Do you think you should follow the law of the land you live in when it comes to how you dress? Or should you protest the law by continuing to dress according to your convictions? Will giving in to the law make non-Muslims feel less threatened by or more accepting of Islam? How far should we go to make non-Muslims comfortable with us?
France’s burqa ban has just taken effect and so far two burqa-clad women have been arrested, not for wearing the prohibited garment, but for engaging in an illegal protest. The fine is about 150 Euro or $200 for wearing the burqa (the niqab is illegal as well), but for a person who forces a woman to wear the face cover, the fine is about 80,000 Euro or $100,000 plus possibly a year in jail.
There are only around 2,000 women in France who wear the burqa or niqab. (Hijabs, which do not cover the face, are not illegal.) It will be interesting to see how this law is handled. Will policemen be on the look-out for women in burqas or will they only fine them if they have detained them for other reasons? Will this law hold up in the courts? After all, wearing the burqa or niqab is basically a privacy issue. What if a person wears a mask or head-covering because of some kind of physical deformity? Is that also illegal? And if not, why not?
This is an example of what I call “law by ideology.” The burqa ban came about because so many non-Muslims are prejudiced against Muslims and feel threatened by their presence. The problem with this ban is that it isn’t logical. It can’t be for reasons of national security or criminal activity, except for the fact that it might make the perpetrator harder to identify. But is a terrorist or criminal going to worry about a fine when he or she has determined to use the face-covering as a disguise? Of course not!
If the authorities want to prevent people from hiding behind what they wear in order to commit criminal or terrorist acts, then it would seem to me that they should be targeting all clothing that could hide something. Which means that the next step would be to make the full-body covering illegal. Probably the only reason they haven’t already done this is because they would have to apply such a laws to nuns and all people who wear long, loose clothing.
The other thing that’s illogical about the French law is that it only applies to women when traditionally the vast majority of terrorists and criminals are male. As I’ve already said, face coverings aren’t really the threat. Why don’t the French also target the thobe, for instance? Why is it that women are the ones being targeted?
It’s both sad and scary to see supposedly rational people acting so irrationally. I’d like to think that this is just an aberration, but I’ve heard too many people from all over the Western world voicing the same paranoia about Islamic clothing. What they are really saying is that they’re paranoid about Muslims, period. Protesting the clothing is just a cover-up for what they really want to do, which is protest the religion.
I’d like to think that the more exposed non-Muslims are to Islam, the less threatened they would feel. But unfortunately, humans have a tremendous capacity for staying prejudiced against things that are “different.” The solution is to familiarize ourselves with that which threatens us, but instead we either try to eradicate it or we run the other way. It seems to me that Muslims wouldn’t be doing themselves a favor by trying to stay in the background. That only allows non-Muslims to pretend that we don’t exist. (“Out of sight, out of mind.”)
I was so excited—and nervous—when I went to get my driver’s license renewed because I was going to photographed in my hijab. That might seem like a little thing, but it’s actually not. It means that for the next four years I’m going to be identified as a Muslim whenever someone sees my driver’s license.
I was so proud when the license bureau agent asked if I wear the scarf for religious purposes and I was able to say yes. I love to be identified as a Muslim.
The problem is, I’m often not.
Even when I’m wearing the hijab and dressed in long tops or skirts and long sleeves, I think a lot of people miss the distinction merely because I don’t “look” Muslim. I have fair skin and blue eyes and a certain all-American look about me. It just doesn’t seem to occur to people that I might be a convert.
I’ve even had Muslims ask me where I’m from as if they can’t believe that someone who looks so obviously American could be a Muslim. When I reply that I’m from the U.S., they look either shocked or surprised. Because of that, I’m especially grateful for the Muslims who immediately greet me with “asalaamu alaykim.” They make me feel welcome, as if I’m a “real” Muslim.
I’ve heard from a lot of converts that born Muslims treat them as “second-class” Muslims. I’ve been very fortunate that my born-Muslim friends have always supported me and been as excited about my conversion as I am. But I understand the frustration that comes from being a convert.
