The construction of femininity in the modern world is vastly different from pre-modern, and the politics of the hijab is right at the centre of it. The recent heightened focus on Muslim women’s clothing in Rio 2016 and, nearer to home, in France and Cannes, comes in a long line of calls over the years to ban the hijab (head scarf) and niqab (face veil). Much of this is historical Orientalist impression or racism that some in the style of tabloid journalism entertain to this day. Thankfully, Western societies have generally not succumbed to such calls. But one thing is for sure, the politics of it is complicated for Muslims, non-Muslims and society at large.
From the moment Muslim women are seen wearing the hijab or niqab in public, there is often a prima facie perception that they are victims of some kind of forced claustration. If it’s not a case of patriarchy denying women their freedoms, it’s because they’re somehow a threat to liberal society. Whatever the case, the implication is that either they or society need ‘saving.’ With that, everything about Muslim women – their hopes, anxieties and experiences, become reduced to a piece of cloth. But, time and again studies have disproved such perceptions.
Unfortunately, these perceptions have deep rooted foundations. The way many societies across the world today expect women to dress purports to have ‘nothing to do with pleasing men and everything to do with self-identification and self-gratification.’ It’s not a secret that the female body is an object of fantasy for many men, and of course it’s a central ingredient in the commercial commitment to ‘looks sell.’ In turn, when some women feel the urge to mould themselves to the desires of men—to be ‘sought after’—as perhaps implicit when some feel the need to make themselves ‘look good,’ modern society often disguises this instinct as the outcome of female self-confidence and freedom. In this sense, ‘women’s readiness to buy into the myths of sexual desirability’ is socially constructed as the “ultimate source of female potency, as if for women the only power they can wield is sexual power,” as some academics argue.
This is not the only narrative at play. Much like women (including Muslim women) generally do in everyday conversation, the media takes an interest with women’s bodies and clothing. This is not surprising given that fashion is ‘a means of symbolic display, a way of giving external form to narratives of self-identity.’ Thus, what celebrities and public figures wear or don’t wear, or the size of their hip or other body parts fills newspapers and TV shows. Talk of what Muslim women wear, then, can be interpreted as a continuation of ‘things’ the media like to talk about.
However, where it gets sinister is when talk of these ‘things’ lead to actual proposals to criminalise Muslim women’s clothing. How that isn’t itself misogynistic or authoritarian is perplexing; a point which many feminists, tabloid journalists and aggressive liberals have yet to come to terms with. Moreover, the claim that Muslim women need liberating simply because they wear the hijab or niqab without first understanding Muslim women is evidently a self-centered position of superiority.
Perceptions and debates across different countries are far from uniform, too. France, for example, has had a fetish-like fascination with women’s clothing for centuries, culminating in today’s haute couture (‘high fashion’ – custom fit clothing) and prêt-à-porter (‘ready to wear’ clothing). Countries differ in the boundaries they set for state secularity. Governments are under different pressures from modern terrorism and changing definitions of national identity. The public also have different understanding of Muslim clothing and tolerance for ‘otherness.’
The situation in Muslim countries isn’t straightforward either. From what I can see, there are long-standing differences between scholars about the necessity of the niqab. Many women today choose not to wear the hijab, too, not because they don’t want to but because they feel they haven’t reached a certain level of religious observance, lack courage, or because of anxieties about what others might say etc. A few governments prescribe public dress code, whilst others – the overwhelming majority, leave it up to individual Muslims to decide for themselves.
In the context of third generation Muslims of the UK, the question of cultural self-assertion is also relevant. It is of course human nature that if you stand out in a crowd, the chances are, others will look at you. Usually, this is nothing more than human perceptual senses at work, reflecting curiosity on the part of those perceiving something slightly out of the ordinary. Over time, as people get more used to things, they take less notice, until eventually it’s all part the same view. In the meantime, however, it can go badly wrong when fairness, respect or a caring attitude is neglected by onlookers.
It’s here that ‘Islam’s ancient cultural wisdom’ should help. Historically, Muslims tended to adapt their clothing to whatever cultures they were part of. Like the saree, salwar kameez or the African head wrap and blouse and skirt – all of which are indeginous to non-Arab peoples, they can be designed or worn with the requirement for modesty intact. And so the experience of third generation British Muslims can be interpreted as one of negotiating clothing that meshes them into British society while still fulfilling the requirement for modesty. The so-called burkini is perhaps a more recent attempt, and other examples can be seen in the growing Muslim women’s fashion industry. Where, the value of Muslims women’s clothing extends to more than modesty, as an antidote to the harms caused by objectifying women. Girls growing up learning that how they look is more important than how they feel or who they are. As for men, independent studies have shown that simply seeing pictures of glamorised skinny women on TV conditions men’s attractiveness towards such forms. Even though, “With airbrushing and digital manipulation,” as the actress Emma Watson noted, we create “an unobtainable image that’s dangerously unhealthy.”
Thus, ongoing indigenization means that clothing forms will evolve. In the meantime, it’s natural that some Muslims will feel let down when others complain that they don’t integrate more, and yet when they do join in for a swim it’s not right either, at least not in Cannes. Here, patience and continued education of the public is needed. Thank God for the emergence of some Muslim women who have begun to competently argue the case for Muslim women. Though, I sense also the need to make friends with tabloid journalists.
Lastly, there are also gender imbalances specific to Muslim communities that need urgent attention (as there are with society at large). Such issues are easy fodder for stereotypes and perceptions to be maintained, not to mention the way they limit the potential of Muslim women in society. Many causes can be cited, some to do with economic disadvantages, cultural taboos, lack of education, narrow interpretations of religious texts, lack of female scholarship etc.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the underlying principle for Muslim women’s clothing is the concept of haya, which is to act out of modesty, self-respect, shyness, virtue and decency. Haya conditions people’s behaviour with the anticipation of uneasy feelings of embarrassment in acting out something indecent or breaking a commitment to a social standard. The Prophet said in a hadith, “modesty is a part of faith.” The Prophet also said, “Every faith has an innate character. The character of Islam is modesty.” ‘Lowering the gaze,’ then, is as eminently a part of haya for men as it is for women to dress modestly. And modesty in dress is meant to move the focus both for men and women from the external to the internal, “making the beauty of the inner self the most important focus.” That’s also part of the complication when it comes to Muslim women’s clothing.