Modest Fashion Research Focuses on Intersectionality

My Master’s Research Project titled “Women Undercover: Exploring the Intersectional Identities of Muslim Women through Modest Fashion” was completed in May 2019. Click on the title to download a copy of my paper. As part of the steps toward completion I presented my research to faculty and student colleagues at the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in April 2019. The following blog post is based on the script used in my presentation.

Modest fashion is one of the fastest growing sectors of the fashion industry. It is estimated that the Muslim spend on modest fashion globally will be $75 billion dollars by 2020, that is an annual growth rate of 11% since 2015. As a comparison point plus size fashion is growing at just 4%. It is all very exciting however there is a dark side.

Harassment, discrimination and violence continues to be directed toward visibly Muslim women. “If our forefathers were still alive, they’d put a bullet in her head, said Patrick W. Carlineo to police when questioned about his threatening call to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s office on March 21, 2019.  One week later, Quebec’s Minister of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusiveness tabled Bill 21 which bans Muslim women from receiving government services if their face is covered with the niqab and would not allow Muslim women in certain public sector jobs to wear the hijab. This Bill became law and was passed by the Quebec Legislature on June 16, 2019 (Authier, 2019).

To date, research in modest fashion has focused on influencers, industry and entrepreneurship, or on veiling practices. Modest fashion research has not focused on Muslim women’s everyday dress practices and failed to consider how their lived experiences are influenced by their body size, age, class and other identities.

Locating Myself

Speaking of lived experiences, I should take a moment here to locate myself in this research. I was born and raised in North America and as a child of immigrants I had two identities, a Western one and an Eastern one. I grew up speaking English without an accent, wearing my favourite trendy clothes and being influenced by Mary Tyler Moore, Princess Diana, and Madonna. At the same time I learned to speak my mother tongue and boasted a full wardrobe of traditional clothing. Throughout my life I presented myself as fully Western or fully Eastern but, neither of these representations was ever wholly me. At any given time, I was one or the other. When I started wearing the hijab as my spiritual practice I became whole. No longer two identities trapped in one body, but one identity.  To my surprise the headscarf seamlessly merged my intersectional identities into a singular presentation of myself that encompassed everything that makes me who I am. While I am not centering myself in this research, I have a tacit understanding of the practice of veiling, its nuances, dressing modestly, and why it’s done.  This differs from past scholars who are primarily white and non-Muslim women and some men.

Theoretical Lens: Intersectionality

My own experience as a Muslim woman led me to using an intersectional lens to illuminate Muslim women’s everyday modest dress practices.  Intersectionality is a vast topic of scholarly conversation with many interpretations and ways this framework has been mobilized. For the purpose of this research I follow the work of Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Sirma Bilge, and Chandra Mohanty. Intersectionality recognizes how our lived experiences are influenced by our multiple social identities and the ways these identities connect to larger structures of privilege and oppression.

These scholars teach us to recognize context when using intersectionality to analyze. For instance, even though I grew up in Toronto my childhood stories about khargosh or bunny rabbits were told to me in Urdu and I ate chapti roti, salan, and chawal however my style icons were Mary Tyler Moore, Princess Diana and Madonna and the culture I grew up in was Western.  Context.

Mohanty, known more for post-colonial feminism than intersectionality, is relevant because she reminds us that women of colour are devalued by the way they are constructed in popular culture, ensuring we are not devaluing these women and honouring their context and history can rectify the issues raised in previous scholarship.

Research Questions

In my research I set out to ask the following questions.

  1. How are Muslim women's cultural identities embodied through their modest fashion choices?
  2. How do Muslim women’s intersectional identities inform how they choose to present themselves through modest dress?
  3. How do Muslim women’s self-image, community and various contexts influence her sartorial choices?  These questions are explored using the methods of Wardrobe Interviews and Digital Storytelling.

Research Methodologies

Wardrobe interviews use participant’s clothing items as probes to understand how their clothing influences the construction of their identity and the embodiment of who they are and how they want to present themselves to the world. In the fall of 2018 I conducted  wardrobe interviews over 10 weeks with 16 Muslim women, 23-73 years old from Africa, the Arab region and South Asia.

