Dressing for the Other, Dressing for Interfaith
What is the place of modest dress in interfaith dialogue? Can modest dress facilitate interfaith communication and function as an interfaith tool? According to our two reports on Modest Fashion in UK Women's Working Life, modest dress can help or hinder interfaith encounters. The reports are the result of an AHRC-funded project headed by Reina Lewis (London College of Fashion, UAL) and Kristin Aune (Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University). In addition to interviews with UK-based women whose work brought them to Saudi Arabia, HR professionals, and fashion designers and industry professionals, we also interviewed 22 women working at or with religious organisations in the UK, such as faith-based schools, charities, and places of worship. Their work brought them "into the orbit of modest dress requirements" (p. 8).
Modest dress refers to the many ways in which women from diverse religious and ethnic communities cover their bodies according to their interpretations of religious and cultural norms (p. 14). Even though modest dress is typically associated with observant Muslim women, Reina Lewis argues that "not all modest dressers are Muslim, and not all Muslim women are modest dressers". This also means that the modest fashion market includes, but is not limited to a religious market of observant consumers. Modest dress is much more than a modest loose-fitting garment. Modest dress is also about how and where a garment is worn, and how a modestly clothed body behaves and conducts itself. It is the what, the how and the where that shape and define what modest dress is.
Even if not designated as modest fashion, the expectation to dress modestly and respectfully, including wearing clothing that is contextually appropriate, weighs heavily on women, compared to men, especially including in the workplace. Even though there may be certain expectations of men's dress (for example, wearing a suit and tie in corporate settings) men's dress is rarely a topic of contention. In fact, modest dress expectations and practices for men is an area that deserves more research attention. But for women it's a different story: ill-chosen workwear that is, for example, perceived by the employer or its clients as too provocative or seductive (or not sexualised enough), and not appropriately representing the organisation's mission or image, can trigger much more than mere awkwardness or a strange look in the office.
The UK faith-based employment sector is an important case study not least because women in religious organisations have historically often been discriminated against. Religious workplaces, such as faith-based schools and organisations, are an interesting case in point; they are unique workplaces where religious values are embedded in organisational values. Religiously-inspired ethics and norms drive their policies on a range of issues, including religious practice, behaviour and dress codes, regardless of the employees' religious beliefs or secular background. The issue of appearance and behaviour for female employees in religious workplaces is a particularly sensitive and contentious issue since the image these women project, especially through dress, may not necessarily correspond to the image that is expected or perceived both internally, by the organisation, and externally, by its partners and clients. For some women who work in faith-based organisations, especially when their religious or secular outlook does not match that of the organisation, wearing modest dress at work is the price of having a job.
A unique feature of religious workplaces, such as faith-based schools and organisations, is that their work activities frequently involve interfaith outreach or engagement work. Interfaith events entail an "equality of spirit" (according to interfaith consultant, Jenny Kartupelis) in meeting as equals from different religious backgrounds. But what role does dress play in interfaith encounters? According to the 2018 Glasgow event "Exploring Religious Clothing through Interfaith Encounter", "dress can act as a conduit for interfaith interaction" (p. 52). Interfaith events and meetings are spaces where participants, especially those who work for faith-based organisations, represent one's faith through dress. They are also opportunities to build bridges and engage in dialogue with people from other religious communities, involving a mixture of '"being oneself" and "dressing for the other"' (p. 55).
During interfaith events and meetings, women who represent not only faith-based but also interfaith organisations, often have to visit religious places (e.g. places of worship) that do not necessarily match their own religious affiliation or secular outlook. They have to be mindful to dress in a way that does not prevent dialogue. Respecting the religion and corresponding modesty norms of the hosting religious organisation usually means that women have to adapt their workwear, such as wear a head covering, wear loose clothing that covers arms and neck area, or opt for skirts or trousers. Yet, the expectations for women (more than men) who take part in interfaith events to make dress accommodations, often accompanied by behaviour modifications (abstaining from hand shaking, for example) can be fraught. The need to adapt one's dress and the explicit or implicit pressure to abide to conservative gender norms in regards to modest dress and behaviour, together with the risk or fear of being criticised, shamed or rejected by others, can trigger resentment and undermine interfaith dialogue. As, Patricia, one of the research participants of the project aptly described: "And I have a big thing about a lot of interfaith dialogue, it is being driven at the expense of women … interfaith dialogue … kind of buys into these narratives of modest, immodest, and it’s the conservative side of it that wins … you all expect to compromise" (p. 57).
At the same time, paying respect to others' different religious traditions through dress and modest attire can help nurture interfaith dialogue and engagement. Just as clothes affirm identity and religious commitment, they can also strengthen one's sense of belonging, including to a different religious community, by promoting the sharing of different views and practices of modest dress. Knowing what modest and appropriate dress to wear is an important form of respect of the 'other' and their beliefs which can help build bridges and promote dialogue, collaboration and understanding along religious lines. Beyond the religious dimension, interfaith encounters are also opportunities for cultural exchange, including learning about diverse religious traditions through their dress cultures. Both cultural and religious aspects of dress in interfaith encounters can help break down religious barriers between people from different traditions and nurture both interfaith and intercultural dialogue. In that sense, dress can help frame and support the context for interfaith engagement.
Modest dress can work both ways: it can facilitate and prevent interfaith encounters. It can function as a tool, as a path to interfaith dialogue, but it can also be "tainted" by the pressure and resentment to abide to conservative religious dress and behaviour codes. "There are times when challenging the norms through a choice of clothing can be an essential act of defiance against control and coercion, and there are times when deliberately choosing inappropriate dress is just rudeness, a failure of manners and sensitivity that achieves nothing" (Jenny Kartupelis). Being able to distinguish the two and making the right choice, based on a minimum level of modest fashion literacy, is key. Given the growing importance of dress codes as an organisational issue in the employment sector, more broadly, these two recently-published reports shed some much-needed light on the pitfalls and opportunities of modest dress in the workplace.
Dr Lina Molokotos-Liederman is a sociologist of religion and Affiliated Researcher at the Woolf Institute. Her research focus is on religion and culture, including religion and dress, as well as religion and humour. In her current research she is exploring the role of humour and comedy in interfaith engagement.
Modest Fashion in UK Women's Working Life: A report for fashion and the creative industries and creative arts education (2021), by Reina Lewis, Kristin Aune and Lina Molokotos-Liederman, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council
Modest Fashion in UK Women's Working Life: A report for employers, HR professionals, religious organisations and policy makers (2021), Reina Lewis, Kristin Aune and Lina Molokotos-Liederman, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council,
Parliamentary Roundtable to launch reports on Modest Fashion in UK Women's Working Life, 10 February 2021
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