One reason why I wear hijab is because it makes my new religion real for me. I want to make the statement that I am proud of being a Muslim. It’s definitely not something I’m ashamed of.
And yet I find myself waffling when I’m around people I know don’t approve of my conversion. When I’m going to see them, I look for excuses to not wear the hijab (I’m going to be with family, etc.). But because I don’t push it, my faith rarely becomes a topic of conversation.
I realize that everything I do as a Muslim makes a statement about Islam. But I’m torn sometimes between wanting to proudly proclaim that I’m a Muslim and not wanting to make other people feel uncomfortable around me.
I was thrilled recently when a friend brought me a jilbab back from Libya. I own five abayas, but I never wear them unless I’m going to the mosque or some other special occasion. I love having an excuse to wear them, but do I really need one? Why don’t I wear them all the time?
It has taken me a while to acquire a wardrobe that conforms to the standards of hijab. When I think about how I used to dress, I cringe. I’ve found that I like not displaying my cleavage and accentuating my body shape. (Of course, it might has something to do with the fact that I’m overweight!) I wouldn’t dream of wearing the things I used to wear. So I guess I have changed to some extent.
I have to remind myself that I’m a work in progress, that I’ll become more bold about my faith as time goes by. But I’m impatient: I want to be a full-fledged Muslim now.
And yet I also need to remember that it’s not what I wear that really matters. It’s easy, especially as a Muslimah, to think that my clothing is more important than cultivating a relationship with Allah through prayer. And yet, what I wear is a part of what makes me a Muslim. Submitting to Allah’s rules helps me to give myself more fully to Him. And so I understand the emphasis on what Muslimahs wear.
I’m actually thankful that Muslimahs have a dress code, so to speak. It does help me to feel Muslim. Now all I have to do is act more like one.
I was sitting in the airport, waiting for my flight, when the lady next to me struck up a conversation.
“I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a question about your …” and she pointed to my hijab.
“No, of course not. Go ahead, ” I said.
“Do you have to wear it all the time, like even when you sleep or take a shower?”
I grinned. “No, only when I’m in public or around men I’m not related to.”
“Oh,” she said. Then: “Do you have hair under there?”
I had to laugh. Where do people get ideas like that? It never occurred to me, before I became a Muslim, that a woman wearing a headscarf might be bald underneath, or have to sleep or shower in it. But I didn’t mind the woman asking me. Because at least it showed that she felt like she could talk to me. I’d rather have that than people who nurse crazy ideas about Muslims and don’t give you a chance to refute them.
I can understand the obsession about hair, though. It goes against the grain in this society for a woman to not show off her hair. It’s not called your “crowning glory” for nothing. I suspect that a lot of non-Muslim women (and even some Muslimahs who don’t wear the hijab) feel sorry for women who cover their hair. How can we stand to cover up something that would make us look more attractive?
I agonized over this issue when my daughter got married last November. I’m as vain as any woman and I worried that I would look bad in the wedding pictures with a hijab covering my blonde hair. I’m proud of my hair. I’ve been a blonde all my life, even if I’ve had to help it along in my adult years. But when I began wearing the hijab I started thinking that I might as well let my natural color grow out. No one would be seeing it anyway and I could save a lot of money. (I finally decided, a few years ago, that I was worth a professional cut and color job, but that doesn’t come cheap.)
I oversaw my daughters getting their hair cut and colored for the wedding, but made no plans to get my own hair done. Then, a week before the wedding, it occurred to me that I would know what I looked like underneath the hijab, and it would affect the way I felt about myself.
Most Muslim women I know who wear hijabs still care about their hair. They fuss over it as much as any woman. You’d think that they wouldn’t care since their hair only shows when they’re at home. But apparently that’s enough for a woman to care about how her hair looks, even if she isn’t married with a husband to please.
I’ve come to the conclusion that women do up their hair because they like to look pretty, even if it’s just for themselves.
One good thing about wearing hijab is that you are immediately identifiable as a Muslim. That’s also one of the bad things. Because the truth is, sometimes it feels more comfortable to travel incognito. I don’t always want everyone who sees me to know what religion I belong to. And not only what religion I belong to, but also to know that I think enough of it to allow myself to be “branded” as one of its ambassadors.
