Why Do You Dress Like That?
Narrated by: Najiyah Umm Waheeb
As a Muslim woman I am occasionally asked about my manner of dress. I always try to give a friendly and informative answer, but often either I or the questioners are in a hurry, and they walk away as confused as ever. So allow me to share with you a bit about the Muslim woman's dress in this written form.
Women's covering like this did not begin with Muslims. Both the Torah and the New Testament instruct women to cover their heads. Consider images of Mary the mother of Jesus. She is always dressed exactly like Muslim women dress today! Practicing Jewish women still cover their heads, although they now do it with wigs instead of scarves, and some Christian sects like the Mennonites and Amish have also retained the head covering. In God's last revelation to mankind, the Qur'an, He also instructs women to cover their beauty.
"Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof, that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers..." (Qur'an An-Nur, 30-31)
What it Signifies:
Many Westerners associate this type of modesty with submission and the subjugation of women. The reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, they sometimes witness in the media truly oppressed Muslim women, who, ignorant of their own faith are treated poorly in the name of Islam by unscrupulous or equally uneducated men. Secondly, their own history and scriptures predispose them to this belief. Commonly called the "Eve complex" there is a school of thought in Christianity which blames Eve for Adam's sin of eating from the forbidden fruit. The Church's historical view of women as temptresses and soulless vessels of sexual evil is a result of this belief. Additionally Paul associates modesty on the part of women with submission to their husbands when he says in I Corinthians 11:3 "...the head of every women is the man....." But in Islam, although the husband is considered the leader of the family (as every organization has a leader), the two concepts of modesty and obedience are not linked as they were by Paul.
God says in the Qur'an that the believing women should "cast their garments over their persons (when abroad); that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful." [Qur'an Al-Ahzab,59]
So Muslim woman's manner of dress is not a symbol of her submission to man, but rather a symbol of her belief in God. It was prescribed by God to protect women from co modification, objectification and sexualization, which occur when they display themselves to all, and sundry rather than reserving their beauty as something private and precious.
The benefits of covering are many. A Muslim woman forces people to deal with her on a person-to-person level. She is known for her talents, intellect and personality only, not as "fat", "beautiful" or "a red-head". She maintains dignity at a time when women are constantly being treated in a sexually degrading manner- she is not sexually harassed or date raped. A Muslim woman retains the respect and reverence that Western women gave up when they began to mistakenly associate lack of modesty with equality and freedom. Muslim women also retain a healthy body image- young Muslim ladies don't suffer from anorexia or bulimia, spend countless hours on manipulative "beauty magazines" or countless dollars feeding a piranha-like beauty industry in an effort to gain the acceptance of a society that values youth and sex and unattainable perfection. Muslim women are comfortable with themselves, confident and dignified in their covering.
In the West the Women' Lib movement was greatly needed. But in reality such a movement was not necessary, because God granted women all the rights they fought for and even more, 1400 years ago. Islam guarantees women the right to be educated, to choose their own spouses, to initiate divorce, to work outside the home, to own property, to own a business and to keep any money earned for themselves if they so choose. Under Islamic law, women have always voted, held public office, participated in society, and spoken out if they disagree with leaders. Muslim women are also the only women anywhere guaranteed inheritance.
The Face Veil:
At the time of the Prophet Mohammed (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), the "outer garments" with which the women covered themselves were sheet-like cloaks which covered everything, leaving only the eyes showing if necessary. There is a difference of opinion among Muslim scholars as to whether the face must then, by definition, be covered. I personally believe that in all matters the correct interpretation is that of the companions of the Prophet himself (peace be upon him) and the earliest scholars. By far most of them taught that the face must be covered. In my research of the Qur'an I also cannot see another interpretation! I am part of a growing movement of "modern", educated Muslim women who are striving to return to this spiritually uplifting practice. God willing it will then lose its reputation as being oppressive and will come to stand for faith, dignity and respect, as it originally did.