Women’s Dress in the West and Islam: Moral and Practical Implications
By: Dr. David Rabeeya
It is frequently difficult to address the issue of women’s dress in many secular Western societies through the politically correct prism which often ignores the points of view of many men and women in Muslim and Arab lands.
Many Muslims claim that it is both realistic and self-evident to proclaim that revealing and sexually provocative clothing by some women can easily pander to the natural lowest instincts of men, presenting women as sexual objects outside of the realms of character and intellect. Therefore, the exposure of the flesh, according to the traditional Muslim and Arab mores is actually robbing women their independence as well as respect and honor in their own eyes and in the eyes of men.
Furthermore, one should not see the modest dress of women as a ploy by men aiming to restrict a woman’s ability to function freely from the companionship of men. In addition, transparent, short, tight, brash clothing must be considered, either consciously or unconsciously, as a tempting device in the hands of some women to control men, which is both unkind and insensitive and provocative with destructive results to both sexes. In other words, if sex is only a commodity, women and men are placing it in the financial and economic fields outside of the private and secluded kingdom of the bedroom.
In this cultural framework, arguments and counterarguments about female modesty have raised several points of contention.
A large number of Muslim women continue to claim that Muslim customs and integral mores are often judged by hedonistic secular Western values since they themselves have chosen their own conduct with regard to dress, sex, engagement, and marriage, rejecting the notion that they are not content in their sexual behavior and their understanding of motherhood and love. Another point is their objection to the commercialization of sex, as well as the existence of homosexuality and deviant sexual activities. These objections must not be regarded as a sign of close-mindedness, homophobia, and backwardness, but as a legitimate and valid presentation of serious religious principles needed to be heard without intimidation and hostility.
Wearing the hijab needs not to be considered as an oppressive measure by a male-oriented society, but as a choice by some females who wish to reserve their physical beauty and attractiveness for their husbands. The fact that millions of women in various cultures prefer not to wear the hijab and to dress like many of their sisters in the West must not be confused with the specific instructions in the Sunnah, connected with women’s required obligations in marriage, divorce, and sexual conduct. Traditional Muslim women often call for the need to learn and to appreciate the complexity of the existence of many modes of personal behavior in tens of Muslim cultures in the large wide world, and not to dangerously generalize all Muslim women under one category.
The fact is that no one can find one unified formula for the Muslim dress, and some obsessive extremist Muslims have even created their own oppressive strict measures in this area, like the Taliban in Afghanistan. As a matter of fact, many Muslim women in Europe and the United States are distinctly aware of the necessary measures for the fulfillment and joy of sexual activities between married men and women in Islam, and the hurt, degradation, illness, pain, and despair which sometimes result from the demands of instant gratifications of the sexual urge. Some of these women observe the many contradictory messages delivered to young girls in their midst. On one hand, girls are encouraged to pursue their education and independence, but on the other hand, they are barraged by a continuous bombardment of sexual messages, exposing and compromising their personal morality by utilizing and accentuating their sexuality for the sake of financial gain and prestige.
Some Muslim women in the West see these opposing messages to girls and women as a source of confusion, stress, perversion, and control by capitalistic marketing forces as opposed to clear-cut guidance of traditional religious edicts. Their view of the danger of sexual freedom is threatening to women in general because of its effects on their families and societies as well as their own personal and mental psyche. These same Muslim women are often baffled by Western women who either personally involve themselves with the physical activities of the pornographic industry or in the financial aspects of the business in the name of their liberty and freedom.
In many ways, they are also aware that religious celibacy is not approved in Islam and sex before marriage is also not approved. They are trying to find some accepted personal and communal compromises in a changing world. They demand to find the new adjustments by themselves, without the patronizing advice of Western feminists who often superimpose their radical views on traditional societies without any knowledge of their history and communal values. It is for Muslim women and Orthodox Jewish women to decide about the evolvement of their dress on the basis of their understanding of new historical and political changes.
While the advanced technology brought on by the cultural Americanization of the world is pushing forward, people need to find their own cultural and religious interpretations in the changing roles of the sexes in post-modern times. Dress is only the exterior representation of the ongoing struggles between the universal trends toward common, interrelated connections between religions, cultures, and races, and the determination of many particular groups to preserve and defend their unique heritage in the post-modern technological world.