Because that’s what you are when you wear a hijab. I’ve written about this before (“Muslim Women: Ambassadors for Islam“) but now that I’ve been a Muslim for a while, I thought I’d revisit the topic.
I’m fortunate that I haven’t received any negative reactions to my hijab, either at work or when I’m out in public. But sometimes the hardest situation to get through involves family members, especially when you’re a convert and no one else in your family is Muslim.
This has been on my mind a lot lately because my daughter is getting married soon and I had to decide what I was going to do about my outfit. Mother-of-the-bride dresses tend to be conservative in appearance, but none of them appealed to me (they all look the same). Not only that, but I wasn’t sure how they would look with a hijab.*
Mind you, I wasn’t even sure I was going to wear the hijab. I felt uncomfortable about being “exposed” as a Muslim at my daughter’s wedding. What would the other side of the family think (they’re mostly Catholics)? What would my daughters’ father think (he’s an ordained minister)? And most importantly, what would my daughter and her fiancé think?
I finally got up the nerve to ask my daughter and she was almost surprised that I’d considered not wearing my hijab. “It’s who you are, Mom. Of course you should wear it.” She and her fiancé are totally fine with it.
Then I realized that if I was going to wear it to the wedding, I’d also have to wear it to the bridal showers. That made me nervous because it would be the first time I would be meeting anyone from the groom’s family, besides his mother, and I hadn’t been dressing hijab then.
I could tell that my oldest daughter was uncomfortable with my decision. She was afraid that people would make a big deal about my being Muslim and that it would detract from the wedding festivities. Not only that, but she hadn’t even told her boyfriend that I was a Muslim. As far as I know she still hasn’t. (My grandson, who is eleven, has been with me when I’ve worn hijab and he barely seems to notice.)
I was nervous when I went to get dressed for the first shower, but as soon as I put on the hijab, it felt so natural that I calmed down immediately. And as soon as I got to the shower, I realized that I needn’t have worried. Maybe my hijab was the elephant in the room no one wanted to talk about, but no one acted funny toward me.
My ex-mother-in-law, however, did mention it. She wanted to know why I wore it and how I came to be a Muslim. But she didn’t say it in a judgmental way; she seemed genuinely interested.
I can understand people having questions. And I’d rather people ask than talk about it later, when I’m not there to correct any misconceptions they might have. Once when I was waiting in an airport with my husband, the woman sitting next to me said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I was wondering about your scarf.” She wanted to know if I had to wear it all the time and if I had hair under it. But that led to more questions about Muslims in general. She was perfectly pleasant and seemed happy that I would talk about it with her.
It wasn’t lost on me that we wouldn’t have had that conversation if I hadn’t been wearing my hijab. But the flip side is that I was thrust into the role of being a representative for Muslims. That’s not a bad thing, however; at least I was able to show one person that not all Muslims are terrorists and suicide bombers.
I met a young woman at the mosque a few weeks ago. She was wearing a hijab of course because she was there to pray. But she told me that people don’t ask her much about Islam because she doesn’t wear the hijab normally and a lot of people don’t even know that she’s Muslim. All I could think was, “What a lost opportunity!”
That doesn’t mean that I think all Muslim women should wear the hijab, but at the same time I wonder why some of them don’t. Are they uncomfortable being asked about their faith? Have they had bad experiences when they did wear it? Do they work somewhere that frowns upon their wearing it? (Although technically it’s illegal to prevent a woman from wearing a hijab at work, there are instances where it might not be appropriate, or where the woman herself might not feel comfortable wearing it.)
I’m glad I made the decision to wear the hijab. There are times when I wish I didn’t have to wear it (like when it’s hot), but for the most part I feel more “complete” when I have it on (and I don’t have to worry about what my hair looks like!). I enjoy the instant camaraderie I experience when I meet another Muslim (even, or especially, when he or she is a stranger). And I’m proud to wear it as a symbol of my faith.
*I finally decided on a lavender abaya with a white lace hijab for my daughter’s wedding.
