Shelina’s blog - Modesty is not a black and white issue
By Shelina Zahra Janmohamed
Issue 229, Friday 30 May 2008 - 26 Jumad al-Awwal 1423
Modest dress is a key component of Islam, says Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, 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.”
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed has her own blog at www.spirit21.co.uk