Book Review: Veiling in Fashion by Anna-Mari Almila

Review by Naaz Rashid

Veiling in Fashion: Space and the Hijab in Minority Communities by Anna-Mari Almila was published by Bloomsbury in 2019.

Anna-Mari Almila is Research Fellow in Sociology of Fashion at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London. She writes in the fields of cultural, global and historical sociology, and her topics include the materiality of dressed bodies and their environments; fashion globalization and the history of fashion studies; the historical/political construction of urban spaces; and wine and gender. She loves social theory and (sociology of) wine. She is the author of Veiling in Fashion: Space and the Hijab in Minority Communities (2018). Her edited books (with David Inglis) include The Globalization of Wine (2019), The Routledge International Handbook to Veils and Veiling Practices (2017) and The Sage Handbook of Cultural Sociology (2016).

The fetishisation of and obsession with Muslim women’s dress appears never ending. Recently, however, the public conversations have become far more nuanced than the binary liberation v oppression dichotomy which has historically characterised the debate. This is in part because the voices of Muslim women themselves have gained ground, amplified through social media e.g. Muslim Twitter. These debates reflect the diversity amongst Muslim women and their individualised negotiations of veiling practices. Last year, for example, the ‘hijabi’ fashion blogger and influencer Dina Tokia caused controversy when she decided to stop wearing the hijab full time and began to uncover her hair in some situations. Conversations about veiling also reflect wider issues such as commercialisation and globalisation; Banana Republic’s new modest fashion line has attracted both plaudits for its inclusivity as well as accusations of cultural appropriation of a religious symbol for the sake of profit.

As in the US and elsewhere in Europe, Muslim women in Finland are constructed as both threats and victims. Veiling in Fashion by Anna-Mari Almila, a thorough and well researched book “about mundane everyday fashions and dress practices” (2019: 2) amongst Finnish Muslim women, exemplifies more nuanced conversations. Rather than attempt to provide a definitive account of Muslim women’s dress practices in Finland, the book focuses instead on the diversity of such practices. And while the Finnish context is important, Almila’s book also examines how Muslim women in Finland and their veiling practices are deeply influenced by and contribute to processes of globalisation.

The introduction provides a helpful taxonomy of different forms of veiling as well as setting out the key theoretical frameworks informing Almila’s analysis, which draws on the work of Merleau-Ponty, Lefebvre, and Bourdieu. Chapter 2 discusses the “national myths, social customs, politics, attitudes and legislative regulations” in Finland, as well as providing a brief history of the Muslim presence in Finland, which dates from the early 19th century to a current estimated population of 70,000.

In Finland, fashion per se is seen to potentially undermine the myth of classlessness and equality, as well as highlight gender differences by encouraging the performance of femininity and sexuality through dress. This predisposition against ‘immodesty’ potentially overlaps with Muslim women’s veiling practices. The hijab is, however, particularly conspicuous since it highlights the visibility of Muslim women both in terms of their gender and otherness relative to non-Muslims (while simultaneously serving as a marker of difference within Muslim communities). Although ostensibly about the veil, the book is therefore also a national story of Finland and the quest to deny differences whether they be racially, or gender based. Almila explains that although the law technically protects Muslim women who veil, everyday experiences reflect a more complex situation.

The empirical chapters are based on interviews with forty-six Muslim women based in Helsinki, comprising twenty Finnish converts (frequently through marriage to Muslim migrants), sixteen Somalis, four Shi’a Afghanis, three Shi’a Iranians and three Shi’a Iraqi women. Chapter 3 is focused on Islamic cultural industries, specifically those related to the consumption and production of fashion garments. Almila traces the complex world of Muslim diaspora fashion, which consists of makers, retailers, mediators and wearers. She demonstrates how consumption, distribution, mediation and production of fashion are closely intertwined. The subsequent chapter looks at how veiled bodies inhabit, shape, and move through different kinds of physical and social spaces focusing on the idea of comfort in its broadest sense. That is, from the very physical embodied experiences of wearing the veil (e.g. climate, fabric) to how different veiling practices provide or disrupt religious and social comfort. Chapter 5 explores the power of dress to indicate belonging but also its power to shift borders of racial belonging. Almila discusses how Muslim minorities in Europe live under specific conditions of community construction. As members of diaspora communities, Muslim women have the opportunity to make more varied choices in their dress practices, based on multiple religious interpretations. As a result, diaspora community borders are constantly being re-negotiated, often through dress, leading to complex diaspora communities and new forms of belonging.

Chapter 6 reflects on spaces of specific character such as workplaces and sports venues such as swimming halls wherein dress adaptations (e.g. burkinis) potentially create spaces for integration of female members of Muslim minority communities. It also addresses how these issues become political flash points rooted in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment. Chapter 7 discusses how “dress and space are both always ideological” and looks at the strategies of “conformity and resistance that Muslim women engage in through their dress in terms of hegemonic space”. Almila also explores ideas of visibility and invisibility, how these are navigated across different spaces and how this varies between different Muslim women. There are interesting discussions about how these boundaries and the power of dress can ‘stretch’ space. Dressing practices are not only responses to different (fixed) spaces, they manage them, in that they can provide privacy in public but also visibility when desired.

Although Almila situates her respondents’ experiences within a wider rhetorical structure of anti-immigrant sentiment and pro-refugee activism, as well as narratives distinguishing between good migrant and bad migrant, the issues of race and racism are underexplored given the hyper visibility of veiled Muslim women and their subsequent vulnerability to racist attack. In Chapter 7, Almila notes how Afghan Muslims and Finnish converts have more flexibility to be invisible compared to Somali Muslims, but this is one of the few references to racialised differences amongst Finland’s Muslims. Greater elaboration about the impact of these might have resulted in a more intersectional analysis. Equally, while there is a detailed appendix setting out research methods, there is little recognition of Almila’s role as researcher i.e. her positionality, which would have added further insight.

Overall, Almila skilfully brings together discussions of local and global politics, fashion and community relations, performances of religious commitment and gendered spatial behaviour in Veiling in Fashion. These themes are thoughtfully woven together from an interdisciplinary perspective.  Almila, a Research Fellow in Sociology of Fashion at the London College of Fashion, successfully integrates sociological thought and fashion studies demonstrating how an analytical focus on different types of space is crucial for new sociological understandings of dress and fashion. Although the political implications of the book are relevant primarily for the Finnish context, the analytical approach certainly has wider appeal. This innovative research provides a much-needed counterpoint to simplistic discussions about veiling which tend to dominate academia.

Dr Naaz Rashid is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies in the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of Sussex. She is author of Veiled Threats: Representing the Muslim Woman in Public Policy Discourses (Policy Press 2016) and is currently researching gendered rights to the city in Pakistan.

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