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Understanding modesty – a look at Muslim women

By Aabeda Masra, Communications Intern

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Once a wise Islamic scholar, Imam Khalid Hosseni said, “…let’s not ask Barbara Walters about how Muslim women feel, let’s not ask CNN, ABC, FOX… if you want to be fair ask a Muslim woman… but the problem is no one really wants to ask Muslim women.”

It could not be agreed more that in the discourse of Muslim women and their rights and freedom, the only voices that go unheard are the women in question.

Muslims, especially Muslim women, strongly stand by the conviction that women’s liberation lie in hijab.

Muslim women choose to cover themselves, so that they will not be sexually objectified. As more and more cultures fall prey to valuing women only for their bodies, this is an outstanding achievement for Muslim women. Hijab is more than a piece of clothing; it is what frees women from societal pressure that idealizes certain anatomical features of women over others. She is not an object to be showcased for the pleasure of men. The point of hijab is for the women to focus on their own sense of identity and contentment rather than pleasing others.

Niqab is a face covering that leaves all but the eyes uncovered. However, some women opt to cover their eyes too. Some Muslims believe that hijab also encompasses the covering of face while others disagree and say face, hands and feet can remain visible. Most of the arguments against a woman wearing niqab is that her face is not visible and facial expression is important as part of non-verbal communication. Facial expressions are not the only nonverbal cues; there are others such as: personal space, gestures and tone of voice. These varying methods of covering stem form subjective interpretations of what modesty means in Islam and the different ways in which women choose to express it reflect the difference in their understanding of how Islam is practiced.

One of the largest misconceptions is that hijab and niqab are oppressive to women, however, this is far from the truth. Islam requires both men and women to be modest in how they present themselves. For men, it is equally mandatory as expressed in the Qur’an to “lower their gazes” when they meet another woman.  Muslim men are also asked to dress appropriately and not to wear revealing clothes. Hijab is not just a piece of clothing; it signifies preserving modesty and chastity, and is a practice of both Muslim men and women.

Due to negative media representations that have distorted the purity of the hijab, Muslim men and women have to constantly defend their beliefs. However, in other faiths, the followers are never frowned upon or pitied for their religious actions. As recent as the 19th century, Western women were expected to wear long dresses and layers of petticoats; and, in the name of sheltering and protecting them, society treated them as second class citizens. Western women were also treated as property bartered in marriage dowries, and their consent in marriage was not always deemed vital.

On the contrary, there are Western women who have embraced the idea of covering and have historically covered. For example, nuns and Jewish women have chosen to dress modesty and cover their hair. These women share similar values to those of Muslim women who view covering as a gesture of modesty and self-respect. For this reason, it is hypocritical of a society to claim Muslim women are oppressed because they wear hijab, but readily accept the decisions of women who follow other religions to cover.

Islam was the first religion to extend women equal rights that are similar to men about 1400 years ago. A whole Surah called, Un-Nisa (The Women) elaborates on the privileges women have. Though a single woman is obligated to have a guardian (husband or male relative), he is by no means her owner. And, a husband is seen as the protector of his wife, but she is not subservient to him.

History has shown that Muslim women have not just sat at home and cooked dinner but have successfully run nations and companies. Presently, Bangladesh and Mali are two countries run by Muslim women Prime Ministers, Sheikh Hasina Wazed and Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé, respectively.  Pakistan is another country who was led by a female named Benazir Bhutto from 1993 to 1996. Another example is Dr. Nahed Taher who is the founder and CEO of Gulf One Investment Bank in Saudi Arabia; she was also recognized by Forbes in the list of top 100 most influential women in 2006.  All these women are known for wearing either hijab or abaya.

Hijab stands for empowerment for a Muslim woman.  Despite such strong convictions, many democratic countries such as France, Belgium and Netherland have either outlawed burqa and niqab or are proposing to ban them even though their constitutions guarantee freedom of religion.  These nations justify their actions in the name of equality.

Muslim women do not have to uncover themselves to be liberated.  Hijab is a huge part of their identities, signifying their freedom and choice to present themselves modestly.

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One Response to “Understanding modesty – a look at Muslim women”

  1. Jamie Brown says:

    I live and work in Saudi Arabia and many of my students are Muslim, though from several different traditions of the religion.

    I understand the covering of self to protect and maintain dignity. What I do not understand is the cultural response, which is that men are not expected to control themselves. I know that men are told to “lower their gaze” and to dress modestly as well, I see this all over Saudi and other majority Muslim nations. I suppose, what frustrates me as a non-believer is that men (culturally, not religiously) are not held as accountable for their gazes and dress. I see couples, every day, where the woman is covered in fully covered while the man or men around her are in shorts and t-shirts. Why are the men not held as socially accountable as the women?

    My students are frustrated by this, and they point to this discrepancy as one of the reasons why outsiders/westerners judge Islam as being oppressive to women. I agree, although that is a very limited misunderstanding, it could be one of the reasons, since the cultures where Islam is the majority religion seem to socially enforce the rules for women more strictly than those for men.

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