IslamOnline’s Modesty Chic

Fashion designers are now starting to see head scarves as the latest hot fashion trend. In an IslamOnline article, various designers were quoted about this new trend. Two words that came up often were”modesty” and “chastity”. Apparently, fashion designers want to show that modesty, chastity, and elegance are not mutually exclusive. Although the designers said that they weren’t focused solely on Muslim women, I’m sure that Muslim women are definitely a market that is increasingly being focused on by the fashion industry.

As a hijabi, maybe people think I would be elated by this article, but I’m actually a bit cautious. For one thing, isn’t the one of the objectives of hijab to take the focus off of outer appearances? One of the most common arguments given by hijab apologists is that the hijab prevents women from only being judged by how they look. It allows women to be judged for who they truly are. If headscarves are suddenly made into the latest fashion trend, doesn’t it suddenly lose that purpose? Hasn’t it become the latest commodity that women must have? As Muslims, should we support that? That’s why I was a bit surprised that the article was featured on an Islamic website. The commercialization of hijab seems antithetical to what hijab is all about.

Also, the article brought up the issue of the definitions of modesty and chastity. As I read the article, I kept wondering how modesty and chastity are defined especially in this quote:

According to Dennis Nothdruft, curator of London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, the headscarf resurgence is about a new sense of “chastity” in fashion. He affirms that the trend is not all new after all. “Women wore headscarves in medieval times to maintain their modesty,” he explains. 

Is the wearing of the khimar (which is the actual headscarf) the sole indicator of modesty? What about women who do not wear the hijab, both Muslim and non-Muslim? Are they immodest? Isn’t modesty also related to our attitude? What about hijabis or other “modestly” dressed women who have horrible attitudes and look down upon anyone who doesn’t agree with their line of thinking on how women should dress or act? Arrogance isn’t modesty at all.

This isn’t to say that hijabis necessarily look down upon non-hijabis, but it is to point out that modesty is about much than headscarves. Also, women who don’t wear headscarves are not necessarily immodest. Why is it assumed that women who don’t wear hijab are immodest? My suspicion is that IslamOnline published that article, at least partly, to reinforce that idea. One of the most glaring problems with in this whole discussion on modesty is that it focuses exclusively on women’s appearances. Modesty is a complicated thing and I’m never happy when it’s reduced to our appearance.

There was also the issue of chastity. When fashion designers say that they want to bring chastity back to fashion, I can’t help but to feel that we’re once again reducing women’s sexuality to their dress. Chasity is automatically equated with wearing hijab or headscarves. When a woman’s sexuality is reduced to her clothing, this leads to a very slippery, patriarchal slope. “If covered women are chaste then uncovered women must be (insert you choice of whatever gendered sexual slur).” “That woman deserved to be raped/sexually harassed because she was dressed like a…” Thus, I cringe, not celebrate, when fashion designers connect “chastity” to fashion.

That being said, I can’t deny that I do try to look nice and that it is rather cool for people, Muslim and non-Muslim, to realize that dressing in hijab does not mean dressing as “Umar the tent maker’s daughter” (as my mother put it). Dressing in hijab does not mean that we don’t put any care into how we dress. A lot of hijabis are really into fashion. A friend of mine graduated from Parsons. She’s a designer and obviously loves fashion. So when I read articles like the one referenced, in a weird way I do feel a little happy. Hijabis aren’t monolithic. Some hijabis wear really plain jilbabs, others shop at Bloomingdale’s and get the latest designer fashion. There is a spectrum. Articles like this one show that diversity and that’s always a good thing.

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