Month May

  • Modesty is not a black and white issue

    Modest dress is a key component of Islam, but it’s important to retain personality and aesthetics in the way we dress

    This week I tried out the most extreme black cloak to make it into my wardrobe. A piece of elastic attached it to the top of my head, and then the single piece of long fabric hung snugly over my hair, sweeping over my shoulders and down past my feet. The final flourish was for me to hold together the two edges under my chin. Two eyes, a nose and a squashed mouth peeked through the gap under the black sheet. My husband peered into the bedroom, and nearly dropped his mug of tea.

    “You look like a black blob,” he said, horrified. “Where have you gone?” He poked underneath the black cloth like a serious Sherlock Holmes. Despite feeling uncomfortable about the cloak, no man was going to tell me how to observe modest dress. “Don’t you want me to hide my figure so I’m not attracting attention?” I barked at him. He froze, rabbit in headlights, and then looked at me for a clue.

    “Of course I want you to be modest,” he said, certain that this was the right answer.

    “And isn’t this long cloak, the most modest thing I could wear?”

    “Well yes. Erm, well no, well yes, no, yes, yeah… no? yes, yes… ”

    I looked at him sternly, with the if-you-dare glint of a determined Muslim woman, who has pro-actively chosen to wear the headscarf and modest dress. He looked more terrified of me in my new guise of crazy-eyed Muslim harridan than he had of the black blob. But he was right to be distressed.

    The question about how we should define modesty is constantly plaguing the Muslim community. Neither men nor women can map out any consistency or meaning in the higgledy-piggledy implementation of the rules of modest behaviour. At work you can interact with the opposite gender but not at Islamic conferences. Muslim men can shake hands with non-Muslim women, but not vice-versa. Brides who normally wear hijab will uncover in front of men to be shown off. In some communities, men will push into the women’s section during weddings, but will enforce segregation at home. In others it is the opposite, with women not allowed to participate in mosque management due to the fitnah (division) this could cause, but happily socialising together.

    The spirit and implementation of modesty is confused at best. Women and their clothing have become hijacked into being the symbol of how religious we are as a community. If women are properly covered, then everyone seems to think they can rest easy.

    Her choice of dress is inextricably linked to a judgement about her spiritual status. At the sober end she is considered overly pious, not to mention excruciatingly dull. By contrast those women who choose not to wear a headscarf, are immediately judged to be irreligious, un-spiritual and not considered to be ‘properly’ practising. There has been a visible increase in the number of women wearing the hijab (head covering), the jilbab (loose fitting long dress) as well as the niqab (face covering).

    Colours are subtle: greys, browns, blues, blacks. These women cite their dress as a freedom, an escape from the body-obsessed post-modern world, as well as a greater commitment to the values of Islam. At the other extreme is the rise of the Muhajababe. Her head covered, she probably wears skinny fit jeans and lycra t-shirts. For her, the headscarf itself has shown her commitment to her Muslim identity and faith.

    We sighed simultaneously at the black cloak I was still wearing. “We all end up looking the same, I feel anonymous and unknown. I’m not me anymore,” I mourned to him. “Some people say that our voices should not be heard either. I’m part of a black silent mass at the back of the room. Surely individuality is important? Especially if Allah says that there are as many ways to know Him as there are human beings?”

    He responded enigmatically: “Each flower that God has created is specifically a different colour, and design. Even when they are closed, they make an effort to show their personality, and individuality.”

    I squinted dubiously at him. “Does this mean you think women don’t need to wear niqab, jilbab or even the hijab?”

    “Defining what ‘modesty’ means isn’t easy, and we Muslims spend an awful lot of time on the outward signs like dress and physical separation. Where we need to focus more is on the complex relationships between modesty, personality and aesthetics.”

    I draped the abaya playfully over his shoulders. “Modesty isn’t just for Muslim women to worry about,” I reminded him. “To build a strong community we all have to be concerned with inner spirituality as well as outer codes of conduct like dress.” Grinning cheesily, I pointed at the cloak: “Modesty is definitely not a black and white issue.”

    This article was published in The Muslim News

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  • Can you dress provocatively and be religious?

    I’ve just got back from BBC Asian Network discussing the issues around revealing clothing and being a person of faith. Can you wear a short skirt and low cut top and call yourself religious? Can you show off your assets in tight jeans and a teeny tight white t-shirt (I’m talking about the men here!)

    It’s a topic of passionate discussion, and that’s because it is much more complex than it appears. First (and let’s be honest about this), the conversation is almost always sparked off about complaining about women not being properly covered up. Rarely is the question asked in relation to men. Muslim women who do not wear the headscarf are immediately assumed to be less religious than those who wear it. Those who do wear it, are immediately assumed to be over-zealous and seated on their prayer mats for 22 hours each day. Those who do and don’t wear hijab are constantly frustrated by these caricatures which block their path to exploring their faith and spirituality. Why should we judge an individual’s constant struggle to be a person of faith by what they wear? We cannot judge that status. Judgement is only for God. What we can do is comment on the impact that their dress makes on those around them, and what we think it reveals about their understanding of modesty – for whatever is inside, always shows itself on the outside.

    More challenging for our modern society is the issue this topic raises with regards to public and private faith. Even when you have strong inner values, we are told that they can and should be divorced from your participation in the public domain. Faith, we are told, is a private matter. But faith, de facto, must be public because it shows itself in the relationships you build with the people around you. For example, faith encourages compassion and kindness. There is no point exhibiting these values only at home – you need to demonstrate them in the world ‘out there’. In fact, you must exhibit them out there, because part of being a person of faith is making the world a better place.

    Modest dress and behaviour is part of all religions, in order to maintain humility, but also to make it easier to build relations with others. We have forgotten in our post-modern society that everything we do has an impact on others, and that whilst we have the freedoms of individuality, they come with responsibilities to others. It’s not just all me-me-me. If modesty is an inner value, it must and will show itself to the world around us.

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