I was asked yesterday what subject really needs to be addressed when it comes to Muslim women in North America. I’d like to say that the most important issue is how to communicate our faith. Or inspire respect. Or dispel negative stereotypes. What I did say was something that ties into all three: the way that a Muslim woman dresses.
That seems superficial in the broad scheme of things. But the reality is, it’s a huge problem for Muslims. Not that all Muslim women dress “Islamically.” But for women who do “cover,” even walking down the street can be a challenge.
First I should explain what I mean by dressing Islamically and covering. There are a lot of opinions about what exactly a Muslim woman should wear but the general consensus is that she should be modest. That means no midriff-baring tops and jeans, no miniskirts, low necklines or skin-tight clothes. The most traditional Muslim believes that everything should be covered but the hands and feet. Some even interpret that to mean that the entire face should be covered as well, but they are definitely in the minority.
Women who do “cover,” especially those who wear the headscarf (hijab), are in the unique position of being immediately identifiable as Muslim. And therein lies the problem—and the opportunity (which I’ll explain in a minute). Unfortunately, the Muslim woman who covers has become an icon for all things negative about Islam. Whenever there is a news story about Islam, if it’s not illustrated by angry men protesting somewhere, it will be illustrated by a woman wearing an abaya (the usually black garment that covers from head to toe). The most sinister image that the media utilizes when reporting on Islam is that of a fully covered woman who is wearing the face veil as well.*
Some Muslims feel that covering creates a barrier to communication, because non-Muslims can’t get past the clothing. (See my post from February for a video of three Muslim women talking about “covering.”) But the opposite can also be true. In a way, Muslim women are catalysts because they can cause communication to take place. For those who are not too shy to ask about it, the way a Muslim woman dresses can become a topic of conversation, which can then lead to a discussion about her faith. If she doesn’t dress Islamically, how is anyone supposed to know that she’s a Muslim?
A Muslim woman who covers is an ambassador of sorts for Islam. Her religion will be judged by the way that she acts. This is another opportunity for her to communicate her faith, inspire respect and dispel negative stereotypes. That’s the way that it worked for me when I was first getting to know about Islam. At first I was put off by the way the women dressed, in particular by the headscarves. (See my post on the headscarf that was written before my conversion.) But the more I got to know the women, the less uncomfortable I felt. Their example had a lot to do with my developing interest in Islam.
I won’t lie to you: even I am put off by the image of the Muslim woman in the black abaya and the face veil. But then, I don’t know anyone personally who dresses that way. I suspect that my eventual reaction would be much as it has been with the headscarf: I would get used to it and be able to “see” the women beneath. It’s not a bad thing to have to look past the way a person dresses. We could use a lot more of that in the non-Muslim world as well.
*When the Swiss were voting on a minaret ban in their country, the campaign supporting the ban used this poster: (Notice how the minarets look like missiles.)