Modest Sexiness

I wrote a bit about it Abayas and ‘ho shoes in my entry, Hot Girls in Kuwait. While i was in Egypt, I noticed that nearly 90% of the women on the street wore hijab. But even with hijab, there were many levels of modest from sexy to completely niqab. As for the sexy women, they ranged in age. Many of them were young women who covered each inch of skin.  But they wore tight jeans, shirts, and figure revealing outfits. A lot of Muslims dismiss them outright. Media Watchers extensively discussed the negative attitudes and pejorative terms used to describe women who wear hijab and sexy outfits.

Speaking of words we call ourselves, I must mention the derogatory terms. “Hojabi” and “muhajababe” have worked their way into our vocabulary (hojabi even has its own entry in UrbanDictionary.com). And, they are pervasive enough that non-Muslims have begun to use them in reference to us. They exist because we ourselves have invented them and used them, and they are born out of words that describe what one wears on one’s head (I haven’t come across any derogatory terms for bihejabis, but feel free to enlighten me).

Women who cover their hair while wearing flashy or figure revealing clothing are frequently looked down upon by both people who support hijab and those who don’t. That is the irony of it. Without looking into the contradictions that these women straddle, the pressure to affirm their Muslim identity through hijab and the pressure to be considered desirable and attractive. Both pressures exist in Muslim societies, as well as Muslim communities in the West. Pamela Windo recently weighed in with a very insightful about hijab in Morocco titled, Hijab and High Heels.

I returned to the States in 1997, but I continue to pop back to Morocco for my yearly nostalgic pilgrimage. I’ve just been on one of those trips and was surprised, alarmed even, to see how many more women are now wearing headscarves, most noticeably in the modern cities of Casablanca and Rabat. Not older women, but young ones; the same age group as the young women who had so exuberantly discarded them a decade before. And instead of scarves tied under the chin, they have now adopted the hijab, which is swathed closely around the head in the stricter Middle Eastern way.

Although they are made of colorful fabrics with pretty clips at the back, what most struck me was the blatant dichotomy between the hijab and their other clothes. While a few women wear it with a subdued djellaba, and others with their everyday modern suits, skirts and coats, a startling number of young Moroccan women combine the hijab with figure-revealing blue or black jeans, elaborate glittering belts, modern sexy tops and designer sunglasses. Equally striking is the glossy-magazine-style make-up, heavy on the lipstick and black kohl eye-liner.

For Muslim women, the hijab, worn for centuries by their forbears, is an essential part of their identity. Given that it is a symbol of modesty and sexual purity, and body-revealing clothes the hijab’s opposite, the alarm I had at first felt was quickly followed by empathy.

I really liked this article because it explores the realities of hijab without casting judgment. Because they explore the realities and pressures, their discussion of hijab is a lot more nuanced than the idealistic depictions of hijab. However, just many of the blog entries in  Muslimah Media Watch indicate, more and more Muslims are sensitive to the pressures that we face. I am also hopeful because there are some up and coming scholars. One such scholar wrote a masters thesis on the ideas of beauty in Arab societies. She argues that Arab Muslim women strategically navigate the seemingly conflicting Islamic ideal of feminine modesty and Arab society’s ideals of beauty. What I really enjoy about her work is that, while not being an Arab, she is a Muslim woman who wears hijab. She deals with those pressures and projections. Even those of us who don’t wear hijab are fully aware that our bodies are the subject of so much scrutiny. People in the West want to claim that we are liberated while Muslims want to liberate us by pressuring us to cover.  I believe that there is no compulsion in religion. However, I recognize the reality that we have many explicit and implicit pressures that tell us how to be, how to act, and how to dress as Muslims.

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30 thoughts on “Modest Sexiness

  1. It’s like that in Jeddah (where I live) too, at least in terms of the ideal. Go into bookshops like Jarir and theres rows of glossy Arab fashion mags. Models on the covers are invariably heavily made up – red lips and nails, vivid purples, you name it.

    On the streets most are in niquaab but footwear is a generational thing. Sitting in a mall recently there was a parade of younger women go by in full covering and…in strappy high gold & silver shoes, high wedges, stilettos, all kinds of sexy shoes in a rainbow of colours. And heavy eye make up! A form of defiance of enforced covering, an opportunity for the pleasures of female display, or what exactly?

