“Daddy, can I get a bikini this summer?” my then seven-year-old daughter asked toward the end of the school year in 2012. Sure, sweetheart. Could we also stay indoors, watch episodes of Winnie the Pooh, share a bowl of goldfish crackers, and recall when you were two?
Admittedly, it was a difficult, multifaceted image for this father to take: Less clothing would necessarily mean more of my daughter uncovered. However, as it turned out, the image was useful in bringing into orbit a question that often disturbs our real but conflicted American and Western values: What do we make of the way some Muslim women cover themselves?
The question of how women’s clothing communicates what it communicates—and in what cultural context—has always been weighed down by moral, religious, and political nuance. Still, it seems no one comes close to feeling the particular forces of social pressure emanating from the varied meanings of the Muslim woman’s wardrobe. In modernity, she stands tenuously at the intersection of covering-versus-uncovering. (See, for instance, a 2008 social experiment by ABC News designed to gauge responses to a Muslim woman who was being denied service at a bakery because of her head scarf, how it identified her, and, in this case, the negative assumptions associated with that identity.)
Parsing the Muslim woman’s closet is to find the hijab forever playing the role of Exhibit A. For many Americans and Westerners, especially as we consider Muslim-majority nations and societies, the head scarf becomes the symbol par excellence of inequality, discrimination, and oppression. If women’s rights and gender justice are emerging as a legitimate social earthquake within Muslim cultures, surely the hijab stands at the epicenter.
But, as you may remember from the story of Zain, numerous complex factors can account for a Muslim woman’s choice to wear the hijab. For Zain, respecting her family’s honor, keeping first-culture customs, and viewing the matter as religious obligation joined forces in her youth to mean “Yes.” By her early 20s, however, she had arrived at “No,” concluding that the head scarf is less about religious obligation and more about social conditioning, with a high degree of patriarchal imposition. It is culturally divisive as well, she told me. And, ultimately, it is a distraction from the more significant concerns pressing in on the daily lives of Muslim women.
On the other hand, during the summer of my daughter’s bikini dreams, Ayesha Nusrat, an Indian Muslim activist for women’s rights, movingly reflected on the personal and social benefits of wearing the hijab. Later that summer, in the wake of FIFA’s historic decision to lift the head scarf ban for international soccer, it was fascinating to hear that both the original critics of not allowing female players to wear the head scarf and now the critics of allowing the head scarf—the French Football Federation among them—were arguing on the basis of inequality.
At Virginia Commonwealth University, where I facilitated an interfaith initiative between Christians and Muslims from 2010 to 2013, a professor from North Africa who does not wear the hijab once told me that she felt “betrayed” when a female colleague at another university began wearing it. An American-born Muslim student at VCU, whose parents were immigrants from Bangladesh, once confided in me that this piece of cloth—which she chose not to drape over her head in middle school and high school—still triggers relational tensions between her and her dad.
Meanwhile, in Oman, a Muslim-majority country where I spent two weeks in 2012, I remember coming face to face with the ascendancy of the abaya, that ubiquitous little black dress of a Muslim woman. Loose, flowing, and robe-like, the abaya—usually, but not exclusively, black—is worn as an over-garment by many Omani women. It is the anti-bikini in more ways than one, typically covering the whole body except the face, feet, and hands.
Although the abaya’s origins are somewhat vague, its prominence in Oman (not unlike other Arab countries in the Gulf) is apparently a relatively new sensation. And there it was in the markets, at the mall, in the mosques, behind the wheel of very expensive cars, in restaurants, along the promenade.
So, perhaps a concerned global citizen (Christian or otherwise) might ask: Is the abaya a decidedly religious development?
If so, does it signal a tilt toward more conservative, potentially extremist, interpretations and expressions of Islam?
In Oman, a nation exhibiting positive, constructive sensibilities toward at least a form of religious pluralism, is the abaya symbolic of yet another Arab Muslim country walking down the narrow path toward Saudi Arabia and away from meaningful democratic reforms and sustainable women’s rights?
In a vibrant encounter with a middle-aged Omani woman named Hannat, she relayed to our travel-study cohort that until the 1990s the abaya was mostly worn—and only occasionally—by older women. In fact, if you visit Bait Al Zubair Museum in old-town Muscat, you will see an assortment of colorful, patterned tribal dresses representative of different periods in Omani history.
A mother and a geophysicist, Hannat was giving a lecture at Al Amana Centre on women and Islam in the Omani context. She recalled that sometime in the 1990s younger Muslim women began favoring the abaya. Today, she said, the little black dress gets accessorized by very expensive heels and even more expensive handbags, which can seem slightly incongruent with the traditional austerity of most Omanis.
Gently but emphatically, Hannat went on to assert that the “religion” most influencing the growing abaya style was not Islam. Nor was there any sinister Islamic extremism guiding the social and cultural plot. Rather, it was—drum roll, please; in a landslide victory—fashion. A mundane, authoritative god if there ever was one!
To be sure, Hannat was the model of intellectual honesty: she was not a naïve religious partisan. She did not argue that Islamic identity was a complete non-factor. However, to the incredible surprise of those of us (Christians or otherwise) who tend to stop at mere assumptions, Islam was not the silver-bullet cause behind the cultural effect of the abaya.
Like global and national discourse on the hijab, the abaya conversation is a blinding reminder that there is usually far more than meets the eye in Islam-West relations or Christian-Muslim relations. Loving our Muslim neighbor demands what a friend of mine calls “interfaith courtesy.” In this case, it was the almighty and pervasive dictates of fashion—not Sharia or male subjugation—which had given rise to a distinctive march of the little black dresses.
Several years on, notwithstanding its cool and accepted American style, that thing my daughter’s wearing at the pool and at the beach still has this father internally conflicted.
Loving our Muslim Neighbors: Soft Power, Strongly Applied is a Monday blog series written by Nathan F. Elmore for Off the Page. Nathan serves Peace Catalyst International as a peacemaker and educator in Christian-Muslim relations. Here, and throughout the series, we are hopeful of moving further toward Christian faithfulness, wisdom, and courage as we interact with the neighbor who is Muslim.