Veiled Muslim women and revolutionary modesty

Veiled Muslim women and revolutionary modesty February 22, 2012

I saw this floating around Facebook:

Could it be, I wonder, that for a Muslim woman, wearing a veil is not a symbol of oppression or male dominance, but a sign of religious commitment?

Could we perhaps even call it revolutionary modesty?

Now, all y’all who read my blog on a regular basis know that I am no fan of the way the church handles discussions of women’s clothing. So, don’t worry. I’m not about to tell you all what to wear or what not to wear.

But I want us to take some second looks.

I want us to take a second look at the Muslim woman in this picture.

I want us to take a second look at our so-called liberated American society.

I want us to take a second look at the church’s run-of-the-mill modesty sermon.

I want us to take a look at the clothes we wear and the reasons we wear them.

Last night, to prepare for my class the next day, I read a chapter in the book Shattering Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out. In the chapter “Tapping Our Strength,” Eisa Nefertari Ulen, an American Muslim feminist, shares her thoughts on veiled Muslim women in America (emphasis mine):

Are women who insist on wearing the hajib unselfconsciously oppressed, or–particularly in the land that gave us wet t-shirt contests–are they performing daily acts of resistance by covering their hair? In the West, where long blonde tresses signify a certain power through sexuality and set the standard for beauty, are veiled women the most daring revolutionaries? 

She continues:

By living in constant alignment with faith, they challenge the misogynist systems that compel too many Western women and girls to binge, purge, and starve themselves…American Muslim women who choose to cover undeniably act out real life resistance to the hyper-sexualization of women and girls in the West…

It takes a warrior to be a Muslim woman.

So often we non-veiled, non-Muslim women look at our veiled sisters and we feel pity that they do not have the freedoms that we have.

But what freedoms?

Is it free to feel the constant need to compare ourselves to photo-shopped bodies in magazines? Is it free to be enslaved by the ever-evolving capitalist fashion industry?  Is it free to have see those of our sex constantly objectified and sexualized by the media? Is it free to dress for the male gaze?

Is that really freedom?

Of course, some of you are already preparing your comments which are going to say, “Well, some veiled women really are oppressed!” And you’d be right.

But here’s another quote by  Ulen to ponder:

I think about the women I know who cover themselves and their daughters for the wrong reason, and then I remember I know some women who wear push-up bras for the same wrong reason: to please men.

And, I’d add, the modesty sermons in the Christian church are almost always fueled by that same wrong reason.

“Don’t let your brothers stumble!”

“A good Christian man will be more attracted to a modest woman!”

“Modest is hottest!”

…to please men.

As Ulen says,

Right now, half of American non-Muslim women encourage other women to be free by being naked and the other half desperately tries to get women and girls to cover up. Meanwhile, the men simply get dressed in the morning.

Whether we’re wearing hajibs or jeans or baggy t-shirts or mini-skirts, are our clothes making us slaves to patriarchy and consumerism? Are we letting debates over clothing keep us from being truly free? Or from embracing and loving and banding together with our sisters who dress differently?

Let’s think about that today.

I’d like to add that, it is about as easy to talk about Muslim women as it is to talk about Christian women. Islam is the second largest religion in the world and has billions of followers. Muslim women are diverse–some wear veils, some wear mini-skirts. Another thing to keep in mind! 

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  • Yes! I often think that when we think that Christians are being singled out we should “find and replace” Christian with Muslim, and see how it reads then. So the Jessica Ahlqvist story would be completely different if it was a Muslim prayer at issue – then everyone would be on about the 1st amendment.

    I think as human beings we find it so hard to really understand how much of what we think/believe/do is contextual and relative; very little is absolute for all times and places.

  • brambonius

    I’m not an American, and I don’t know how ‘American modesty’ works in a contexts where evangelicals are a majority. I do have some experience with European Islam though, since. I’ve been living in the North of Antwerp, where a lot of people live from more than 150 nationalities, including a lot of muslims.
    Belgium has 4% of muslims, mostly from Turkish and Moroccan origin, and most of them are here since the middle of the 20th century when they were brought to here as cheap workers to do labor belgian people didn’t want to do. Most of them live in a few big cities. Later immigrants are mostly refugees, from Pakistan for example…
    Most of these muslims are more conservative than in their homeland, and a lot of them are poor workingclass people with a low eductation in a strange country, which is a recipe for a ‘clash of civilisations’. My wife (and earlier on girlfriend/fiancee) hated that neigborhood, because of groups of men who were staring at every girl like a predator; (she also never went out alone after a certain hour because it was unsafe) There seemed to be a very unhealthy double moral standard in which Western women were there to be objectified and looked upon as lust objects, while their own women were veiled or at least wore a scarf and very respected. I always think of those men when I read the expression ‘rape culture’, and not without reason. Women who are not wearing a scarf and showing their hair or more of their body just ask for it when they are stared at, harassed or even raped… There can be pressure on girls to wear veils from the subculture, and I don’t know how aggressive it gets sometimes. But there things are taboo to speak about. Anyone who says something negative about a Moroccan is a ‘racist’. (Same problem with gays who get verbally insulted and sometimes violently hit all the time in Brussels)

