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.

  • Jana

    Hmm.. interesting. I don’t know what’s with this sudden boom of interest in Muslim women and *gasp* the fact that some of us are into fashion. It’s hardly a new phenomenom.I feel that the article is reinforcing the miconception that ‘hijab’ is only a headcovering. Since we know that is not true, the article seems a little misleading.Just because some designers are reintroducing headscarves into their fashions, doesn’t mean it has anything to do with Islam. Covering ones head does not equal modesty. And covering ones head is not exclusive to Islam OR Muslims. Another thing to note, is that just because a woman in a headscarf is interested in fashion, doesn’t mean that the headscarf itself is becoming a fashion statement, as some people often like to complain…

  • I need my Sisters, where are You?

    Faith, Great work. I don’t know how you seem to put together many great points in a rather short article. It’s very clear. And very funny “Umer the tent makers daughter” hahaha. I also find it annoying when women who wear the hijab are stereotyped by Muslims as boring or dull women (monolithic group) who should wear their immigrant mother’s clothing (including the size).Your right, since when is chastity defined by your clothing. Appearance can be deceiving, and besides I thought that appearance were not very important. I guess it depends on who’s appearence your talking about.When will a women be more than her appearance. You should consider publishing this in a newspaper or something. It’s cool

  • Sara

    Salam,Nice review, I liked how you looked at the article form different aspects, touching many issues with an open mind. I have also had this sort of mixed feeling when I see weblogs that write about “hijab fashion”. On one hand its nice to look good in hijab, on the other hand it has this sort of weird irony with the philosophy of hijab.Anyway, keep up the good work girls!This was a great weblog and its getting even better with the new writers!

  • initialm

    Very nice & i got new info's here.Thanks for the wonderful article.

  • Jana

    From my understanding, the primary objective of hijab (for men and women) is to cover the areas of the body which are deemed sexually attractive. People are going to judge you by your appearance no matter what you wear. But the point is that the details of one’s body are certainly not up for judgement. Obviously, I don’t see the contradiction between having a sense of style and hijab. I don’t believe ‘fashion’ is necessarily about the latest fads or the most expensive gear. I love customising clothes and get such a thrill from finding bargains lol. If I new how to make my own clothes I would. Hijab doesn’t mean you can’t be interested in cuts, colours, fabrics, designs. It’s not about WHAT you cover with, but HOW you do it.Sorry for the lengthiness :O

  • eyes serene

    Assalamu alaikom,Interesting blog. I think when you contrast a hijabi-type outfit next to some of what has been fashionable in the past ten years (I’m thinking of the whole Britney Spears look), the concept of modest vs. immodest becomes quite apt. They make uber-padded training bras nowadays, for cryin’ out loud. So yeah… a more covered up look (compared to the other end of the spectrum) is more modest. That doesn’t necessarily make a judgment call on the wearer, I don’t think… You know, before I became Muslim, I never really thought about this sort of thing. I bet a lot of women don’t. Most women don’t dress to be provocative, we dress to look attractive (in a general, not sexualized sense) and fashionable. Today I saw a professional woman in a professional setting whose skirt slit was so high that I saw more of her than I ought to have. And I have no doubt that she was not trying to be sexy. She probably didn’t think about that slit in the back! Yet I saw men paying her more attention than some of the other women. I never really thought about that until I started studying Islam because a lot of the Islamic literature for women does focus on hijab. Anyway, anything can be sexualized (heck, there are even veil fetishists). Our bodies as women will always be an issue whether we are covered or uncovered. Anyway, after all that rambling… I do agree with you, we have to be careful to not label people as having certain inner qualities based on their outer appearances.

  • Zayna

    Assalaamualaikum-Maybe I’m just moody lately but I’m not always feeling the hijabi fashion stuff. Perhaps it’s because I have always felt slightly uncomfortable around women who seem very much into lookism. Sometimes I feel sad about lookism and hijab. Honestly, if it wasn’t for my personal conviction some days I would just rather throw off my headscarf and parade into a sea of anonymity : ) Sometimes it feels like the fashion stuff is very judgmental-on all sides. Muslim and non-Muslim. Honestly at this point in my life-with the money I am making I am happy, if not entirely grateful to find something semi-decent on the sales rack or at the thrift store. If my clothes are clean and neat I am very, very happy. Just to keep it a little real. There is also the thin norm that still pervades fashion-hijabi or not. When I read things like “Hijabis” don’t have to be tent like or wear their mother’s sizes I let out a slight whimpering sigh.

  • Faith

    @everyone: Thanks for the feedback! I always appreciate it.@Zayna: I just wanted to clear up what I meant with the tentmaker comment. I wasn’t referring to clothing size (I’m sorry for giving off the sizest vibes) but rather to the idea that hijabis must wear oversize garments.

  • jamericanmuslimah

    You know, I’m a proud hijabi and have an Islamic Fashion blog but I’m starting to grow very tired of the hijab discussion. I’m tired of arguments between those who wear hijab and those who don’t. Those who want to express their individual style and fashion sense while maintaining hijab and those who prefer to dress simply. Non-Muslims who obsess about it and want us to take it off. Non-Muslims who reduce a Muslim woman’s identity to the hijab alone. Muslims who do the same. I’m so tired…I wish we could move on or least (amongst Muslims) respect each others decision and leave it at that.

  • Zeynab

    (nodding enthusiastically at Jamerican)

  • Sara

    Also “nodding enthusiastically at Jamerican” …

  • Nimmy

    Great article..I am a non-Arab..I practise Islam and all pillars of faith..I am not a rejector of hadiths neither..But still I dn’t wear hojab..Bcoz I understand that Allah told us to dress modestly.I see hijabis in the country i live now,with tight hijabs which reveal almost all curves..So there is no need for hijabis to look down at non-hijabis..I liked ur article so much..Very well presented.Mature use of words.No cliches..Good,very good..Btwn,I am a software enngr,but now a stay at home mom…

  • Asma Aziz

    Assalaamualaikum Faith:It is all good! I might have been having a sensitive day : )Jamerican your call for a moratorium is so right. I am not sure that everyone will get it but maybe us muslimahs can start thinking beyond this stuff. My question is how do we do that? We all know it’s time that we start to let each other alone to be our beautiful individual selves without judgment or ridicule.–Zayna—

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