Several years ago while traveling through Malaysia, I had the opportunity to visit a mosque in Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital. Despite my modest dress (a long flowing skirt and a loose-fitting blouse that covered my arms), the mosque required that I wear an abaya, a cloak that covered my head, face, and all my clothing. (They had plenty on hand for tourists just like myself.) As I explored the mosque, I couldn’t move past the unsettling sensation of feeling invisible. From my western perspective, I had a difficult time imagining choosing to cover myself on a daily basis, as so many Muslim women do.
Recently, I came across Zofeen Ebrahim’s article, “Educated, Glamorous and Wearing A Hijab”, which got me thinking about head and body coverings from a body image perspective. I was left with two persistent thoughts. First, I’ve been contemplating the idea that by wearing a hijab, women are free from being objectified. Or least freer than women who do not don the Muslim headdress. Ebrahim quotes Farahnaz Moazzam who chooses to cover herself as saying: “I don’t feel like a product or an object anymore. Now people notice my smile, my conversation, and take me more seriously.”
The author echoes her sentiments:
“Aside from considering it as an offering to Allah, the women say dressing the way they do liberates them from worries about their looks and allows them – and other people – to concentrate on more important things.”
Second, I was struck by the concept of getting a funky hairdo, adorning my body with jewelry, and wearing clothing that reflects my fashion preferences only to keep it hidden from others:
“Fashion, why not?” says Moazzam. “I am as normal as any other woman. I have, however, come to a point where I am covering up my fashion statement, jewellery, haircut, in front of the crowd. But I still do it and enjoy it.”
How many of us dress just for ourselves? How many of us judge others based on their sense of style or size? I’m not suggesting that we should adopt Muslim customs such as the hijab or abaya, but I can’t help but wonder if we all covered up (men and women alike) how much more accepting we would be of others and ourselves?