When I mentioned to friends that my next trip was to Egypt, more often than not conversation somehow always turns to the uncomfortable feeling most westerners get with the way Middle Eastern women dress. Having lived for many years in Saudi Arabia, I always wondered whether I may be slightly biased in my acceptance of it. I’ve grown up surrounded by women in black abayas, in beautifully draped headscarves, some with veils across their faces… was growing up with it as the norm the reason I don’t understand their perception of them?
I’ve been thinking a lot about women’s rights over the last few weeks and I’ve realised that no, I’m not biased at all. I am simply in a position of better understanding. I don’t mean that in a patronising way, but simply that as a Muslim myself I have had insight alongside my life experience, so I thought maybe it was time I tried to dispel a few myths.
Modesty in Islam
Before we get cracking I want you first of all to push aside any preconceptions you may have regarding your opinion on certain countries, cultures or governments – what I am going to talk about here is the practice of modesty in Islam. And in its essence it’s really, really simple.
The book of Islam, the Qur’an, has written:
“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their chests and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers…” [continuing list of others whom women are exempt from covering] Qur’an 24:30-31
I think the first thing to note here is that the mention of modesty applies to both men and women. There is nothing in this quote, or anywhere else for that matter that is implying in any way that women are to dress differently because they are the lesser sex. Because they are inferior. It’s nothing to do with them being pushed aside, being told to stay home or to be kept in the dark. In fact if you study the history of Islam there are many, many strong independent women who play crucial roles in the times of our sacred Prophet (Pbuh). In fact many of the women in his life were active members of the community and modesty was never confused with disappearing from the social, political, economic or even military departments.
All over the world there are millions of Muslim women who have made a conscious decision to dress modestly, not for their culture, not for a man, but for themselves. To feel closer to God. Many of these women have managed to excel professionally in many fields of work, whilst upholding their values of modesty. There are thousands of women in the UK alone who choose to wear headscarves and this number grows every day, women who are wanting to show their devotion to God and for some its as much an outwardly expression of their faith as it is an inner.
Now i’m not a religious scholar so I’m not going to go into the details of what modest dress entails and what its requirements are, because these are interpreted differently depending on the adherents school of thought. But the main point to note, is that modesty is something that is down to the individual. It is not something Muslims do for others – it is something Muslims should do for themselves.
A woman’s right to modesty
These days modest dressing is increasing in popularity, and not just for Muslims. In some instances modest dressing has become a way to empower women, a way of ensuring they are known for who they are, to not be judged by their beauty or how they look. In some cases its a tool to help them be taken seriously, a show of level pegging and a way of demanding respect. I’m not saying that not dressing modestly does the opposite of these things, but merely pointing out reasons why women I know who are not followers of Islam choose to cover their bodies. Their reasons for wanting to dress modestly are just as valid and just as powerful as women who choose not to.
‘Modest fashion’ is a growing market, it’s become increasingly popular over the last few years, with many female Muslim icons leading the way, such as Blogosphere cover girl Dina Tokio. Last year I attended the very first London Modest Fashion Week at the Saatchi Gallery, organised by Haute Elan – a great success and an event attended not just by Muslim women.
Some women interpret modesty not as a way of dressing, but as a way of conducting their mannerisms. Let’s not forget modesty is a character trait, one that is considered flattering and again not just exclusively for women. It’s a principle of being unassuming and moderate, but not invisible.
There are times when it’s an issue of self consciousness, what if a women does not want to show her body? What then? Do we automatically assume she is being forced to cover? What if it’s a fashion statement? With an intense spotlight cast onto our gender the reasons women choose to dress modestly are vast.
Respecting cultures and traditions
Because of the so-called ‘freedoms’ most of us believe we have in the West, it’s very easy for us to judge other places where the rules of what is and isn’t socially acceptable aren’t what we’re used to. But to put it quite bluntly, we cannot apply the principles of western european secularism to other countries whose entire cultural tradition is completely different. It’s simply not a fair comparison. And even where secularism is prevalent, there are still unwritten rules and expectations as to how women should dress themselves, when going for a night out for example.
If we aren’t citizens of a particular country who may expect modest dressing, then yes have an opinion, discuss your grievances but it’s not our place to be making a stand against their rules and regulations because we don’t feel it’s right. There are proper avenues to vocalise dissenting opinion and I encourage everyone to look into local organisations and groups that can help support causes where you feel women, or anyone else for that matter, are being oppressed or discriminated against because of an imposed dress code.
However as visitors to a country where the customs are to dress in a certain way, out of respect for the citizens it is our duty to comply. This is purely an issue of common human decency and respect.
Take Indonesia for example, a Muslim country where there is no dress code but there are many beautiful women of all ages who choose to wear hijabs and cloaks. They’re different to those in the middle east, known as jilbabs but nevertheless they do the same job. What they wear doesn’t stop them being who they want to be. They’ll still be all over facebook, they’ll still want to take and share selfies, they still find ways to demonstrate their individuality, it doesn’t stop them being themselves. I even noticed it here in Egypt, I watched a group of young girls some with bejewelled burqas, others in jeans and tshirts with long hair left loose and perfectly styled, dancing along the banks of the Nile, laughing, playing and having just the best time together.