    The strange thing is that I’ve heard visitors from Turkey, where most women in the city are not veiled at al, who were completely shocked by all of this… So it’s more of a cultural problem, and not a natural outcome of Islam, or of women wearing veils… Not at all…

    But the line of thinking is quite similar to American modesty. Don’t wear anything that might arouse a man sexually, or whatever he does to you is your fault…

    My wife had the reaction of dressing as unsexy and baggy as possible, but she did indeed think of wearing a scarf herself sometimes… The problem is that both revealing all or trying to hide, and even dressing casual and as impossible and unsexy all are all based on the male gaze as the most important factor. It’s different forms of the same slavery to other peoples eyes… Which will never bring freedom like your say…

    I’m not a woman so I maybe shouldn’t say much, but the way out would be to let your choices of dress start from somewhere else than the perception of male eyes… We men are not God nor gods, nor is the planet more our property than that of women (at least it shouldn’t be!)

    Just BE, you’re half of Gods image!!! Anyone who reduces half of Gods image to sexual objects blasphemes the Creator!!!

    • I agree! Like I said, it isn’t black and white, and based on culture, both Christians and Muslims can cover for the wrong reason and both Christians and Muslims can dress “unmodestly” for the wrong reasons.

      It’s more about cultural pressures than it is a natural outcome of what religion we are or what we wear.

      As the writer of the chapter said, we spend so much time worrying about our dress while men just get up in the morning. I think we need a new perspective.

  • Anonymous

    I read that the veil came from another culture and was a symbol of wealth for a married Islam women. Women who were prostitutes or poor were not allowed to cover there head. So when a muslim women is wearing her scarf in America what does she really think of us?

    • veiled gal’

      I am very very sorry but this conception is totally wrong.. I am a Muslim veil-observing woman Alhumdulillah and our religion orders us to cover ourselves so that men can’t see us and we don’t get involved in any morally-low actions..and poor women in Islam cover their heads too as a matter-of-fact poor women are more concerned about their modesty and integrity and NO-ONE can say it was a symbol of wealth..and it didn’t come from any other’s a part of our religion!!

    I do a decent amount of my grocery shopping at a Middle Eastern market in an area with a large population of Middle Easterners, many of whom are Muslim. It is uncommon for me to see a single other person of European descent in the market and I often feel like I’m being stared at. I’m white and I don’t cover my head, and I often take the lead in grocery shopping because, let’s face it, I’m just better at it than my husband. So I’m the one going up to the deli counter and asking for my olives and cheese and whatnot. The men who work there can be rude sometimes when I do this, but are much more cordial when I ask my husband to do the same. I wonder how they would respond if I covered my head.
    In the same market, I see women wearing hijabs and I’m instantly jealous. I want to be able to dress in that fashion without it being weird. I loved the time I spent in the Middle East, where I was able to wear a head scarf every day and it was totally fine. Not only do I like it because of the bright colors and patterns, or because I wouldn’t have to do ANYTHING with my hair in the morning, or because I see women with their cell phones tucked into their hijabs (okay, that’s just awesome), but I think it’s because they look so confident and at peace. They’re not worrying about what other people, primarily men, are thinking about what they’re wearing. This is simply what they wear.

    I wonder if us feminists could do better by taking our examples from these women instead of the bra-burners of the generation before us.

    • In defense of the “bra-burning” feminists, I must say that they never actually burned their bras. They did throw them away. It was during a protest of the Miss America pageant, which they were protesting because it commodified women’s bodies. It was more “we’re rejecting these garments that men give us to make us look sexier” than it was them trying to be immodest.

      But I agree, we can learn so much from Muslim feminists as well!

  • Norma

    Pretty much nothing makes my blood boil faster than hearing or reading the phrase “Modest is hottest.” I’ve spent far too much time in evangelical circles throughout my life and I’ve been subject to waaaaay too much talk about MY clothes relating to the problem of men lusting and waaaay NOT ENOUGH about men taking responsibility for their own sin life.

    But that’s not what I wanted to write about. I moved to a rather large American city three years ago and randomly, I rented an apartment that is tucked in between a Muslim neighborhood and an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. I’ve been surprised at observing both cultures. For example, the Muslim women are quite fashionable. Their burqas aren’t always entirely opaque and you can see what they wear beneath and their clothes are fancy. And they wear cool shoes. (And most of their girl children do not cover.)

