Friday, June 3, 2011

Muslim. Hijab. Conservative Garb No Longer? (Redux)

I wrote a piece on my other blog (which I have since ended) a few years ago regarding a particularly interesting site I saw of a young lady wearing a hijab and hot pants. Yes, hot pants. I had also seen Muslim women in public wearing a hijab and tight, low cut shirts and the like. And it made me wonder that maybe this was a new trend in Islamic religious culture? Was this an example of Muslim women seeking a freer mode of dress? Or a particular female's way of rebelling against her Muslim religion and culture? However, there is also the idea that she was not in fact Muslim, though her Hijab points otherwise from my general experience. But even if she was not Muslim the pairing of the two garments still points to a dramatic cross of style and dress.  

I have since matured in various ways but still find myself wondering many of the same questions that I did in 2009. 
As a young inquisitive and intellectual American woman I have things that just appeal to my very nature, and the place of women in Islam is one of them. I studied Archaeology in college and one of my favorite classes was Women in the Ancient Near East. One of the topics I remember was dress of women and how the environment (such as living in Bedouin tribes) was a main factor in what women wore. I learned that clothing much like the burqa and niqab were adorned by Bedouin tribes as early as c. 200 AD (before the creation of Islam) because of harsh weather conditions such as sand storms.
And as I grew up in America I took great interest in Muslim dress for women, especially when I had Muslim friends who chose not to wear the hijab and those that did. I had no idea that wearing the hijab (or niqab/burqa) was a choice (though depending on the sect it isn't) or that Muslim women questioned whether or not wearing such clothing was a necessary part of their faith. I consider myself a feminist on some points and like many outsiders I wondered if it was quite fair the clothing differences I saw between Muslim women and men here in America. I would see a man in jeans, sneakers, and a t-shirt standing next to a woman in a niqab and a part of me wondered what the reasoning was behind the woman being covered and the man not. 

I admit that as someone with only outside experience with Islam, I could only speculate. I found it unfair that a woman had to cover herself while a man didn't. But then I had the chance to spend a month working in the United Arab Emirates and many of my thoughts were turned upside down. I admit that I like to show some skin and before my experience over there, I would choose low cut tops and things that accentuated my ample curves. I liked the attention, sue me. 

But during my month in Sharjah, the most conservative out of the Emirates, I dressed much more conservatively and observed many types of Muslim dress that I had no idea existed. I saw women who even covered their hands with gloves and was fascinated. Why did they wear the burqa over the niqab over the hijab (and vice versa)? Did they have a choice in what they wore or was it dictated by their husband/ male relative (a common idea which is sometimes (but not always, unfortunately) a misconception)?  
In a conversation I learned something that totally blew my mind. Many woman choose the burqa and niqab because they believe that their bodies should only be seen by their husbands. And that small conservative part of me couldn't help but be enamored with such an idea, but only if it was a choice. As a Christian I fully appreciate the "body is a temple" idea and have tried to incorporate into my more than before conservative dressing style.  And some people will make the argument that these burqa and niqab choosing women have been indoctrinated into a way of thinking that stifles their freedom, and some women may have been, but definitely not all. Many choose to wear the niqab and burqa, because they believe that is the proper way to showcase themselves. And that choice is what many, especially many of those outside of Islam, fail to realize.

After reading this very enlightening blog post I’ve Gone and Done It Now: What It’s Like Without the Muslim Headscarf, about a Muslim woman who questioned the necessity of wearing the hijab and why she wore one, I was reminded of all my questions regarding Muslim women and their form of dress. This blogger, nadiaelawady, experimented with going out in public without her hijab and wrote about her struggles with trying to find the truth. She saw that she had become invisible in a place where Muslim dress was uncommon and knew that if she had done the same in her home of Egypt, the reception would have been much different. 
She wondered about many things that I myself wonder:
Why is the hijab considered obligatory in Islam for women? Is it really obligatory or was it just something that a group of men decided was most appropriate for women of that time and age to protect them? Does what applied more than 1400 years ago still apply now? And if so, why? Does a woman really need to cover herself from head to toe to avoid being harassed or being seen as a sex object?
At times I've even wanted to experiment with wearing the hijab to experience the reactions of others to try to understand what a Muslim woman goes through in America. I found her questions very interesting and that she was still trying to identify how certain conservative dress was connected to her faith. The most important thing I found in her post was the fact that she had a choice. 

Another blog I read went even further in enlightening me. This particular blogger wrote about how she went through a spiritual transformation where she became very conservative and strict. But she later questioned her very being and if what she wore and her actions was the correct Islamic form. 

Meanwhile, for myself, my own views changed over time.  I went back and examined the verses of the Quran referring to covering.   I asked myself what was the purpose in covering.  Was it supposed to be a way of showing others how religious we were, the way that we had understood it?  If that was so, how was one to show devotion in a Muslim society?  And, whether in extreme secularist ruled Muslim countries or in the West, why was it that Muslim men saw the right for women to cover as a necessity?  While there are male dress codes in Islam, they are not nearly as so obvious.  The reality is that by asking young women to bear the emblem of the community we are asking a lot …
And it occurred to me that that wasn’t what the actual teaching was; the actual teaching was about modesty and not showing off.  If I were making a display of my religiosity, I was hardly being modest.   And, if I covered and were not the most devout and chaste woman, would I not be making a mockery of the modesty I was claiming?
Reading these blogs has further garnered my interest in the politics behind wearing the hijab, niqab, and burqa. 
Why do some women choose them as a lifestyle versus those that only wear them during prayers? How has the hijab evolved- religiously, socially, culturally, and in the fashion industry? Is it now becoming only a garment meant to showcase a religious connection/belief, no longer a religious lifestyle? And how does one equate a garment equated with such conservatism with the continually more risque/revealing fashion trends of today? Does it even need to be? 

What's your take on the hijab, niqab, and/or burqa? Do you see it as a choice to wear them or not? Have you noticed a change in the fashion of women wearing hijabs?   

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