The focus of my current and future research is on Islamic dress, a global fashion system that is not restricted to any specific nation or ethnic group. In particular, I am interested in how the Internet is being used for commerce as well as the exchange of ideas through tools such as blogs, chat rooms, and digital videos. Although it is not possible to study an entire global culture—a macroculture—directly due to the sheer number of people involved, it is possible to study sites where people are aware of it and actively engaged in constructing it. The basis of my knowledge for this virtual ethnography comes from immersing myself in the local Muslim community in southern Indiana—a diverse and generally well-educated group of people who tend to spend a great deal of time online. This community includes immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and parts of Asia, as well as American converts. Although there is still a need for site-based research on Islamic dress (much of the scholarly literature has been about Egypt and Iran) scholars such as Fagheh Shirazi, Emma Tarlo, and Reina Lewis have begun to consider how globalization is affecting dress practices among Muslims worldwide.
This research has already led to five publications (three journal articles and two chapters in an edited volume), plus a submission to the journal, Dress. One of my goals has been to establish a place for the study of “Islamic” dress; Islamic dress is not the same as Arab dress or even dress in the Middle East. Instead, it coalesces around a set of basic principles and practices: the Qur’an, modesty in dress and behavior, the “five pillars” of Islam, and the concept of a global Islamic community (the umma). My first article on this topic appeared in Fashion Theory, an interdisciplinary journal published in the UK that is also a top journal in Dress Studies. This article (which has resulted in several invitations to participate in conference panels) established the concept of a “macroculture” (a global-scale culture) and contemporary Islamic dress as a “world fashion” system operating parallel to (but often separate from) Western world fashion. The second article, for Khil’a: Journal for Dress and Textiles of the Islamic World, examines the aesthetic principles of Islamic dress and what sets these items of dress apart from “ethnic dress” (which are specific to smaller cultures and not the macroculture as a whole). In another article published in Contemporary Islam, I explore the theological basis for Islamic dress and what role the Internet plays as Muslims debate the role of dress in their faith. This article relies on a textual analysis of scripture (which is common in Islamic Studies) alongside a textual analysis of transcribed digital videos and blog entries.
Akou, Heather Marie (2010). “Interpreting Islam through the Internet: Making Sense of Hijab.” In Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life, 4: pp 331-346.
Akou, Heather Marie (2007-2009). "Is There an 'Islamic' Dress? Evidence from the Internet Generation." In Khil'a: Journal for Dress and Textiles of the Islamic World, 3: pp 1-16.
Akou, Heather Marie (2007). “Building a New World Fashion: Islamic Dress in the 21st Century.” In Fashion Theory, 11(4): pp 403-421.
My other manuscripts on Islamic dress engage with more expressly political themes. In two related chapters titled, “Hate Crimes and Profiling” and “Looking Like a Terrorist” that will be published in the anthology, September 11 in Popular Culture, I critically examined how the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 has affected the dress of both Muslims and non-Muslims in the United States. In a submission for Dress I focused on a very specific topic—the Islamic swimsuit—in order to flesh out the actors and motivations behind vigorous public debate on this topic. The French government, for example, has recently instituted a ban on the “burqa” in public spaces, which has translated into concerns over the “burqini,” the full-body swimsuit. While Muslim concerns about the full-body swimsuit focus primarily on the interpretation and practice of their religion (particularly who gets to decide what is appropriate dress), non-Muslims tend to see the burqini as an oppressive political symbol, something tangible that speaks to their larger concerns about feminism, immigration, terrorism, “radical Islam,” and the boundaries of the secular state.
Akou, Heather Marie (in review). “A Brief History of the Burqini: Confessions and Controversies.” Dress. 17 pages plus 3 images.
Akou, Heather Marie (2010). “Looking Like a Terrorist.” In September 11 in Popular Culture: A Guide, editors Sara E. Quay and Amy M. Damico. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, pp 13.
Akou, Heather Marie (2010). “Hate Crimes and Profiling.” In September 11 in Popular Culture: A Guide, editors Sara E. Quay and Amy M. Damico. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, pp 29-30.
My current research falls into two broad categories. The first concerns the interests of online retailers and writers for blogs about Islamic dress, part of my ongoing virtual ethnography. I have largely narrowed my focus to a dozen websites that cover a wide range of the political, economic, and aesthetic spectrum, but also scan for new developments through sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Second Life. Compared to the physical world—where interactions are heavily affected by local and national laws, space, time, and the bodily senses—the Internet is relatively unregulated, anonymous, and allows people to connect across time and space. This allows Muslims around the world opportunities to share ideas and explore different dimensions of their faith that might not be supported in their local community. The Internet is a place where Muslims are exploring what it means to be “Muslim” in a global sense and creating a style of “Islamic dress” to fit that ideal.
My other focus (which dovetails with the first) is on how converts to Islam decide what to wear: what they believe, who they listen to, what sources they read, and what websites they visit. A convert in Canada, for example, could use the Internet to read translated passages from the Qur’an about dress, buy a scarf from a Muslim artist based in London, debate the merits of hijab (modest dress) with a cyber friend in Egypt, and then watch a quick video on YouTube demonstrating how to wear a “Turkish-style” head covering—all without leaving home. While the Internet is not changing the foundations of Islam, it is changing how people share their ideas and experiences. From my perspective, examining the role of converts in Islamic dress is particularly important because it disrupts an “us versus them” (native-born versus immigrant) paradigm that is present not just in much of the mainstream media but in some of the scholarly literature as well. Converts also tend to be a group of people who are highly-engaged and vocal on the subject of Islamic dress and other aspects of practicing their faith. My intention for the near future is to apply for a major grant—through a body such as the NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) or ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies)—in order to interview converts to Islam in other parts of North America. I am also planning to write my next monograph on this topic.
 This is a term that I coined in my article for Fashion Theory.
 The “five pillars” are the shahada (profession of faith), sawm (fasting, particularly for Ramadan), salat (ritual prayer), zakat (charity), and the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).