What’s the Big Deal About Islamic Clothing?

There are predominantly three images that come to mind when those who are afraid of Muslims think of Islam: the World Trade Center on fire and collapsing on 9/11, Muslim men protesting in the streets, and Muslim women covering their bodies with Islamic clothing.

Really? I can understand the first two, but what a woman wears? How can that be threatening? From what I’ve read and heard, there are several reasons that people feel threatened by Muslim women dressing hijab (which means any way of dressing that is in compliance with the Qur’anic command to cover all but one’s face and hands). They all have to do with the belief that Muslim women who cover are hiding something, mainly their identities, weapons/bombs and criminal behavior.

Daniel Pipes* writes in his post, “Ban the Burqa – and the Niqab Too“:

[B]urqas and niqabs should be banned in all public spaces because they present a security risk. Anyone might lurk under those shrouds – female or male, Muslim or non-Muslim, decent citizen, fugitive, or criminal – with who knows what evil purposes…The time has come everywhere to ban from public places these hideous, unhealthy, socially divisive, terrorist-enabling, and criminal-friendly garments.

People use all kinds of disguises; does that mean that we should ban Nixon masks and nuns’ habits? Make it a criminal offense to grow a beard or wear sunglasses?

People who raise these objections usually temper their protests by saying that a Muslim woman can wear whatever she wants in private, that is only in public spaces that they must comply with a ban. Well, I have news for you folks: Muslim women don’t cover at home (as long as they are surrounded by family); they cover in public specifically because it exposes them to strangers. The real issue is one of privacy. Don’t Muslim women (or all women, for that matter) have the right to cover as much of their bodies as it takes to make them feel comfortable?

I would hate to be forced to wear midriff tops and short shorts when I went out in public. I would feel exposed and uncomfortable, to say the least. Can you imagine how a woman who has dressed hijab all her life would feel if she were suddenly forced to wear Western clothing whenever she left her home? I would think that in some cases it would be a traumatic experience. If burqas and niqabs are banned, then more than likely these women will never leave their homes again. Wouldn’t that be a curtailing of their human rights?

In some places even hijabs (the headscarves) are banned in public places.  (For instance, Turkey does not allow a woman to attend universities when wearing a hijab.) What is the rationale for that? Do we honestly think that hiding a woman’s hair robs her of her identity or makes it more likely that she will be engage in criminal activity? And if burqa and niqabs are banned, will hijabs be far behind?

Modesty is not the only reason for dressing hijab. Muslim women also do it as a symbol of their faith. If we force a woman to take off her Islamic clothing, why should we let people wear crosses or Stars of David?

I dress Islamically for a couple of reasons. One is that it makes me feel like a Muslim It’s hard enough for a Muslim convert or immigrant to make the transition to her new status if she is not allowed to dress like a Muslim. That is her identity. Maybe someday when I feel more confident in my Muslim identity, I will take off the hijab. But for now it makes me feel like I belong to my new community. And I treasure that feeling.

Another reason I dress hijab is because it frees me from the obsession that I used to have about how I look. I spent hundreds of dollars a year having my hair cut and colored and hundreds of hours trying to style it. (Of course, now I spend a lot of money on hijabs and time trying to put them on!) And as for my body—well, let’s just say that I don’t have the body I used to and it depressed me having to let others see it. Now that I cover in loose clothing, I might still look big, but I’m not exposing every roll of fat to public view!

But even if I had a spectacular body, I would be relieved to not have to worry about being sexy or desirable enough. Dressing hijab confers a certain dignity on a woman, because as long as she respects herself, she will earn the respect of others. A covered woman also exudes a sense of self-confidence exactly because she’s not worried about what others think of her. She’s dressing for God, not for society. And especially not for men.

I have to be honest and admit that I still care what I look like. I still wear makeup and love to mix and match my hijabs with my outfits. I don’t think that being a Muslim woman means that you have to be ugly. But sometimes I even think that it would be a relief to just wear abayas and forgo makeup. It would certainly make life easier! And I might find that I don’t miss being thought of as attractive. After all, it’s what’s inside that counts.

*Mr. Pipes’ web site is Danielpipes.org.

3 Replies to “What’s the Big Deal About Islamic Clothing?”

  1. I agree, Ellen. The media attention on Muslim women’s clothing is obsessive and rather disturbing. We have to just walk proudly in our hijabs the same way women walk proudly (or not) in their mini skirts. Let people look. Most of the time (at least in my experience), they are genuinely curious and may even be attracted to your air of confidence with your clothes, body and mind.

  2. Some people have argued that many (secular) men who are prejudiced against homosexuals are secretly gay themselves. I wonder if something similar is going on with Islamic clothing — are some people who are outwardly anti-hijab secretly hijab-envious?

    1. At the least, I think they’re curious. Especially when they get to know a Muslim woman who is confident and seems liberated. They think, “How can a woman who wears a hijab be happy??”

      Wearing hijab (which means the entire outfit, not just the scarf) can be liberating and satisfying. But bottom line: it also makes you feel connected to God, and that’s a great feeling in itself.

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