I made a bit of a faux pas the other day. I’d come straight from work and went to pray taraweeh in an unfamiliar place, still dressed in my winter work staples: a knee-length coat with fitted pants to be easily tucked into boots. I realised on my way that I’d probably be the only woman there in pants, let alone fitted ones, and I wasn’t wrong. I cursed my own stupidity and vowed to carry an emergency abaya in my bag for next time.
This dance between skinny jeans and abaya isn’t a new one. When I first started wearing the hijab in my late teens, I was fascinated by maxi skirts and maxi dresses, the uniform of the MSA faithful. Later, I gave myself a little bit more leeway, adopting a uniform of dresses over jeans. Given my propensity to trip over my own feet, it felt safer and more practical to be wearing pants. I’d already had a long skirt caught in an escalator twice and I had no intention of repeating the experience.
But I never felt quite right in skinny jeans. I didn’t feel like it reflected where I was at, nor where I aspired to be. My mum and closest friends would half-jokingly tease that my pants were too tight, and I’d half-jokingly agree, but then just keep on wearing them. I felt self-conscious if I had to unexpectedly go somewhere ‘Islamic’, tugging at my shirt-dress as if to magically lengthen it. I decided to charity-bin the skinny jeans once and for all. I threw them out and resolved to only wear dresses, skirts and the occasional pair of baggy pants henceforth.
For a long time, I stuck to my resolution, even with my daily trips up and down the giant escalators at the train station. I wore business jackets with maxi dresses and maxi hijabs and maxi everything. I felt slightly uncool, but in the coolest way possible. But it wasn’t to last. Somehow, the lure of skinny jeans drew me back in to its orbit, and this is where I’m hovering at now, between skirts and skinny jeans, depending on the occasion, context and precisely how lazy I’m feeling. I’ve developed my own internal modesty-meter, and although it may swing and tip over from time to time, it’s important to me to at least think critically about what I wear and why I’m wearing it.
This process of self-reflection and self-auditing is hardly unique. Some women wear turbans in some contexts but not others. Many consciously change and adapt their clothing to suit their environment, whether out of fear of censure or simply out of respect for the culture of the organisation. The complexity of why we dress the way we do is difficult to capture. Does a person wear abaya because they think it looks cute, because they feel it’s the most modest option or because it’s the most commonly worn item in their social circle? Does a person wear skinny jeans because of ease or because they think it’s trendy? Any act which involves an element of public consumption is going to also involve an element of performance, of trying to project a certain image, and those who wear hijab are no more immune to this than those who don’t.
I find that discussions on modesty tend to be dominated by two discourses, both of which I find at least somewhat problematic. The one discourse places inordinate and often grossly inappropriate emphasis on women’s bodies and dress. In its crudest form, we see women’s clothing being explained through references to lollipops, burritos and any number of rude ‘this is not hijab’ comments on Instagram. This kind of policing is often grounded in deeply misogynistic ideas on the role of women in helping to ‘control’ men’s lustful gazes and that a woman’s outward appearance is inherently linked to her virtue, chastity and sexual availability. It also places undue emphasis on substance over form, ignoring the fact that a skirt or a dress can be just as tight and form-fitting as a pair of pants.
As awful, cringe-worthy and offensive as these ideas are, the push-back has often been expressed in counterproductive ways. Just as outward appearance is given disproportionate weight by the lollipop brigade, those who oppose them are frequently guilty of stomping all over the importance of modest dress for both men and women. We are told that what you wear means nothing, that it’s all about what’s on the inside. We aren’t allowed to make any references to people’s clothing out of fear to be seen to be ‘judging’ them, even if they are people we know well. In some circles, reverse snipes about the supposed bad behaviour of women in hijab are common. Even those who defend hijab often do so based purely on super-fun-happy liberal notions of freedom of choice and the supposed empowerment it affords its wearer. The increasing commodification of hijab into a cool and hip fashion accessory serves as yet another means of desacralising and sanitising the conversation for a modern audience.
I don’t think I’ll ever quit wearing pants entirely, but who knows, I may just convert my skinny jeans into a dusting cloth sometime in the not-too-distant-future. (If my mum had her way, she’d be polishing our coffee table with them right now.) Inner and outer modesty is a journey, and like all journeys, it’s easiest when undertaken both self-reflexively and as a collective effort. This means thinking about what we wear and how we can strive for both better inner and outer standards of modesty, and it means picking each other up when we fall with kindness, diplomacy and with no references to edible foodstuffs whatsoever.