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.
I like being modest in the way I dress. I’ve never been comfortable showing my cleavage, especially because I’m what you might call “well-endowed.” And it’s a relief to not have to worry about men—or, let’s face it, other women, because I do worry women being critical of my figure—looking at my body and judging whether I’m “sexy” or not. I know that loose clothing can sometimes make you look bigger than you are, but since I’m big anyway, I know there’s no way I’m going to hide it no matter what I wear. I just feel a little more comfortable not showing off every curve (or roll of fat!).
There are some Muslims who think that being fashionable is a sin, because we’re not supposed to draw attention to ourselves (men as well as women). But I tend to think that God approves of beauty and of things being pleasing to the eye. I also like to be able to change the way I look from day to day and according to the situation. I love the diversity of colors, prints and fabrics that are available in hijabs. But sometimes I just want to wear plain black or white. To cut myself off from this way of expressing myself seems to be the greater sin.
It could be argued that Muslim women could uncover more than their faces and their hands as long as they’re still modest. After all, what constitutes modesty changes over time. I don’t disagree with that. But I find a certain dignity in covering according to the Qur’an that I don’t feel when I wear shorts or tank tops out in public. (It should be said that Muslim women can wear whatever they want when they’re in their own homes around men who are related to them.)
Many non-Muslims criticize Muslim women who cover on the grounds that they make themselves seem unapproachable and thus make it harder to break through the barriers that separate us. I think that’s hogwash. Whenever we encounter one another as strangers, there are always things that seem strange and make us hesitate about approaching the other person. It’s our obligation as human beings to try to see beyond those things, be they skin color, disabilities, gender or clothing, to the person inside. It’s a cop-out to say, “I couldn’t get to know that person because he (or she) was too different from me.” That’s no excuse for being inhospitable.
Not only that, but just because a woman covers does not mean that she has no personality or that she can’t be friendly. Much more is conveyed by facial expression (even by the eyes) and by tone of voice than you would think. Ask yourself, how is that we get along perfectly well during phone conversations, when we can’t even see each other? Even email can be a valid way to get to know another person, because a person’s words are even more important than how he looks or sounds. (I should know; I met my husband via email, and was more than half in love with him before I ever heard his voice, let alone saw his face.)
Before I converted, one of my “objections” to Islam was that I couldn’t tell Muslim women apart. But the truth is, once I was introduced to them, I had no problem differentiating them from one another. Their clothing was just that: clothing. After all, do we fail to recognize people we know just because they put on a scarf or a hat or a coat?
Sometimes I’m hesitant to wear my Muslimah clothing when I’m going to be with someone who isn’t used to my being Muslim. I had an experience like that the other day when I went to have lunch with an old friend of mine, who knew I converted but hadn’t yet seen me in “costume”! But then I thought, “She’s going to see me in my hijab sometime, so why not go ahead and wear it now?” So I did, and she didn’t even bat an eye. She accepted me as myself. Because that’s what we do with those we care about.
And aren’t we supposed to care about all people, no matter what they wear? So is it too much to expect those who love us to accept what we wear? If they don’t, do they really love us, or do they have another agenda that we no longer fit into?
Better to be myself and find out who is truly generous in spirit than to hide from the world for fear of offending those who don’t care a damn about me anyway.