"Contemporary Muslim Fashions" exhibition

Muslim fashion – a material controversy

Frankfurtʹs Museum for Applied Art is currently hosting an exhibition on Muslim fashion. Heavily criticised for going ahead with the show, curator Matthias Wagner K explains how political fashion can be. Interview by Stefan Dege

Mr. Wagner K, you have been marketing this exhibition as a purely fashion event. But is it really?

Matthias Wagner K: In the first instance, yes indeed. It showcases the phenomenon of contemporary Muslim fashion, which is also known as "modest fashion" – that is, "less body-oriented" and more "discreet", even if in many respects it is not. What makes the exhibition unique is that it focusses on current interpretations of Muslim fashion, which are diverse and subject to a range of regional influences around the globe. And it shows how Muslim women are realising their own visions of what "modest fashion" can mean. It is a global phenomenon.

And yet there are countries where veiling and concealing the female form is not perceived as liberation. How do fashion and women's rights fit together?

Wagner K: I share the opinion of the exhibitionʹs initiator Max Hollein, who holds fashion to be the exalted expression of a cultural state. The show does not ignore the issue of women's rights. On the contrary, there are many photographs and contributions by women artists such as Shirin Neshat that explicitly address the oppression of women who, if they resist these dress codes, have to fear for their lives or for their well-being.

Women's rights activists have accused you of trivialising Islamic dress codes as a fashion trend?

Wagner K: Not one exhibit included in the show references such dress codes. You wonʹt find a single burka. And any references to burkas are couched in critical, artistic contributions or street photography. On the contrary, the exhibition shows a lot of young women who dress very self-confidently and self-determinedly in modest fashion, with hijab or not. What we are presenting is a completely new image of Muslim woman which has nothing to do with the conventional stereotypes.

Such strict dress codes do not exist in Germany. What is your position on the keyword "veiling female bodies"?

Wagner K: Of course such regulations need to be fought against. We must fight for freedom and self-determination. But what this also means is that a Muslim woman, if she is self-determined, may dress the way she chooses. With that I donʹt mean wear a burka. I am actually convinced that no woman would voluntarily choose to wear one, were it not for reprisals, menʹs patriarchal attitudes, oppressive structures and the like.

Matthias Wagner K from the Museum for Applied Art in Frankfurt (photo: dpa/picture-alliance)
Matthias Wagner K of Frankfurtʹs Museum for Applied Art: "the show does not ignore the issue of women's rights. On the contrary, there are many photographs and contributions by women artists such as Shirin Neshat that explicitly address the oppression of women who, if they resist these dress codes, have to fear for their lives or for their well-being"

You received threats and harsh criticism in the run-up to the exhibition. Are you afraid?

Wagner K: We need to take such threats, which often take the form of very personal hate mails, extremely seriously. Security checks are being carried out at the entrance of the museum to ensure the safety of visitors. This is a situation that is utterly new to us. On the other hand, if I want to visit the Photography Foundation at the European Central Bank (ECB), I have to undergo a body scan. If I want to attend a football match, I get checked.

The huge number of hate mails we received has also revealed something else: Muslims are most at threat here in Germany from those who wish to exclude them from society on the grounds of their faith. This is an issue, which I believe, needs to be examined more closely. After all, by addressing the most diverse social problems – gender, identity, sustainability – fashion can never be completely apolitical.

Interview conducted by Stefan Dege

© Deutsche Welle 2019

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