some of the key debates of our time: immigration and integration, multiculturalism, the role of religion in public life, political extremism, and, of course, the vexed relationship between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’. In this timely book, Tarlo shows with great skill, subtlety and nuance how hijabs, niqabs, jilbabs, abayas and so on are not – and never can be – just simple pieces of cloth that wearers either choose to wear or not; rather, they are ‘overdetermined’ markers of identity and otherness; vehicles of history and tradition; emblems of moral rectitude; symbols of oppression; political statements; and ideological investments.

Tarlo questions ‘how and why all forms of dress which identify their wearers as Muslim tend to be lumped together and perceived by outsiders as monotone, retrograde and repressive,’ when, in fact, ‘far from promoting an image of dull uniformity, the headscarf is often the most self-consciously elaborated element of an outfit…[that] has in recent years become a new form of Muslim personal art.’ She argues that ‘if we want to understand the significance of the hijab today we need to move beyond well-worn debates about whether or not it is liberating or oppressive,’ in favour of ‘trying to comprehend what clothes mean to the people who wear them.’ Her great skill as an ethnographer lies precisely in her ability to read and interpret the variety of sartorial strategies deployed by visibly Muslim women in contemporary Britain with due attention to both the agency they exert over their own self-image and identity and what she calls ‘the agency of the hijab [or niqab etc.]’, which to a greater or lesser extent (depending on context) constrains their room for manoeuvre.

Whilst individual experimentations with style may collectively change the ‘landscape of visibly Muslim dress practices’ over time (and has, in fact done so), each individual is not absolutely free to make their sartorial choices. Rather, the sartorial strategies of any given individual are framed and shaped by ‘local and global religious and political forces’, such as those aligned to conservative politico-religious interpretations of Islamic sartorial norms, and the normative pressures in the West on covered women to uncover. Tarlo shows how the collusion between these opposing camps flattens out the real diversity of meanings Muslim women invest in their outfits. In ‘Geographies of Hijab’, she analyses in great detail how different social spaces within a city can, in fact, alter the repertoire of meanings available to and associated with them. A visibly Muslim woman might be inconspicuous in one part of the city, but highly conspicuous elsewhere, triggering all sorts of connotations in observers over which they have little control.

Tarlo therefore favours the term ‘navigations’ when demonstrating how visibly Muslim women encounter and negotiate the conflicting pressures upon them. One chapter examines the ‘sartorial biographies’ of three prominent Muslim British women – the designer Rezia Wahid, the social activist Humera Khan, and the comedienne Shazia Mirza – whilst other chapters examine the stylistic navigations of ‘ordinary’ young British Muslim women. The key word that Tarlo uses to describe their efforts is ‘ensemble’, which captures very well the way in which their multi-layered outfits, drawing on mainstream non-Muslim fashions, as well as Muslim sartorial traditions and aesthetics, embody their complex, multiple and hybrid identities: both they and their outfits express a newly emergent British Muslim identity that is itself an ‘ensemble’.

This is an outstanding contribution to the debates about Muslim dress and identity in the contemporary world. My only (very slight) reservation is that the excellent chapter on the niqab, which expertly unpacks the psycho-dynamics of ‘veiling’ in a western context using the path-breaking work of Erving Goffmann, might have benefited from an in-depth ‘sartorial biography’ of a niqabi as well as testimony from online discussion boards (a method which, nevertheless, is very effective). Otherwise, Tarlo has in my opinion produced a tour-de-force that should help reframe the debates about Muslim dress, and Muslims in the West more generally. Anyone brave enough to venture into them should be compelled to read it.