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  2. The headscarf as a symbol of Islamic identity is an interesting topic, especially when it is mixed with other styles and fashions. But “hijab”–the dress code for women as it’s defined in shariah–does not only refer to a headscarf. In that sense, someone who wears tight jeans is not wearing hijab, so matter what she puts on her head. And a women who wears loose clothing on her body but fails to cover her head may in fact be observing hijab more correctly that the women mentioned above.

    In addition to asking what are appropriate forms of dress, it is also worth asking what are appopriate forms of vanity. It is not enough to ask a woman why she wears designer shoes, but slso why she yearns for the public gaze and considers it part of her identity.

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  3. I have found myself explaining many times that the hijab is NOT a religious symbol as the cross as fashion accessory is. The cross is not mandatory to wear, though folks do to identify themselves. I don’t wear hijab to identify myself. I (and probably most others) wear hijab as a fundamental belief which is different from a symbol.
    This post has made me wonder about those few who may wear it as a symbol-not in their hearts believing they should and also not necessarily outright forced to wear it, but a cultural imposition, a status symbol or perhaps a pious symbol.
    Again, for me, the hijab does not symbolize anything and I wince when I hear Muslims call it a symbol. I believe I should wear it. That creates inclusion/exclusion is a bonus 🙂

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  4. I remember thinking a while back about how a lingerie/undergarment manufacturer might advertise their products in the strictest Muslim countries. Do women in these countries buy lingerie? I’m bemused by it.

    The hijab/headscarf issue has become a much more politicized issue (at least in my opinion) than it might have been in the past. In Turkey, for example, the whole spirit of modesty of the headscarf has been lost on both sides of divide. For example, you will never see the banning of the wearing of baseball caps anywhere, and in fact no one seems to notice that in some Eastern European countries (eg Russia, Greece) they wear various forms of headscarf (perhaps not as extensively covering, but nevertheless). Look back at the 50s/60s fashion, they used to wear some version of scarf on their heads. Now for some reason, it has become a political tool, and its hurting both sides of the argument.

    My personal point of view, and I’m sure this will be unpopular with some Muslims, but I don’t like attracting too much attention to myself, one way or the other. I think in the west, wearing a headscarf, or wearing very revealing clothing lies somewhere in those extremes, and draws attention upon the person. Unfortunately, at the moment, both those extremes can garner the wrong kind of attention, so I would choose somewhere in between. Luckily, being male, that choice is something I never have to think about (how’s that for being off the hook!).

    I should point out that for sisters who choose to wear hijab in the west, I have the utmost respect for you. I don’t know whether you find it difficult at times, but I know that if I was a woman, that would be a very difficult choice to make for me.

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  5. I have an “inner Mullah” who scoffs at these women. At the same time, I AM one of them; sometimes a girl just wants to look cute and that is me tottering around on platforms, wearing a long but trendy shirt over my jeans, with my lip gloss and freshly threaded eyebrows… I am scoffing at them, but I do what they do. So I have to tell my inner mullah to lighten up. I think women are waaayyy to hard on ourselves and each other and covering is just too personal to get judgemental. I *hate* the term hojabi!

    BTW here is the link to the official fareej website. it is spelled “freej” there.

    http://www.freej.ae/

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  6. Hmmm. This is a topic that I often feel hesistant to discuss. On one hand, I feel somewhat silly for the platitudes that these conversations lend themselves to. I often end up saying something like it’s a woman’s personal choice while internally finding myself sick of talking about hijab or more concretely the headscarf.

    Sometimes I tend to think that this is really about young women negotiating their sexuality and attractiveness for a variety of reasons.

    There are also progressive Muslims who believe that the hijab is a cultural phenomenon with no religious meaning; so, along that line it makes sense that women would wear the headscarf for cultural reasons rather than for Islamic modesty. Yet, most of the women I know who wear hijab wear it as a religious mandate not as a cultural emblem. I think the progressive argument, assumes that many women who wear hijab do it under some type of false consciousness(?)

    For the sisters I know there are some who are very into fashion and new ways of covering and other sisters who feel more comfortable wearing all black or solid colors. There are some who like funky platform sandals and others who refuse to show their feet. But one thing I have come to understand is that, many times, this does not act as a measure of how modest or knowledgeable or sincere someone is about her deen. I’ve seen women in all black, wearing niquab, about to fight in the middle of an Islamic heritage picnic. At the same time I’ve seen lip-glossing, platform wearing teenager showing a remembrance of Allah that made me envious. I just think that there are a lot of false binaries, and assumptions, that circulate about why someone dresses the way that they do and what that means about their relationship to Islam. Here in the United States, I still think it takes a lot of guts to choose to wear hijab.

