Nick has already pointed to this appalling NYT story about Baghdad barbers who have been murdered by Taliban-like Islamists for giving the wrong kind of haircut. But that's a fight that Islamists are never going to win, because they are battling a force that is more powerful than they are: the desire to control one's presentation of self. Identity control has proven to be an irresistible force of modernity; the process was already on display among the rising middle classes of urbanizing, industrializing Europe in the 18th century (if not before), and apparently in the wealthier cities of the late Ottoman empire as well. (Though the Ottoman issue hasn't been very well studied.)
Even in Taliban Afghanistan, women established clandestine beauty parlors. Indeed, the Taliban found itself fighting a Leonardo di Caprio-style fad among men when there was no legal way for Afghan men to have seen di Caprio's movie in the first place.
An alternative glimpse into the Mideast's future—one very different from that of Islamists murdering barbers—comes from the Gulf-based TV program, It's Better Like This. The show is based on a BBC model; each week it takes one or more participants and, using a professional Beirut-based fashion consultant, transforms their self-presentation, sometimes quite dramatically. That program is a window on the ways that individuation—and thus modernization—is gradually playing out within the region's rules.
Earlier this month, for example, the show featured a young, conservative Muslim husband and wife (Mohammed and Siham) who had come to the Gulf from a small Levantine village. The husband wore a beard; the wife wore a scarf and covered her arms and legs. They were unassuming and even timid, and seemed the least likely couple in the world to throw themselves on the mercies of a totally secular woman who dressed in an assertively revealing manner.
Yet these conservative villagers emerged from the unlikely process delighted with their transformations. Speaking of haircuts, Mohammed had his hair streaked, and his beard trimmed to a chin stubble (he refused a clean shave). He had exchanged an ever-present suit jacket—he thought it made him look more mature—for open shirts over colored T-shirts (he had resisted the more extreme change that the consultant had tried). But the real change involved his wife Siham.
She was just as modestly covered at the end of the process as she was at the beginning, but she was nevertheless utterly changed. She'd exchanged her stark black headscarves for becoming pastels that she draped carefully around her face and shoulders (she'd had a cosmetic makeover, too). She wore slightly shorter skirts, but with high black boots. At the end of the program, she clearly relished parading her alluring new self before the camera as if she were on a runway.
Why am I including so much "superficial" fashion detail? Because in the case of Siham, it reveals that there are proliferating identity models in the Islamic world, even among conservative women. The striking model of the "alluring modest woman" may well have been encouraged by Arab TV itself. There are numerous religious, scarf-wearing women who now host talk shows in the region, and they have evolved ways to use the traditional dress code that enhance their beauty and allure. Islamic women who seek to assert their individuality in such a way do not face a choice between chadors and short skirts; markets generate cultural plenitude within social confines. That's what a show like It's Better Like This puts on display. (Of course, markets often reshape social confines, but that's another story.)
It's Better Like This is a case study in what scholar Gilles Lipovetsky calls "ephemeralization." Lipovetsky argues that a society's concern with ephemeral issues of self is linked to such larger social values as mutual tolerance. Anthropologist Grant McCracken has done invaluable work on consumption, self-assertion, and individuation; his blog is here. Virginia Postrel has revealed The Substance of Style; her blog is here.