A research participant records the narrative
for her digital story.
Digital storytelling combines storytelling with filmmaking and is a process that reveals complex intersections of identity and provides a deeper insight allowing women’s own voices and experiences to be heard in the first person. These short films also have broader appeal and impact beyond academia into community. In the digital storytelling workshop I conducted in January 2019 at The Catalyst in the Faculty of Communication and Design at Ryerson University four out of the original 16 participants wrote their own stories, chose supporting visuals and sounds, and brought them together into their very own digital narratives.Two of these stories can be viewed below.


Through my wardrobe interview analysis, I found that Muslim women’s modest fashion practices are explained through three themes:

  1. What influences their style. 
  2. How they shop and style their clothing.
  3. The consequences they face.

Style Influences 

Participants revealed they are influenced by more than spiritual practice.  Naseema, 27 says: “…it's more like niche things like the steampunk movement, more the kind of Gothic romance. It's not very mainstream. It'll be like Victorian fantasy, steampunk, vintage.”   What this demonstrates is that modest fashion influences are not all religious.

Shopping and Styling

Huda's multi-layered outfit.
Having to purchase multiple pieces and layering their clothing was a pain point for many. Huda, 24, says of a favourite outfit,  “It takes a lot of layers to make this work, there is a camisole, a tank top, the dress, leggings, the jean jacket and hijab” and Ghazala, 40 says: “My pet peeve is layering, I want to cover more of my ass and it's hard to do… so I have to do layers.” These quotes reveal that women are responding by being creative in how they are styling and approaching their look and outfit of the day. It also unpins the lack of options.


The consequences Muslim women face for dressing modestly are not all bad – Halima, 73 said: “When I ran the daycare, some of the staff and parents used to come and say ‘hi’ and there was this French professor, I knew he was an atheist. One day he said ‘Hi, how are you?’ and I thought ‘What is wrong with him, he’s bowing to me.’ I later realized it was the first time he saw me with the hijab!” Normally we hear of harassment and violence toward women who veil, this demonstrates the veil also invites a level of respect and authority.  There were many more examples of positive experiences from my interviews.

These themes reveal that Muslim women prioritize modesty as a requirement in all their sartorial decisions, and this practice diverts the Western gaze that objectifies women and places unrealistic beauty ideals onto them.

Perhaps, as Jordan-based scholar Salam Khalid Al-Mahadin states, it is “the Western gaze that is being repressed by the hijab, not the woman wearing it.” She goes on to say “Whatever the case may be, it is essential to deconstruct the Western gaze by querying both its fears and anxieties and questioning the meaning of the object that is being gazed upon, from the perspective of the woman this time” (Al-Mahadin, 2013, p. 16).

My findings from the wardrobe interviews advance knowledge by centering Muslim women’s everyday dress practices and understanding how their intersectional identities inform their clothing choices.  The practice of wearing the headscarf is a deeply personal experience. Current scholarship fails to uncover this deeper, nuanced experience. With this research I hope to demonstrate that Muslim women’s dress practices challenge narrow Islamophobic stereotypes and misconceptions reinforced in Western media and popular culture.

Future Research

As for future research in this field two areas come to mind. First, Muslim women's relationship to body is not informed by Western hegemonic beauty ideals as Sophie Woodward's study with non-veiling UK-based women revealed. If Muslim women are dressing on their own terms, what does this mean for the powerful fashion industry that profits from women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies?
Second, scholarship of women who veil in the West cites studies of veiling practices in the East. This conflates the practices of two very different worlds and can lead to misinterpretation. Deconstructing this or ensuring future research does not do this will begin to fill current gaps in scholarship.

Digital Stories created by two research participants:


modesty, female modesty, sartorial agency, dressed bodies, fashion, hijab, Muslim, Islamophobia, intersectionality, fashion diversity, Western gaze, Orientalism

#fashiondiversity #modestfashion #digitalstorytelling #fashionstudies #academicresearch #researchrpoject #intersectionality #hijabfashion

No comments:

Powered by Blogger.