As a Muslim woman, even as a convert, I’m well aware that some people pity me for being “oppressed.” My husband isn’t even a Muslim, yet supposedly he is forcing me to “cover.” Or else I am so hung up about men’s lewd thoughts, all I can think of are ways to prevent them from seeing my “charms.” Either way, the implication is that I allow myself to be put in a box that limits my life and my freedom.
Yes, there are a lot of Muslims who believe that the main reason women should cover is to prevent men from fantasizing about them. Although I understand their concerns, their argument just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Men are going to fantasize about women no matter what. In fact, if reports are to be believed, one of the places where women face the most sexual harassment is Saudi Arabia, where all women are required to cover, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. The truth is, men are going to objectify women no matter what women wear.
At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with the thoughtlessness that many women display when they wear clothes that are extremely revealing. They just aren’t playing fair with men. It’s as if they’re saying, “We know we drive you crazy, but we don’t care.” At least Muslim women who dress modestly (and that doesn’t necessarily mean the full abaya or even the headscarf) are being sensitive about what men go through sexually.
I dress the way I do (I wear the hijab and loose, long-sleeved tops or tunics over jeans or slacks, and I have abayas for certain occasions) because it makes me more mindful of God and His ummah (community). In the same way, when I was a Christian, I frequently wore a cross, but since that is also considered to be just decorative, it didn’t carry the same connotations as the hijab does. Strangely enough, that’s beginning to change, because some women wear headscarves as a fashion statement. Because some of my hijabs are brightly patterned and aren’t always secured in traditional ways, I’ve had people ask me if I’m Muslim as if they’re not quite sure I look Muslim enough. I’ve actually considered wearing an abaya more often so that there wouldn’t be any doubt. But for now I’m content to take it one step at a time.
In an imagined essay* by Carrie Bradshaw about her trip to the Middle East, she writes:
We felt just awful for those poor Arab women. We saw the way they looked longingly at our glamorous and vibrant couture. The difference between those women and us is that we look fabulous under oppression! We can get through the world of men getting us down because at least we can pick our clothes and drink cocktails by the pool. We didn’t really get to talk to many Arab women on the trip, but the ones that rescued us were completely jealous of the fact that we could leave the house in our couture and they couldn’t.
This post is not about defending Muslim women and their way of life. What it is about is the idea that Western women feel free because they can dress and behave however they want.
You’re probably thinking, Exactly!
But think about it for a minute. What’s the main reason we think that that Muslim women are oppressed? Because of the way that they dress. We don’t know, and don’t care to know, the first thing about their lives besides what they wear. The mere fact that they cover up convinces us that they must not be free to do the things that Western women take for granted.
But if we think that being “allowed” to sit around the pool in our bikinis drinking cocktails means that we’re not oppressed, we’re sadly mistaken. We’re just distracted from noticing it.
Some Muslim apologists insist that it is Western women who are enslaved by their culture and its demands on them to be sexy and Muslim women who are liberated because they don’t have to worry about what they look like. There’s some truth in what they say, but they’re missing the point. It’s not what women wear that signifies oppression or freedom. It’s whether or not they have the same opportunities that men do.
Some (usually younger) feminists are practically giddy about what they see as all their options. “The real feminist is not the woman who rejects her femininity; it’s the woman who celebrates it!” they cry. They think that spending loads of money on their hair, make-up, pretty little frocks and designer shoes and bags is a sign of self-esteem—and liberation. They see “old-fashioned” feminists in much the same light as they see Muslim women: as being trapped by their own values into becoming mere shadows of real women.
They may have a point as well. But the truth is, as long as women are kept busy debating fashion, they’re not noticing the real oppression in their lives. The female professional may make enough money to afford her physical upkeep, but is she making as much as the males alongside her? Is she getting promotions at the same rate and for the same, or even better, performance? Is she held back when she has children (or even just because she can have them) in a way that men aren’t?
Being well-dressed doesn’t mean we’re not oppressed.
*”The Lobby for Abu Dhabi – An Essay by Carrie Bradshaw” by Sara on Muslimah Media Watch