Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Muslim Women: Between the Miniskirt and the Veil

The aftermath of 9/11 saw a barrage of attacks against Islam in the media. The media focus was to put the Muslims in the West in the spotlight. Yet again our identity was being questioned; yet again our position in Britain was being redefined.

Anti-Muslim sentiment has been rife throughout Europe. This climate has led to much discussion about the position of Muslims in Western societies, especially with regards to the need to ensure the integration of Muslims into the host society. Many statements made by politicians, highlight the agenda of the government. Peter Hain, the former UK Minister for Europe, said; "We need to work much harder to integrate Muslims in particular, with the rest of society" and Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, stated; "As British Muslims - and their European counterparts - become more and more integrated into the fabric of our democracies, we may over time see the emergence of a distinctly European Islam" [Prospect Magazine, October 2002].

The Muslim woman has not been spared from this conspiracy of the integrationists. The quest to see the Muslim woman truly integrated into the Western society is a quest to strip her of her distinct Islamic identity and to distance her from Islam.

The Media Onslaught

Ever since the West launched its war on Islam (also known as the 'war on terrorism') there has been much said about the 'Burka' [veil] and its oppression of the Muslim woman, i.e. it symbolising her inferior position in society, and the West has boasted of its 'unveiling of Afghanistan'. Those involved in this overt campaign include high profile political and public figures such as the US First Lady Laura Bush and the British Prime Minister's wife Cherie Blair who commented openly in a press conference; "Nothing more I think symbolises the oppression of the woman than the Burka." They have been joined by others in their demonisation of the Muslim woman which was highlighted by the French presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's statement concerning the wearing of the Khimaar [headscarf] and Jilbaab [outer garment]; "It is good, it protects us from the ugly women."

This excoriation of the Islamic dress code for women has been matched by leading Western journalists such as Polly Toynbee in 'Behind the Burka' in the Guardian:

"The top-to-toe Burka, with its sinister, airless little grille, is more than an instrument of persecution, it is a public tarring and feathering of female sexuality. It transforms any woman into an object of defilement too untouchably disgusting to be seen. It is a garment of lurid sexual turns them into cowering creatures demanding and expecting violence and victimisation...More moderate versions of the garb have much the same effect, inspiring the lascivious thoughts they are designed to stifle."

These are just some examples of the recent vilification of the Khimaar and Jilbaab - the modern day 'attack on the veil'. In addition to such public statements, many Muslim women who cover in accordance with the Shari'ah face on a daily basis, a barrage of comments and criticisms regarding their Islamic attire - these range from shows of sympathy for the 'poor oppressed covered woman' to abuse and threats hurled at the woman who dares to cover in Western society.

With such firmly rooted values held by Muslim women in the West, the West has sought to dilute the understanding of the Muslim woman's dress through its media campaign. In October 2002, the BBC reported on a story about Afghanistan called 'Afghan Lipstick Liberation'. It discussed a current project underway, funded by US money to provide the women of Afghanistan with a Western form of a beauty school to be built in Kabul inside the compound of the Afghanistan Ministry of Women's Affairs and to be completed by January 2003. Its objective is to train some of the women of Afghanistan in cutting hair and the 'beauty business' with make-up donated for it from top cosmetic companies such as Revlon and MAC. It is clear that the aim is to instil within the minds of the women the desire to imitate the appearance of the women in the West. Also, in December 2002, in a BBC documentary, entitled 'Faith in Fashion', it discussed specifically the concept of how a woman can be Muslim but still be part of the fashion circle defined by the Western society and aspire to adopt an 'Islamicised' version of Western dress - whatever that may be!

Therefore much attention has been placed in discrediting and redefining the Muslim woman's dress and the reinforcement of the Western concept of how to decide what is right and wrong.

The Victim of such an Attack

In the face of such an attack, the Muslim woman in Britain feels pushed to be one of three; a liberalist, a traditionalist or the one who fits Islam to fit in with liberal values. The role of Muslim women in society is much discussed in the media. The Muslim who carries liberal values will view the role of the Muslim woman as equal to that of a man since she will adhere to the concept of equality. The Muslim who carries traditional values from Asian or Arab culture will view the woman as a prisoner in her own home, subserviently awaiting her husbands' orders. The third type of Muslim who twists Islam to fit in with liberal values is plagued by the notion that both cultures (Islam and Western) can mix. Such views certainly seek to tarnish the correct identity and reference point for the Muslim woman and turn her into one whose actions serve to anger her Creator, Allah Azza Wa Jall.

