Variance in Women’s Clothing in Islam
*This paper was written by an undergraduate student who interviewed me during my MA days in America. 😀
Variance in Women’s Clothing in Islam
Religion, as a part of greater culture, is often difficult or even impossible to separate from other values. As a result of this immersion of religion within broader general culture, Islam is defined and practiced differently in different regions and communities. This variety is exemplified by the expressed attitudes of the Muslim women who spoke in our class and by the experiences that Firuz Akhtar Mohamad Bohari, a Malaysian Muslim woman, shared during an interview. While the wide spectrum of Muslim practice is evident in several areas, it is particularly noticeable in the realm of women’s dress.
Firuz, who grew up in Malaysia, studied in Iran and the United States, and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, discussed the differences in standards of women’s dress throughout the Muslim World and expressed her opinions about how these standards are related to other general cultural norms in different areas. Firuz’s father is an American-educated professor married to Firuz’s mother, who is a housewife. She defines her upbringing as “observant Muslim but open-minded.”
Malaysia’s official state religion is Islam, but only about 60% of its inhabitants are Muslims. Additionally, Firuz stated, as a Southeast Asians, Malaysians generally wear bright colors and patterned fabrics. Many Malaysian Muslim women wear what Firuz referred to as “hijab,” (modest dress) specifically, a scarf that covers of the hair, ears, and neck. The wearing of “hijab” is socially acceptable, according to Firuz, and newscasters and singers dressed in “hijab” can be seen on television, and are leaders in some organizations. There are even Malay fashion magazines specifically tailored to women who choose to wear “hijab,” and women often fasten the fabric using colorful pins. During our interview, for example, Firuz wore a beige rhinestone studded “hijab” that was held in place by several pink and red sparkly pins in different shapes. However, despite the widespread wearing of the “hijab” in Malaysia among Muslim women, it is not mandated by the government in any way, so the decision about whether or not to veil and to what extent, is left up to the individual.
After attending boarding school in Malaysia beginning at age thirteen, Firuz went to Iran to complete her undergraduate studies in Persian language and literature in Iran. With regard to clothing, Firuz claims that she experienced a cultural shock upon arriving in Iran as an eighteen year old. In Iran, covering of the hair is mandatory for all women, regardless of religion (though the vast majority are Muslim). While wearing black is not required by law, Firuz expressed that when she walked amongst Iranians, she stood out because her colored clothing contrasted with the loose, black chador (long Iranian cloak) worn by many Iranian women. She explicitly stated that she thought the forcing of “hijab” onto all women and the prevalence of black were examples of culture affecting the practice of Islam. Furiz explained that she felt that the Iranian government’s enforcement of one type of Muslim religious garb had negative implications, even though she does wear “hijab.” She expressed that many of her friends in Iran were less observant of shar’ia (Islamic law), and neglected their prayers due to the resentment they felt towards Islam because it was being forced upon them. Likewise, she was uncomfortable with the widespread presence of black instead of the colorful clothing she was used to in Malaysia. She expressed that she believed that Islam is not a mournful religion, and that, therefore, entirely black clothing sends false messages about Islam’s values. Thus, it is evident, that Iranian Muslims possess a different set of beliefs about dress from those with which Firuz was raised in an observant Malaysian family. These differences are the result of the different social and cultural milieus in which Islam developed in these different regions. For example, it is thought that the black chador was introduced under the Safavid dynasty in Iran during the 16thcentury. The absence of solid black garments in Malaysia could be explained then, by the fact that Malaysia never fell directly under the control of the Safavids, and were affected instead by other ethnic groups. Thus, the differences in clothing are matters not only of shar’ia and Qur’anic interpretation, but also matters of broader cultural influence.