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  7. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    Nobody should call a Muslim woman a “hojabi” because ho is short for whore. It is a major sin to accuse someone of zina without the requisite proof, so how sinful is calling someone a whore?

    As for the fashion itself, I don’t approve of it but as long as the hijab is worn because the wearer wants to please Allah by covering her hair, it is not a mockery or a fashion statement and should not be considered as one. Seeing women in lazily-deployed hijab, or with incomplete head covering, or with a headscarf but with other bits showing that shouldn’t be, is pretty common and just because one doesn’t cover properly in one area does not mean that one should neglect another as well.

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  8. this is what i learned when I wore hijab… no matter what you are still going to be looked at as a sex object and you will ALWAYS be criticized for the way you wear it! you can’t please everyone!

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  9. As-salaamu ‘alaykum,

    If guys (brothers) were not attracted by such glitz’n’glamour, sisters would not have as much incentive or pressure to ware such outfits. As yusuf said, no one should be called a ‘hojabi.’ We have to keep our mouths shut and not try to put too much pressure for a person to reform. I’ve heard too many horror stories of sisters leaving the masjids or other religious gatherings because of such stuff. Which, unfortunately, leaves them alone for the devils picking.

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  10. Ah, seems like you read my mind. I’ve had EXACTLY this post saved in my drafts. Well not exactly this post, but one making the same exact point. Well said.

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  11. k-Dude,
    Do women in these countries buy lingerie?…I don’t understand what you mean…are YOU asking or were the manufacturers? Of course Muslim women wear lingerie.
    ~Brooke AKA Ummbadier

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  12. Okay I never heard the term hojabi before. Wow, just wow.

    But back to the subject, I am a fashion conscious hijabi. I dress modestly but I like nice hand bags and cute shoes. I wear a bit of makeup from time to time. Some consider me overly modest and I’m sure some would consider me not modest enough; it’s almost like you can never win with people sheesh. The muhajabah has to make her own decisions on the level of modesty she can consistently commit to and pray that Allah will be merciful and know her intention.

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  13. Salaam Alaikum,

    Great post masha Allah.

    I too used to have an ‘Inner Mullah’ (I love that term LF), but then I got over myself and realised that I have too many flaws of my own to concentrate on.

    Tawqa cannot be measured with a tape measure, whether it’s a scarf or a beard.

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  14. Hey Brooke,
    No mostly humourous observations. Like I was wondering whether some people would consider ‘sexy’ underwear as unIslamic (despite the fact that it would only ever be seen by a sister’s husband), I’m sure that there is.

    Then there’s the whole issue of how they sell their products in the ‘stricter’ nations, lets say a country that rhymes with Maudi Arabia. I can’t imagine Victoria’s Secret having an outlet decked out with mannequins selling their latest line.

    And the men in these countries, I wonder what they take into the bathroom if they can’t get a hold of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.

    These contrasts I find somewhat humorous.

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  15. That first paragraph should be:
    No, mostly humorous observations. I was wondering whether some people would consider ’sexy’ underwear as unIslamic (despite the fact that it would only ever be seen by a sister’s husband), I’m sure that there are some people out there who would.

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  16. I’m a Muslimah in hijab but as I don’t believe it’s mandatory I’m not concerned about showing my neck or hair slipping out etc, or my lower arms showing. But I wouldn’t wear tight clothes as this too me is immodest. I put it on believing it to be mandatory, now I keep it on to please my husband, no different from wearing a colour he likes to please him in my view. BUT, I dress modestly for Allah.
    But the pressure is huge. If I wasn’t married to a man who sees it as the sixth pillar of Islam, I would take it off however and brave the condemnation.
    I see it as a stupid obsession, this preoccupation we have with it, at the same time, we must discuss it because it’s made such a big part of our lives.

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  17. ARTEMIS 2, you wear the hijab for your husband?? Does this cause you resentment toward him? I’m just wondering because I’m sort of in the same position. My husband also seems to view it as the “6th Islamic pillar” and we’re on the brink of having a baby (we’re trying to have one). I don’t wear the hijab regularly; I sometimes wear it when I “feel like it.” I personally don’t think it’s obligatory, I don’t see it in the Qur’an, and I think it’s silly that if a woman doesn’t cover her hair she’s considered immodest. Men aren’t obligated to wear shirts; do male scholars think that muslim women don’t have sex drives??? But men are supposedly aroused by HAIR?? Puh-lease! The point is, I’m wondering aloud if are we going to start arguing about it if we end up having a baby girl… What’s been your experience?

