Tag Archives: hijab

Between Skinny Jeans and Abaya

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.

hijab

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.

The secret world of Muslim women

*Forgive me for the Today Tonight-esque title, I couldn’t help myself.

Picture this. A mass of frenetic yet graceful activity. Music blaring, lights flashing. That moment of realisation in the middle of the dance floor of just how much life is inside each and every one of us. Insistent, carefree, reckless life. Am I describing a club? I’m not, because I’ve never set foot inside one and have no plans to do so. I’m describing the world of women-only functions, a world I only really began to understand after I started wearing hijab.

A woman who wears hijab can, depending on what she wears, be a complete visual mystery. What lies beneath the veil? This preoccupation fascinates and titillates in popular Western discourse. This kind of talk gives me cold shivers and the urge to punch someone in the face. My brain shuts down and starts running through the (few) words I learned in my Social Inquiry degree: Orientalism, the male gaze, exoticising. (I haven’t seen Sex and the City 2, but I hear there’s a terrible scene in which niqabis unveil, showing off their party outfits underneath.) But I must admit that I find myself reflecting on the nature of modesty and hijab each every time I go to one of these parties.

I remember the first one I attended. I had only just begun to wear the hijab and was unused to the concept of this glorification of removal. I’m not sure what I was expecting: some food, a bit of background music maybe. I arrived and was immediately ushered to a room buzzing with activity. In one corner girls carefully unpinned their scarves and primped their perfectly coiffed hair, while in another girls pouted painted lips and posed for selfies. In short, I imagine the scene would not have been out of place in any club in the city, except for all the abayas strewn across the chairs and the prayer mat tucked discreetly behind the door.

National_Womens_Party

The club atmosphere didn’t end here. Music blared at a deafening volume, while on the dance floor girls carefully avoiding stepping on each other’s toes in their platform heels. I could barely recognise some people; here we were larger-than-life versions of ourselves from our glittery eyeshadow to our painted toenails. I hadn’t known what to expect. As a new hijabi, I hadn’t understood the appeal of it all. Frankly, I found it confusing and somewhat disconcerting to see Muslim girls behaving in this way. Imitating the kuffar, my mind screamed, even as I joined in the revelry. Some people seemed to switch in and out of party mode as easily as they changed outfits; for me, the self-consciousness was never more than a song away.

Several years on and several parties later, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it all. If I had to offer a reason for the popularity of these parties, I’d suggest that it has something to do with the desire for release. Muslim women are always on show; we feel the need to be ‘modest’ enough to please Muslims but lively enough so as not to appear oppressed to our non-Muslim friends and colleagues. It’s hard to just be. Arguably, this mindfulness is at the heart of what it is to be a believer. Muslims, whether male or female, are supposed to be in control of our actions at all times and not lose ourselves in any worldly activity. We don’t drink or take drugs or have casual sex. Many of us don’t even listen to music, a somewhat tamer form of release. All things considered, it’s unsurprising then that people have created an alternate space in which to  let loose.

I can’t make up my mind as to whether I like these parties or not. I enjoy them, certainly. But I’m always slightly disgusted at myself afterwards, as if I’ve unlocked a part of myself I’d rather not let loose. I’m well aware that many people are disapproving of such parties and even boycott them. From an Islamic perspective, there are definite issues people have with them. I won’t go into those because they’re straightforward enough. From a sociological perspective, it’s slightly worrying that there seems to be so much tension to let go of. I also think culture has a part to play in all this; my culture has no real element of segregation and as such, there is no ‘female space’ to revel in. Perhaps I’m over-thinking it all and it really is just a bit of harmless fun before we go back to our lives as responsible, tax-paying adults.

Before being swept up into the reverie at the last party I attended, I wondered what a non-Muslim would make of the scene. Would they conclude that we were ‘just like them’, underneath it all? Would our free-wheeling behaviour in this women-only environment confirm in their minds that Islam is oppressive and repressive? I wondered too what a Muslim man would think of it all. Would he even recognise the girl he sees every day in skirts and blouses, now similarly attired to any non-Muslim girl out on a Friday night? Would he be impressed or dismayed?

