For some, fashion is an effortless, experimental and enjoyable mode of self-expression. For others, it isn’t so easy, particularly when attire and accessories that have become symbolic of religious extremism are involved. 

After the Taliban toppled the Afghan government last month and gained control of the country, images of burqas dominated international news headlines – many fear that the extremist group will make them compulsory for women across the nation, as they had when in power just over two decades ago. Of course, the cultural dress of Afghan women is not the head-to-toe blue or black burqa, which is why #donottouchmyclothes is currently a trending hashtag. Afghan women from around the world are posting images of themselves decked out in vibrant and colorful cultural dresses, complete with ornate head pieces and jewelry.  

It’s a digital fashion protest: a way for Afghan women to express solidarity and sisterhood at a time where their nation is governed by tumult, terror and uncertainty about what the future holds. “It makes us who we are, and for those of us so far from home, it is, in some ways, one of the few ties we have left to our identity… You can try to veil our women’s beauty, but no burqa, covering or disguise will ever veil their courage,” wrote Afghan-Canadian activist Neelofer Mansuri on Instagram. 

While these women are campaigning against being forced to wear the burqa, there are also Muslim women lobbying for the right to wear different forms of “the veil” – niqabs, hijabs and burkini swimsuits, which have been banned in certain areas of many European and Canadian cities. While #donottouchmyclothes is trending now, the hashtag #handsoffmyhijab went viral just a few months ago, when France announced its hijab ban for women under the age of 18. Somali-Norwegian Rawdah Mohamed, who was recently appointed as Fashion Editor at Vogue Scandinavia, was a leading face of this social media movement.

Policies curbing Muslim women’s right to dress how they want aren’t just indicative of religious intolerance – they reflect a history of deeply-rooted power dynamics. In her latest book, Against White Feminism, Rafia Zakaria points out the irony of such laws, explaining that when British colonialists first moved to the East, they found the “lack of coverings” worn by Indian women clothed in saris to be “vulgar” and saw the women as “semi-nude”. Today, they chide immigrant women from the East for covering up too much. 

Arab and Muslim women, it seems, are victims of constant and often contradictory fashion policing, depending on where they live and who holds power. In the East, patriarchal and repressive regimes want to cover women’s bodies; in the West, governments who view niqabs and hijabs as icons of oppression seek to de-veil them. 

Rawdah

“Clear example of oppression”

Fighting these narrow-minded narratives has been a main motivator for many Arab and Muslim designers, who are part of a burgeoning modest fashion industry that combines cultural silhouettes with international style trends, merging ideas of identity and heritage with a contemporary twist. Modest fashion enthusiasts are adamant that their clothing preferences are far from oppressive. When I interviewed her for my book, Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, UAE-based digital creative and influencer Rihab Nubi articulated this brilliantly when she said:

“Oppression occurs when an individual’s rights are taken away. If a woman makes a choice to dress modestly, that seems more empowering than anything else, because she made a choice that her body belongs to her – and she gets to choose who sees it despite society telling her otherwise. On the other hand, taking away her freedom to dress the way that she would like to, whether that be modestly or not, by creating laws that don’t allow certain clothing, is a clear example of oppression.”

Whether they’re full-coverage burqas or silk headscarves, garments in and of themselves are not oppressive. Nor should particular pieces of clothing be labelled as “Islamic”. Many Western media outlets describe the Taliban’s female dress code as the “Islamic” burka, however interpretations of religion are vast and diverse. While burqas may be the Taliban’s garments of choice for women, a band of bigoted men with a narrow-minded view of females is certainly no expert on Muslim women’s fashion.