Blog post by Fatima Rajina, De Montfort University, UK
When we think about Muslim clothing, often our immediate thoughts turn to Muslim women and their sartorial choices. Much of this has been framed via the media because of its incessant coverage, focusing on many European countries and their legislation monitoring Muslim women's clothing choices. This very discussion is in the press currently, as France has banned wearing the abaya in schools for young Muslim girls. It is precisely this framing that made me think about where Muslim men fit into this equation. How do Muslim men choose what they wear in public? What informs their decisions?
As a result, in my Identities article, 'British Muslim men and clothes: the role of stigma and the political (re)configurations around sartorial choices', I diverted from the fixation on Muslim women and interrogated the political imagination and (re)configuration of dress practices among British Bangladeshi Muslim men. I selected three attires, the lungi, the funjabi and the thobe, because of what they represent for Bangladeshis. The lungi and funjabi, although associated with Bangladeshis, carry different meanings in the diaspora than in Bangladesh. I explore how these two garments are worn in the UK and how they (re)appear in public. In contrast, the thobe projects an Islamic universalism not afforded to the first two garbs and carries a different form of visibility. I focus on how British Bangladeshis of varying age groups interact with different forms of attire and what it means for their identity negotiation in the public sphere.
In so doing, I firstly explore how societal stigma influences the choices British Bangladeshis make and in considering this, I observe how the participants justify and reason with their choices around the lungi, funjabi and the thobe. Finally, as a fundamental pivot of my research, I draw attention to the politics and political consequences of participants' dress choices while also attending to what informs their choices.
I also consider how participants dilute their heritage identity while catering to a Muslim gaze. While broader political framings, space and locality inform sartorial choices, interrogating this requires understanding how racist and Islamophobic logic represents and asserts the trope of the 'dangerous Muslim man'. The socio-political context plays a significant role in making sense of dress and how it is embodied. These three clothing pieces complicate the expression of Muslimness because they signify different identity articulations. In the dominant Islamic discourse globally, the thobe is repurposed as the garment to represent the Muslim male identity, diluting other expressions via other clothing in different parts of the world. The ummatic space centres the specific Arab male garb as cementing the global Muslim imaginary. The thobe can express an Islamic universality not possible with other dresses. If clothes carry politics, then the thobe, while operating as an ethnic dress, is extracted from the cultural sphere to one expressly aligned with religion.
I critique how the lungi and funjabi are located in Bangladesh, where the former is worn in Bangladesh's public and private spheres. It is important to note that while Bangladesh utilises the lungi as a national dress, no male head of state has ever worn it to any state function because, in Bangladesh, this attire is associated with 'the working class'. I argue, however, that the lungi's value and meanings are remade in the diaspora in East London, and class is not a contributing variable. I also present data to showcase how the lungi rarely appears in public and is confined to the domestic sphere.
Meanwhile, the latter, i.e. the funjabi, has a more public presence in the diaspora and features often during Jummah. The funjabi, also, unlike the lungi, carries a class-blindness, although this is context-dependent, conditional on the occasion you are wearing the funjabi along with the cut and material. For example, Khan and Sharma found that for Eid celebrations in Bangladesh, 'boys wear Punjabi clothes' while the lungi is 'offered by the rich to the poor as Zakat.' While these are how the garments operate in Bangladesh, I present the arguments for how this varies in the diaspora context.
The discussion around clothing choices persists, but if there is one thing that facilitates ease for British Bangladeshi Muslim men in Tower Hamlets, it is that they are bound up in a locality where Muslims are a dominant group whereby much of their (re)negotiation is not necessarily revolving around non-Muslims but very much informed by other Muslims, which I term the Muslim gaze. As part of the long-term discussion around Muslim male clothing, I recently secured the British Academy's Small Research Grant, where I will collaborate with Tower Hamlets-based photographer Rehan Jamil to focus on Friday prayers and what Muslim men wear for Jummah prayers. The project is entitled Jummah Aesthetics and will be a photography exhibition launching at the end of 2024.
Read the Identities article:
Rajina, Fatima. (2023). British Muslim men and clothes: the role of stigma and the political (re)configurations around sartorial choices. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2023.2261774 OPEN ACCESS
This article is also part of the following Special Collection:
Global Perspectives and Local Encounters on Islamophobia
Read further in Identities:
Muslim women as ‘ambassadors’ of Islam: breaking stereotypes in everyday life OPEN ACCESS
Claiming the right to belong: de-stigmatisation strategies among Turkish-Dutch Muslims OPEN ACCESS
‘Messy refusal’, assimilationist moves, and the reproduction of Eurocentric modernity/coloniality: examining anti-Islamophobia in Lebanon
The views and opinions expressed on the Identities Blog are solely those of the original blog post authors, and not of the journal, Taylor & Francis Group or the University of Glasgow.