In 2015 a story hit the headlines about a group of backpackers who stripped naked atop a Malaysian mountain, going against the requests of their guide not to do so. I remember feeling incredibly sad for the local communities there, who held this site as sacred and probably felt they were being mocked, what an offensive way to treat your hosts. I’ve heard all the arguments for their cause, but the bottom line is there was a specific requirement to wear clothing and this was purposely disobeyed for no other reason than entertainment. To be quite honest, I can’t understand why individuals would go out of their way to upset others just because they believe in something you don’t. I’ve previously discussed how the ultimate definition of specifically targeting someone with intention to hurt them, either physically or emotionally is in fact an act of terrorism.
The concept of freedom of choice.
Ah yes, freedom of choice. Before you assume that I am naive in my outlook on the world, I one hundred percent acknowledge that there are countries where women are not given the right to choose what they wear out in public. And I mentioned above that there are organisations and local groups around that you can speak to regarding helping to change these issues, only if change is necessary of course.
My whole reason for writing this post is to bring to light that although many, many westerners choose to judge and criticise these countries on their treatment of women, if they look upon Muslim women in their own countries they are treating them with the same level of disrespect. Banning headscarves in public buildings, schools, bullying those who wear them, outlawing burkinis (modest swimwear – basically a wetsuit) on beaches and at swimming pools.
I’m often faced with the ironic argument that we are not an Islamic country, we are Christian, yet there are members of the Christian faith who also cover their hair and where modest dress, orthodox, coptic, nuns? Some jewish women also follow certain criteria for dressing – again that includes hair covering. Sikh men wear turbans, Buddhists ask that you cover arms and legs before entering temples… and these are just a few examples of other religions who believe in the principles of modesty. Ever seen a painting of the Virgin Mary without a headscarf for example? There’s very few. Royalty are also advocates of modest dressing, they may not wear long cloaks or cover their hair but there is a certain standard of dressing they are expected to abide by as a mark of respect to the establishment they represent and it applies to both men and women.
So why has the problem of dressing modestly all of a sudden become a problem when its Muslims? When it comes to clothing, is freedom of choice here in the West purely for women who are not Muslim?
A few years ago I watched a scene unfold on the news which I never believed I would ever see. A group of armed policeman on a public beach in Nice, standing over a Muslim woman who was there with her children, modestly dressed in a long sleeve shirt and leggings being asked to remove her top. The beach was full, there were plenty of people around and the majority of them supported his decision to make this woman strip against her will. Right there with everyone watching.
I don’t care what you believe. I don’t care what you think of Muslims or any other religion for that matter. But for this woman she had chosen not to show her arms, she was being forced to strip against her will and fined too. Forget everything else you know about her. I ask you to just think as a woman, as a person, how would that have made you feel? How is that freedom of choice? Where’s the liberté and egalité in that? In this instance she wasn’t even wearing a burqa, she just happened to be wearing long sleeves, so was it the headscarf that was against the rules? It’s funny that oppression is frowned upon in a religious country but it appears secular oppression is perfectly acceptable.
Yes I am fully aware that I’ve mentioned this before, but the image of this scene is burned into my memory, as it should be with every person who believes that the West fully invests in women’s rights. The thought that this woman, a member of our global sisterhood, was put through public humiliation, bothers me deeply. And this is not an isolated incident by any stretch, there are many examples of women being forced to remove clothing and headscarves in public, I know of instances where its happened where I am in the UK.
There is plenty of discussion about the degradation of women in society, the whole Hollywood harassment fiasco and even men in politics and now charitable organisations are being pulled up on their treatment of women. So why is dressing modestly as a Muslim woman such an issue? Perhaps if we’re all completely honest, maybe it wouldn’t be, if we removed the word Muslim?? It’s very easy for us to sit here and point fingers at other countries for their so-called treatment of females but I would argue that the problems we face here are simply the other side of the same coin.
As we celebrate 100 years of women having been given the same rights of suffrage as me and all the freedoms they have fought for and won, I want to highlight that the struggle isn’t completely over until we act in the interests of ALL women, and not just when it serves a hidden political agenda.
This years International women’s day campaign is all about #PressforProgress: to not be complacent, to press forward and to progress gender parity. A strong call for us to act and be gender inclusive. I hope by defining the religious reasoning behind modest dress, by reminding us of our ability as humans to be inclusive and respectful, I have helped change the angle from which Muslim women are usually portrayed and to shed a bit of understanding on an issue which causes controversey from both sides.
I stand proudly with my sisters today and every day. Of all faiths, of all colours.
I stand with all of womankind.
Dedicated to all the strong women in my life, who have at some point been attacked either physically or verbally for the way they dress.