Modesty, Veiling, and Fashion


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


Wearing the headscarf as a signifier of one’s tradition is not an easy task for those who have adopted it. In an age where overexposure seems to be the socially acceptable way to dress, the ability to control how much or how little others can see of one’s body can be incredibly satisfying and powerful.

This ability to control enables women to define their own identities and agency by placing the power of representation into their hands and away from the media, fleeting fashion trends, or so-called experts. Women who choose to cover up are challenged on many sides, accused by some of affronting Western understandings of equality and liberation, and by others who say they are promoting a gender-biased interpretation of Islam.

What is left out of the debate is that women who make the decision to wear the headscarf are not being forced to do so; on the contrary, they are exercising their right to do so. Western media and scholars have a tendency to homogenize Islamic practices and, in particular, the practice of veiling adopted by some women. We have to divorce our imaginations from identifying the headscarf as a monolithic, backward, and oppressive custom, as Western media often depicts it. The reality is, the notion of global gender justice is far too nuanced, complex, and diverse to simply insert and assert patterns of Western metrics as a prevailing standard applicable in all countries.

As Americans, we have to make room for new forms of Muslim subjectivity gauged by a uniquely American reference point—freedom of expression. Not to do so means that we are grossly neglecting our core ideals of liberation. We must strive against standardized notions of equality, liberation, and gender egalitarianism, and instead, respect the variedways in which women express their identities—ethnic, national, or religious.

Islam establishes modesty as a universal code of conduct for both males and females. While many Muslims believe the headscarf to be a religious obligation, the Qur’an states that there is no compulsion in religion. Thus, modesty in attire came to be expressed through local cultural norms. Within a modern context, to what extent a woman expresses her modesty is not only a gauge of her religiosity, but also serves as a means of identifying as a Muslim.

Despite the Qur’an’s assertion that there is no compulsion in Islam, and the varying interpretations of modesty, there are Muslim women around the world for whom the headscarf is not a choice but an imposition. This misapplication of cultural norms must not eclipse the fact that women’s choice to wear the headscarf is rooted in a plethora of reasons; thus, we cannot ascribe a univocal narritive to all women who have adopted the headscarf.

American Muslim women who choose to wear the headscarf have been the targets of verbal and physical abuse, and some have opted not to wear their headscarf out of fear for their lives. Their parents often beg them to remove the headscarf for their own peace of mind. Conversely, some women have chosen to continue to don their headscarves in spite of the negative reactions they may provoke because the headscarf represents their own form of agency.

Muslim women in America straddle a dual identity—one that allows free exercise of religion and one that promotes freedom of expression, thus synthesizing agency and choice. We need to demonstrate that one can be both Muslim and modern, and we do this by positively mediating a new trend: an adoption of a modest expression of fashion. Modest fashion can become a conduit of convergence between the two seemingly dialectical forces.

It is no surprise that fashion brands like American Eagle Outfitters have embraced this trend and offered a denim hijab, sending a clear message that being American and Muslim are not mutually exclusive, and that Muslim women in hijab are just as much a part of the fabric of America as are T-shirts, jeans, and cowboy hats. Brands that previously had not seen a need to cater to the fashion preferences of women of Jewish, Mormon, or other faiths with religious dress codes are embracing Muslim women, seeing the potential profits that can be reaped by serving this growing niche of underserved yet lucrative global Muslim markets. This has produced a net positive outcome in terms of the level of visibility and inclusivity Muslim women have experienced on a national and local level.

Muslim women like myself are actively changing the narrative of American Islam by embracing modesty in a fashionable way. As entrepreneurs of modest fashion, we not only reclaim what it means to be a modest woman in the West, we also mediate between our dual identities as Americans and Muslims. Our tenacity in choosing not to compromise our values despite external pressures and a lack of clothing options in the fashion marketplace has gained us recognition by mainstream fashion producers such as H&M, Zara, Mango, and Tommy Hilfiger. They have begun to cater to Muslim women’s sartorial needs so we can dress in ways that we believe to be proper and in keeping with our overall lifestyle, while still being fashionable.

Modest fashion for American Muslim women may be one way to proclaim one’s pious self, but more importantly, it is an expression of an agent who is in control of making her own choices, rooted in conviction in her religious practices. Recognizing and respecting Muslim women for their differences will help them to thrive in their own spaces.