Genesis 11:5

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. Genesis 11:5

that you may be grateful

Tonight Reem invited me to join her for Vegetable Noodles and Vegetarian spring rolls. I ventured out on a limb to eat Chinese in Colchester, but it was well worth it. Reem is a beautiful young woman, a friend who I originally met when she was seeking a tutor for the IELTS exam last summer. We now consider each other sisters. 

She is the kind of young woman who I want to be like. I deeply respect her conduct with her children and the commitment she enacts for her family. Even with two young children, she is determined to perfect her English skills and complete a Bachelor's degree. Although Reem is a very modest woman, always adorned in an abaya and niqab in public, she has never judged me or made me feel inferior. During graduation at Essex last summer, I happened to be wearing the most risqué item in my wardrobe - a sleeveless summer dress that at least fell several inches below my knees. Reem spotted me as I dashed into the Wivenhoe Co-op; I think I was trying to hide. Instead of letting me go, she called out for me from the bus stop across the street. She didn't stop calling my name until I turned around. There she was, standing at the bus stop with her entire family, who had just come from Saudi Arabia to visit. Her mother, her Aunt, her younger sister, and her mother's friend were all wearing abayas and niqabs. I was so embarrassed, and begged Reem not to introduce me to her family until I was dressed more respectfully, but they were all eager to meet me. The following week when I visited Reem and her family in their home, I wore a long-sleeved shirt. It was not cool outside at that time, and they encouraged me to dress more comfortably the next time, as they sat there relaxing in spaghetti strapped shirts and leggings: "Don't you know what we wear in our homes?" they asked, inviting me to be more natural with them. They welcomed me so warmly, and I never felt a hint of judgment.

Muslim women like Reem help me to value more deeply the modesty that they demonstrate. They lead me to feel something that Lauren Booth refers to as "hijab envy." Islamic Awareness Week speaker Tarek El Diwany shared a striking image, as he described the criticism often faced by Muslim women for dressing modestly.

This photo from the Dubai World Cup illustrates the contrast between western and Islamic standards of dress. When I see this photo, I am struck by the beautiful modesty represented by the Muslim women. Sure they might have £500 handbags, but at least they have their self-respect. Although critics might label these Muslim women "oppressed," I find the blonde woman to be in a far more vulnerable and subservient position.  Such a photo leads women to ask who we are dressing for, and why. The two Muslim women in this photo seem to be asking why the blonde woman feels it necessary to expose herself. I believe that women have been mistaken to equate showing our skin with freedom.

When I wear hijab, sometimes I am afraid that people in the street will treat me differently, or be less inclined to help me if I ask. This morning I stopped a British man in the street, and asked him to give me change for a £10. He had it, but I had to convince him to exchange the money with me. Even walking away, he asked me if the £10 note was "good." I was not wearing hijab, but I wondered to myself if he would have given me the time of day, had I covered my hair on my journey to work, as I normally do. At the same time, my sense is increasing that not every strange man needs to see my hair, and that a woman's hair is both beautiful and private. Women have the right to modesty.

In addition to envying the modesty portrayed by Islamic dress, I told Reem tonight that for a long while I was jealous of Muslims who pray 5 times daily. "That's why I learned to pray," I said, after describing the months I spent memorizing Quranic passages and prayers with my Libyan friend Aisha. I remember the day she started to teach me how to physically go through the motions of prayer, and the responsibility I felt when I got back home. I didn't have an excuse after that not to pray - unless I have a reason to stop, I should pray. And how beautiful a discipline I find it to be. Praying five times daily completely transforms the way one thinks and lives.
...exalt [Allah] with praise of your Lord before the rising of the sun and before its setting; and during periods of the night [exalt Him] and at the ends of the day, that you may be satisfied. al Ta Ha 20:130
Constantly I consider my state in relation to Allah: The sun is coming up, so I should pray. What have I done in the last few hours? Am I in a state of prayer? How can I arrange my schedule in a way most compatible with the prayer times? Ahmed has done the best to teach me what it means to prioritise prayer. I've learned from his example how to keep prayer in the forefront of my mind. He finishes class, and the first thing he will do when he returns to his room is pray. He's been in London for the day and the first item on his agenda is prayer. There is a sense of responsibility in the heart of Muslims to honor and remember Allah through prayer.

As in every aspect of Islam, the gracious intentions of Allah are reflected in the Islamic Pillar of Prayer. Although prayer challenges Muslims by calling them routinely to accountability, the prayers are not intended to make life more difficult.
O you who have believed, when you rise to [perform] prayer, wash your faces and your forearms to the elbows and wipe over your heads and wash your feet to the ankles. And if you are in a state of janabah, then purify yourselves. But if you are ill or on a journey or one of you comes from the place of relieving himself or you have contacted women and do not find water, then seek clean earth and wipe over your faces and hands with it. Allah does not intend to make difficulty for you, but He intends to purify you and complete His favor upon you that you may be grateful. al-Ma'idah 5:6


  1. P, very interesting thoughts. I feel a bit like the argument is too simplified. The photo of the Westerner and the two Muslim women does exemplify two different value systems, but it is also an oversimplification of the argument. I would agree that dressing like the Westerner is not necessarily respectful to women, but I would disagree that modesty must be thought of by wearing a hijab. Though that could be construed as a form of modesty, it is not the archetype of what modesty should be (at least in my mind.
    Modesty as a whole is a cultural construct and one that is based on different value systems. Countries in the tropics where there is high heat and both men and women are practically naked are not immodest but only display a different kind of modesty than our Western (or Easter) ideals. Is showing hair, shoulders, legs, etc. inherently immodest, disrespectful and unfitting? Or is it something that is completely dependent on a specific culture and value system?
    The arguments just get more complex in a globalized world where these value systems collide. It's important to recognize a different culture for it's positive and negative contributions towards a healthier whole, but not to just label the other as wrong just because it's different. - keith