    Anyway, living geographically between people practicing their religions in a strict fashion has given me pause when I think about attitudes toward modesty and people of other religions. These Jewish women would be lifted up as models of modesty for their uniform skirts, dark stockings, black shoes, and wigs. And like you said, my Muslim neighbors would be harnessed with the word “oppressed.” It kind of doesn’t make sense. And the Muslim men don’t send their wives and daughters to the back of the bus!

  • Thank you so much for this.
    I became a Christian about five years ago and I’m just beginning to find my voice in these grey, murky waters of discussion. I am finally willing to ask the tough questions about gender roles in the church. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

  • Two things, but I want to preface by admitting that I know next to nothing about Islam. Our church did a class on it once, but I’m still pretty ignorant on the religion as a whole.

    First (and I promise, I’m not trying to be racist or offensive here), there are a lot of African-Americans (born and raised in America) in the South who are turning to Islam. I note that just because I find it interesting. 🙂 I’ve no idea why it’s a thing specifically with black people down here, but there it is.

    Second, I thought the thing about oppression had more to do with the lack of legal and personal rights Islamic women have in the Middle East more than it had to do with the way a person is dressed. But, like I said, I could be completely wrong.

    Speaking of the clothes specifically, one of my favorite pictures is that National Geographic one where the Muslim (?) girl lowers her veil for a moment to allow the photographer to snap a quick picture of her. It’s just incredible!

    (Eaugh…this is like the third political and social deep issue I’ve commented on today; I need a break!! lol)

  • Well as a Muslim with THREE young daughters I have to say the issue of hijab is an interesting one to navigate. What I tell my girls is that they are NEVER responsible for what others think of them, but they are ALWAYS responsible for how they present themselves. From a religious viewpoint the Quran is pretty clear, It says over SO YOU WILL BE KNOWN AS A FREE BELIEVING WOMAN.
    So i take that and say to my girls its like being a cop or in the navy, etc. If you suit up there is a code of conduct while in uniform. If you can’t handle it then don’t suit up. But the ideal is to be able to wear the uniform with pride and demand the respect that comes with it.

  • Mae Evergreen

    I’m a year late in joining this discussion, but seeing as how there are many sincere Christians present, I wanted to add a few things. I am a Muslim woman who grew up as a Christian and discovered Islam in my 30’s. Hijab is a word in the Arabic language that means “curtain or veil”. I am unsure at what time period wearing the veil was abandoned amongst many Christians. In the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 11:6 says: “If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head.” Muslims acknowledge the Old Testament, the New Testament, and (the final revelation) the Holy Quran. In Quran, God further told women to pull their veils over their bosoms. At the time that the final revelation was sent down (the Holy Quran) women wore a veil on their heads, the same as Christian women and Jewish women. But, God told the women to pull the veil which covered their hair (it was long and flowing) around to cover their bosoms, also. In essence, the mode of dress Muslim women are supposed to wear is the same as the dress of the Catholic nun, if she pulled her veil around to the front. The oppression that exists in the world today, for Muslim women is actually an abandonment of Islam, and these oppressive practices are actually cultural. Islam provided women with equality (not sameness, but same value) with men. For example, before Quran was revealed, women were blamed for the fall of mankind. In Quran, God tells us that both Adam and Eve were responsible, and both were guilty. Not just Eve. “Anonymous” said: “I read that the veil came from another culture and was a symbol of wealth for a married Islam women. Women who were prostitutes or poor were not allowed to cover there head. So when a muslim women is wearing her scarf in America what does she really think of us?” Before Quran was revealed, this was true, in pagan Arabia–amongst the pagans living there, and only pertained to the face veil (niqab, burqa, chadri) and covering of the bosom, not the veil worn on the head. But, once women were told about veiling, they felt the freedom to veil the face, and those rules no longer applied. They wanted to cover their faces and bosoms. The reasons for wanting to veil were these: for protection against assault from men (men do not want what they can’t see) and to force people to judge them based on their character and piety. If you can’t judge someone by their physical appearance, then you’re forced to judge them on who they are on the inside. And that’s what most women want, isn’t it? To be judged for their mind and soul? And lastly, in the Holy Quran, God put some of the responsibility on men as well: “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty” (Surat Al Noor 24:30-31) Men are told to lower their gaze, they’re told to not even look at women, and that God is well aquainted with all that they do!

    • Mae Evergreen

      I felt that I should also say that I have shared this to the best of my knowledge, I beg your forgiveness if I have said anything incorrect!