Following Firuz’s studies in Iran, she came to study Islamic and Near Eastern studies at Washington University in St. Louis, where wearing any sort of religiously- inspired dress is neither governmentally mandated, as it is in Iran, nor widespread, as it is in Malaysia. As a result, Firuz explained, the women whom she knows in the United States who cover their hair are more religiously observant than those in Iran or even in Malaysia. Muslim women who wear “hijab” in the United States make a particularly conscious decision to do so, since it is not in any way encouraged by the culture in which they live. Thus, as both Firuz and the women who spoke in our class asserted, those who wear it in the United States imbue the wearing of “hijab” with greater meaning. Similarly, since these women are making an active decision to make Islam a significant part of their everyday life through wearing “hijab,” they are more likely to have made other commitments to Islam and be more observant of shari’a than Muslims who do not make as conscious of a decision to wear “hijab.” Elsewhere, donning of “hijab” may be implicitly culturally based, as it is in places where doing so is the norm or widespread (as in Iran and Malaysia), or it may even been done with explicitly secular cultural intentions. In colonial Algeria, for example, women adopted the “hijab” as a symbol of their rejection of the West and its cultural norms, independent of the religious reasons for the wearing of “hijab” that are used by women in other contexts. Due to the absence of a widespread Islamic culture in the United States, women here who wear “hijab” make a choice to separate themselves from secular culture and engage in a certain manner of dress as a more purely religious act.
Additionally, Firuz has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, spending time in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. In each of these places, Islamic-inspired dress manifests itself differently based on local custom. In Egypt, for example, to an even greater degree than in Malaysia, women who wear “hijab” do so with attention to fashion, explained Firuz. In Syria, as well, the wearing of “hijab” has an element of fashion to it, though the women there, in Firuz’s opinion, are less flashy than those in Egypt. Additionally, many Malaysian women go to study Islam in Syria, and these women tend to be more covered (than just their hair, ears and neck) and religiously observant in other ways as well. In Turkey, by contrast, wearing any sort of headscarf is forbidden in universities and government offices. As a result, some Turkish women flee to Iran in order to be able to cover themselves without experiencing discrimination because of it. Despite the prohibition, many Turkish women do wear “hijab,” often made of silk and worn tucked into the women’s clothing, as opposed to outside of it, as is customary elsewhere. These women, though considered religiously observant, partake in practices that are different from those to which Firuz had been exposed in Malaysia. For example, though there are differing opinions on smoking within Islam, it is generally frowned upon, even if it is not considered by all scholars to be haram (forbidden). Firuz claimed that in general, Malaysian women who are observant to the degree that they wear “hijab” do not smoke, or perhaps in some cases do so secretly. Turkish women with “hijab,” in contrast, are often heavy smokers who have no qualms about smoking, even in the presence of others. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, in the words of Firuz, women “always wear black” and are deprived of certain freedoms, including driving a car, in the name of Islam. Firuz expressed discomfort with this notion, as it is starkly different from the Islam with which she was raised in Malaysia, and expressed concern that backing such laws with religion “makes people feel badly about Islam.” These significant differences between geographical and national communities further highlights the differences in the interpretation of what is religiously expected based on other, not necessarily inherently religious, aspects of the regional culture.
Though individual Muslims are often reluctant to say that their practices are based in culture as opposed to purely in religion, to some degree, this is probably always the case. The practice of Islam globally, based in the same textual sources, varies significantly between different communities, and other aspects of culture account for these variations, even if their influence is not immediately obvious. Often, cultural differences that are not religiously based become associated with some form of religious backing, further blurring the distinction between specifically religious practices and other aspects of the broader culture. This religious backing of cultural practices is an effective and appealing technique to ensure the preservation of cultural ideals and values, since religion often holds greater authority than other facets of culture. As a result of this blurring of categories, the aspects of popular religion that are based in secular culture or in religion itself are difficult to identify and examine, though both elements are usually present.
Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
Masterton, Aisha R. “Hijab in Iran: Many Shades of Meaning.” IslamOnline.net
February 28, 2010).
“The World Factbook: Malaysia.” Central Intelligence Agency.
(accessed February 28, 2010).
 I interviewed Firuz on Monday, 2/22/10/. We had arranged to meet in a café at Washington University, but moved to a common space in a nearby academic building because the café was crowded. I took notes throughout the interview, and thus, any quotes from the interview are paraphrased.
 “The World Factbook: Malaysia.” Central Intelligence Agency.
 Masterton, Aisha R. “Hijab in Iran: Many Shades of Meaning.” IslamOnline.net
 Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. 164.