Do you feel comfortable at these parties? Why do you think they’ve become such an institution?

The Hijab Factor

I’ve been wearing hijab for approximately 3.5 years now. Long enough to have experienced the amazing sisterhood and occasionally its ugly twin sister, condemnation, but not long enough to have forgotten what it was like as an undercover (ironic, isn’t it) Muslim. I have to admit that it was pretty fun sitting in tutorials about Islam without having to say again and again that no, my dad/brother/non-existent husband did not force me into wearing hijab. It was fun going to job interviews and not being quizzed about my religion instead of my work experience. But it wasn’t always fun being part of the Muslim community as a non-hijabi. At times I felt the need to prove to others that just because I wore a t-shirt didn’t mean that I skipped my prayers or dated boys. I worried that observant Muslim men wouldn’t consider me, then worried in turn that if I put on the hijab some Muslim guys wouldn’t consider me.

Like the scaredy-cat I am, it took aaaages for me to finally put it on, but it’s now as much a part of me as my hair was. As for marriage, I’ve observed a whole lot of different scenarios in the community. In volunteering circles, it’s become a lot more common for non-hijabis to be welcomed with open arms. Consequently, their male counterparts will get plenty of opportunities to get to know them beyond their external appearance, and as such, draw more informed conclusions about their level of religious practice. But this doesn’t mean that it’s an even playing field. There are plenty of guys who wouldn’t consider a girl who doesn’t wear hijab, regardless of her level of religious observance. It’s not that they dislike women who don’t wear it or see them as inferior; they simply feel that hijab is a pre-requisite in a potential wife.

Before you decry the apparent unfairness of it all, bear in mind that there are just as many, if not more guys who specifically do not want to marry a woman who wears hijab. They fear that she will be too observant, forgetting that there when it comes to practice there is no such thing as too much. Some of them come from cultures where hijab is uncommon, and as such they are unsure of how to relate to a woman who wears it. Many of these guys do not wish to be identifiably Muslim, and with a wife on their arm in hijab anonymity goes out the window. Goodbye blending in, hello stares, glares and ‘bewares’. Undeniably life becomes a lot more complicated as a visible member of a minority group, and while it saddens me that guys would discriminate on this basis, part of me understands their fears and concerns.

While I’ve mentioned attitudes on either end of the spectrum, from what I’ve observed a large chunk of Muslim guys fall somewhere in the middle. Their stance can be summed up as ‘hijab would be nice, but if she’s nice I’m happy’. For these guys, hijab is a bonus rather than a pre-requisite. They would support their wife’s decision to wear it and even gently encourage it, but they feel that there are more important factors to take into consideration than whether or not she wears hijab. If  I’m correct and this is the most prevalent attitude, women who don’t wear hijab in fact get two bites at the cherry: they will be considered by these guys as well as the ones who refuse to consider hijab-wearing women. But it doesn’t always feel like a win. When speaking to these girls they have referred to a seeming need to display the extent of their religiousity; they are assumed to be not as observant as girls in the hijab and so must put in some work to show that this isn’t necessarily the case.

Hijab-the icing on the cupcake, or the entire cupcake?

Hijab-the icing on the cupcake, or the entire cupcake?

I don’t intend to condemn any of the above attitudes. After all, people certainly have the right to filter out potential partners based on whatever criteria they see fit. If a guy prefers a girl in hijab, that is in fact understandable and perhaps commendable. God knows hijab-wearing women don’t experience many forms of positive discrimination, so I’m happy to take this one! But I also know plenty of amazing sisters who do not wear hijab, and I would hate to think that they are automatically pigeonholed as irreligious. (My pre-hijab self was pretty awesome, if I do say so myself.) My point is just that in different contexts, different considerations come into play. My point is also that hijab rocks, and if a guy doesn’t think so, he isn’t necessarily a bad person, he just isn’t the guy for you.

Have you ever experienced discrimination on the basis of wearing hijab from a potential suitor? Or on the other hand, have you ever experienced discrimination for not wearing it? Guys, what are your thoughts on how important hijab is in a potential partner?