Before considering what should be the response of Muslim women in the West to this attack, let us consider exactly what the West is inviting us to with regard to how we should dress.

Miniskirt - Symbol of Oppression

Western capitalist society holds sacred the ideas of individual freedom and makes it the basis in deciding what is good and bad in society. The miniskirt, more than any other item of clothing, symbolises the concept of personal freedom. In response to Cherie Blair, I would say that "nothing more I think symbolises the oppression of the Western woman than the miniskirt". In response to Polly Toynbee, I would add that; the top-to-toe nudity, with its sinister, split in the side, is more than an instrument of persecution, it is a public tarring and feathering of female sexuality. It transforms any woman into an object of defilement too cheap to be respected. It is a garment of lurid sexual suggestiveness. It turns them into cowering creatures demanding and expecting violence and victimisation. I would ask them to consider the plight of women in their own societies and realise that the root of the problem is not Islam but Capitalism. Consider the recent statistic published by the UK Home Office stating that (while the government has been busy fighting the war on Islam) incidents of rape in Britain have increased by 27% over the last year. Last year's figures claimed that there were an average 167 women raped every day in England and Wales.

The Western woman is made to believe that revealing clothing accentuates her beauty to men and makes her feel wanted. In fact it has become unusual for women not to reveal their nakedness in public. A woman who wears something less revealing is gossiped about behind her back - "what a spinster", "old hag", "she doesn't take care of her self", "she's wasting her good looks". So it is not surprising to find these poor oppressed women on the streets wearing short miniskirts, see through blouses and push up bras in the freezing cold British winters. Western film and media positively glamorise prostitutes and strippers, who are portrayed as confident and in control of their lives, getting paid good money for what they do best and living meaningful and fulfilling lifestyles.

TV advertisements propagate slogans such as "because I'm worth it" implying that a woman who doesn't use their product somehow lacks self-respect. It is no wonder then that the Western woman has become increasingly consumed, obsessed and preoccupied with the way that she looks, often above other issues in life. The UK beauty industry secures a revenue of £8.9 billion every year. The revenue of the US cosmetic industry grows by 10% each year. The National Institute of Mental Health in the US claimed that every day in the US, Americans spend on average $109 million on diet or diet related products (one-third the nation's annual food bill). In the US it is said that urban professional women devote up to a third of their income to "beauty maintenance" and consider it a necessary investment. In a study performed by the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, 33,000 American women told researchers that they would rather lose 10 to 15 pounds than achieve any other goal. In 1998, a campaign called 'The Bread for Life' surveyed over 900 young women between the ages of 18 and 24 living in the West and published a report called 'Pressure to be Perfect Report' that found that 55% of the women rated looks as the most attractive thing in a woman and only 1% said intelligence.

The Impact on the Muslim Woman's dress

Because of such pressure, the Muslim woman who has become a victim of such prevalent Western concepts of individual freedom will also imitate the West in its dress. It is not surprising to see Muslim girls leading a double life. In front of their parents and in the home they lead a life which conforms to cultural expectations and when in school, college or work they strip away such an identity and associate themselves with the Western ideas, dress and values. Such a victim is a victim of her own doing since she fails to attach herself to one set of values and conform to them.

The 'Westernised' Muslim woman will have no qualms about not wearing the Khimaar and Jilbaab - rather she will see this as impeding her ability to advance in life and further her career prospects. With professions such as being a lawyer, doctor, scientist or even a secretary the Muslim woman feels compelled to adhere to the 'office tart look' or the 'professional chick image' and in her mind wearing the Islamic dress would not allow her to 'fit in'. The same Muslim could also view other aspects of Islam from this perspective. It is common to see Muslim women who have sought careers to delay marriage since it is viewed as hindering their future goals in life and holding them back in life. Their view of being a mother and wife can also be taken from a Western perspective. Therefore such a Muslim is consistently pushed to compromise on the Islamic values of modesty, chastity and bashfulness, for the degenerate Western values of immodesty, vanity and lewdness.

