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Dress As Markers of Separation

Ambar Ahmad

By Emma Tarlo
Berg Publishers, 2010, pp. 241, $34.95


Emma Tarlo’s work is a nuanced, multilayered, complex and fascinating ethnography of the politics of being ‘visibly Muslim.’ Despite the cover image depicting the sideways glance of the hijab clad woman, between the covers lies an exploration of both men’s and women’s experiences of being visibly Muslim, although the focus is heavily on veiling by women. In the introduction, Tarlo deftly presents the multiple contexts relevant to the interrogation of the question of Muslim attire. She is cognizant of the legacies of Orientalism and western colonial writings that continue to shape popular perceptions of the ‘Islamic.’ She also highlights how unlike France, in Britain, multiculturalist policies and agendas have enabled visible expressions of religious and ethnic difference, be it the Sikh turban or the Muslim headscarf. However, following the events of 9/11, the commitment to multiculturalism has been criticized by many who see it as a failed project. Tarlo, argues that given the diverse backgrounds of the Muslims living in Britain, the variety of practice and appearance is to be expected. She also states that both Muslims and non-Muslims sometimes feel disquiet at the idea of dress as a marker of separation, the former because those who do not wear clear markers of faith are somehow marginalized as lesser Muslims, while the latter are concerned about secularism and the changing nature of British identity. The author discusses the Quranic verses and religious injunctions regarding covering, and how they are differentially interpreted by Muslims. Also many dress forms have more to do with cultural backgrounds than with Islam.These multiple strands provide a sound contextual fabric for what follows in the book. Tarlo narrates the sartorial biographies of three successful professional women and their display of religious identity. By focussing upon the professional lives of these women—a textile designer, a stand-up comedian and a social worker—she manages to convey the message that these women are much more than simply how they dress. In light of the usual overpowering meanings that veiling in particular is invested with, this is a refreshing approach. By tracing the stories of how and why these women covered and uncovered, Tarlo adroitly establishes that appearances cannot in any way be reduced to simplistic ideas of cultural origins, political ideology or religious dictates. Tarlo explores the geography of dress practices in London in the next two chapters. She shows how multiculturalism is played out ...

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