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  18. Zahara,
    i think it quite possibly will cause resentment, but I will take it off rather than go down that path. BUT it’s such a major deal to him that it would cause him a lot of distress. It didn’t used to be a problem because I agreed that it was obligatory. He cannot understand why I no longer think so and sees it as rejecting the Qu’ran which is tantamount to rejecting Islam. Very difficult.
    We have a daughter already and I know he will be terribly dissapointed if she doesn’t want to wear it.
    *sigh* I think about it in two ways. Firstly, that it’s not such an imposition, if it means so much to him (bear in mind, he’s happy with trousers and long shirts and colourful hijabs, he doesn’t expect me to wear jilbaab etc).I have loved hijab in the past and in some ways I still do, I enjoy the feeling of being enclosed, it does make me feel less on display, in a world where women are always objectified and I believe that as a form of expression of Muslim culture, there is nothing wrong with wearing it.
    But then, it frustrates me that wearing it perpetuates the idea that certain parts of a womans body are dangerous when they just aren’t. The neck is not the same as showing off your boobs.
    The issue is that our world is now a global one, we know each other now, so ideas of modesty are pushed up against one another. That is why we need to focus on understanding the “message” in the Qu’ran rather than transplanting it literally. If Allah wanted a totally uniform world, why didn’t He create one?

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  19. I think that this discussion should revolve more around pleasing Allah (SWT) than pleasing someones husband.

    When I first took Sshahada, I of course didn’t know much about Islam. My wife, who was born Muslim, didn’t where hijab. As we both grew in knowledge about Islam and our Eeman grew, she decided to wear it. I never forced her to do it. I wanted her to wear it, of course, but I felt that it should come out of love for Allah (SWT) versus love for me (although I’m sure that’s in there also).

    I’m not a student of knowledge, so I can’t give any references, but here’s a lecture that may enlighten: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Wy84zKbL6M

    DISCLAIMER: I have not watched it, hehehe.

    Oh, and to reply to the topic, sort of, I don’t get that “fashion” thing, wearing hijab with tight clothes. In many ways, I think that it’s worse than wearing loose clothes and no hijab.

    And I know that I’m going to get bashed for saying this, but men have to dress modestly also. I believe there’s an ayat in the Qur’an, or maybe a hadith to says something to the effect of for a man, everything below his ankles is in the hellfire (as far as garment). Also, it is haram for a man to wear anything exposes the knees. Do you know how many looks I get for wearing “high waters?” Man, lol, I feel like Steve Urkel sometimes! LOL!!! But I know why I do it, I do it for Allah (SWT). And it is almost impossible to find appropriate shorts. If I see a brother with shorts that go below his knees, it’s always like, “yo, where’d you get those?” Disappointedly, the answer is usually, oh, I got these two years ago in Detroit!

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  20. Carlito,
    a quick comment because I don’t want to annoy Azizah! I didn’t put hijab on for my husband, I did it out of the conviction that it was required. yes, the focus should be pleasing Allah and that was my initial aim. However if I now understand it as a cultural expression of modesty, wearing it for my husband is no different from wearing another style of clothing he likes, the point is I’m open about how I understand it. Still, I’m not entirely sure that I want to keep it on.

    back to the topic, I think this is where the distinction is. Viewing it as cultural versus religiously required dress. The latter is of course less flexible.

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  21. I always felt that when I saw a women wearing the hijab I along with everyone else knew she was a Muslim. Living in America we would stare because it was considered weird and being oppressed. The hijab has two or more sides to it. I don’t know what Islam says about the hijab so I won’t begin to comment on that aspect. If it does say the women should wear hijab then I don’t think it is a question of wearing it. As a possible convert I don’t know if I will wear the hijab or not. It has it’s good and bad points. I also know the stares I will get will be from people thinking I’m weird. I also think wearing the hijab makes the wearer seem like an invisible person. Do I want to be invisible? No. Do I want to be modest? Yes. Do I want to wear the hijab? I don’t know! This is another thing about Islam that gives my brain seizures. It’s so hard deciding should I wear it or not. But I do know that it should be a personal choice and it not forced on a woman. Enjoy reading your blog, please link me.

    http://muslimahintraining.wordpress.com/

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