Allah (swt) warns the obedient servant of the dangers of following the disbelievers:
"O you who believe! If you listen to a faction among the People of the Book who were given the Scripture (Jews and Christians), they would indeed render you disbelievers after you have believed." [TMQ Ale-Imran: 100]

The third type of victim is the Muslim woman who adopts the Eastern rather than Western culture. This is the traditional woman who mistakenly believes that she will safeguard her honour and dignity by wearing the infamous shalwar kameez (trousers and tunic). This type of dress is commonly believed to be Islamic. It even comes complete with its very own mini-Hijab called a dupatta (light, colourful but usually very see-through scarf that is used to cover the back part of the head). This type of dress symbolises the oppression of the traditional woman who is enslaved to the irrational Eastern traditions. The traditional woman faces the same conundrum of problems faced by the Westernised woman because she too is pressured into the looks game. She is also victim to the same cosmetics industry. Over the years the traditional shalwar kameez has undergone modifications including larger splits, shorter trousers, almost blouse like body hugging tunics, short sleeves or no sleeves and larger V-necks. The shalwar kameez is almost always accompanied with massive jewellery. It is not uncommon to see the latest Bollywood or Lollywood (i.e. Lahori) film actress sporting a form of shalwar kameez that would even make Hollywood stars feel embarrassed.

The Islamic dress code for Muslim Women

The woman's 'awrah is her entire body, while her hands and face are the only exception. The Messenger of Allah (saw) said; "The woman is 'awrah." He also said to Asmaa bint Abu Bakr:
"O Asmaa, if the woman reaches the age of puberty, nothing should be seen of her but this and this." - pointing to his face and hands. These are clear and explicit evidences that the entire body of the woman is 'awrah with the exception of the face and hands, and that the woman is obliged to cover her 'awrah i.e. her entire body with the exception of the face and hands.

With regard to the woman's dress in public life, Allah (swt) has obliged her to wear a wrap (Jilbaab) which conceals her (home) clothes and drapes down until it covers her feet. She is not allowed to go out without such a cloth. If she leaves without a Jilbaab over her home clothes, she would be sinful, for she has abandoned an obligation from Allah (swt). As for the upper portion, she must have a Khimaar (head cover) or anything similar, which covers the entire head, the neck and the opening of the garment on the chest. Once the woman has these two items of clothing, she is allowed to leave her home. If the woman does not have these two pieces of clothes, she is not allowed to go out at all. Allah (swt) has said;
"Let them draw their head-coverings (khumur) over their necks and bosoms (juyub). And let them not display (more of) their charms to any but their husbands..." [TMQ An- Nur: 31]

"O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (Jalabeeb) all over their bodies" [TMQ Al- Ahzab: 59]

Within the private life, the Muslim woman is allowed to reveal her charms to her husband. He is the one who is worthy of looking at his wife and appreciating her beauty and not a foreign man. The Muslim woman can also reveal her charms and wear her home clothes within the bounds of Shar'a in front of her mahram men. This is the correct view of the Islamic dress code, and it is the Hukm of Allah (swt) which does not require any other justification in the face of an intellectual attack. Rather they are rules to be followed such that it will regulate the relationship between men and women in society and such that the basis of the relationship between men and women is not their desires but rather the Shari'ah rules.


It is an honour for a Muslim woman to obey her Creator and adhere to the rules of the Islamic dress code. She should not feel pressured to adopt the Western view of dress or the Eastern view of dress in public or private life. Islam should be the yardstick by which the Muslim woman's measures her actions and not tradition or the Western culture. Our example should be that of the Sahabiyat who when addressed with the hukm of covering their 'awrah, immediately rose to implement the command of their Creator. With the reference point of Islam firmly rooted in one's mind, regardless of the pressures or the reality, she will be able to maintain her Islamic identity and reference point and feel honoured to be recognised as a Muslim woman in public life.

Ruksana Rahman

Source: Khilafah Magazine, September 2003

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