  2. Dear Keith,

    Thanks for writing! Your points are well-taken. I agree that to say that the issue of modesty is black and white is to oversimplify the topic. I think that it is right to ask if there is not a happy medium or a gray area between the two. Perhaps rather than trying to deny that there is a medium between hijab/abaya and nightdresses, my intention here is to focus on why women, in the west and the east, dress the way they do. I know that I have been told in the past that dressing like the westerner in this photo is one way that a women can express her freedom. Maybe a woman can wear something revealing and just not give a shit about who's looking or not. I once believed that, but now my hunch is that this is very difficult for women, particularly western women, who have been raised in a culture that oversexualizes everything, including the woman's body. Let's say that intention is the big issue here. Maybe this westerner is not thinking critically about her clothes. Maybe she is consciously thinking that she will earn the attention of onlookers. Maybe she thinks that she is asserting her rights as a woman, but is actually buying into the message in the media that this is what men want to see, and this is what is expected of women. Whatever it is, I am reevaluating why I dress the way that I do, and who I dress for.

    I appreciate your point that modesty is a cultural construct. In fact, I saw an example of this today when I looked at the images on the back of a film cover: How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman. I haven't seen the film, but I understand that it depicts an Indian tribe in coastal Brazil. I was quite shocked by the nudity in the village, and honestly, struggled to imagine how their culture managed to have people wandering around essentially naked all of the time. Where is intimacy, in that case? What do you share with one that you haven't shared with everyone else? According to IMDB trivia blurb "The film was threatened to be vetoed by Brazilian censorship for depicting abundant full-frontal nudity, an issue which was laughed off by historians and researchers of native Brazilian peoples."

  3. So you are raising an excellent point about the relativity of modesty. I would never venture to accuse people living in high heat such as this as dressing immodestly. How could I? I will agree with you here that showing hair, shoulders, legs, etc. is not inherently immodest. Obviously I don't know enough about how this works. Can you tell me a bit about how differently sexuality is interpreted in the cultures that you are describing, or point me to a way that I can better understand? Perhaps as Western sexual ideals spread throughout the world, such a dress code would become more problematic?

    Overall, you are raising a question that I want to explore more fully in due time. Sometimes I ask myself how cultural Islam is. We both know that cultures often tailor religion to meet their needs. Somehow, coming from where I come from, I've found many aspects of Islam to be highly practical, and applicable to my lifestyle for the most part. How? I am asking myself. Once in a while I hit a bump in the road, and I feel like that bump is a sign that this or that aspect of Islam is much more cultural than religious. To be honest, sometimes I feel that Islam is too cultural for me. But often in Islamic Awareness events I hear people comment that Islam does not imply that you have to be Arab, that you have to wear robes, or that you have to like curry. When I first heard this comment I was slightly offended on behalf of my friends who fit any of those categories, because these traits are common to Muslim cultures. Islam takes on a variety of different forms, depending on which Muslim culture you find yourself in. Some of my Muslim friends do not like to hear that Islam is cultural, and sometimes they defend the consistency of Islam across cultures.

    I cannot call any particular faith ultimate truth. I cannot say that Islam or Christianity or any other faith is the exclusive path to spirituality. And in our globalised world that you mentioned, I believe it is most important to emphasise understanding and respect of difference, more than labelling one right and one wrong. For this reason I cannot say that either of these women in the picture are ultimately right or wrong. I can only speak from my experience up until now. I do believe that women should be equipped with tools to critically evaluate what they are wearing and why.

    Maybe when I look that this photo, and seem to point fingers, I am criticising something that I come from. Without trying to condemn anyone else, I am looking at beliefs that I once held and I am trying to understand where they came from, and how they are evolving.

    Thanks so much for writing.

  4. So, I just wrote a lengthy response and it didn't work and I lost it all. Crap! I'll try and recap.

    First of all, I hope I don't come across as antagonistic. I like to debate and play devil's advocate, but this can make me sound like I have stronger opinions than I really do. So take it all with a grain of salt!

    I like that you are highlighting the idea of motivation/intention behind why women dress the way they do and how even intentions can be skewed by cultural assumptions. In America, a woman might highlight her "freedom" by wearing next to nothing. In Iran, a woman may cover herself from head to toe to highlight her "modesty". But both may also be giving into ideas of freedom and modesty that are imposed by male-dominated cultures (which are most cultures of the world). This is a tricky thing because we are trying to react against something that is so deeply entrenched.

    In terms of other cultures, I don't know a ton, but I can relate some of my experiences as well as anthropology classes I had way back when. The idea that sexuality is strongly connected with nudity is very much an American more. We have friends from Finland who talked about spending summers at lake houses. There they would go into saunas with their parents and friends, all nude, and there would be no awkwardness. When you're raised in a culture that doesn't connect sex and nudity, it's easier to imagine this, but in our culture it's really hard. I was very uncomfortable with the idea, but at the same time was jealous of it as it seemed healthier than my cultural views. I have a painting prof who talks about his experiences teaching figure drawing and how most students are really surprised that there is nothing sexual about drawing a nude figure. In a setting that is stripped from all sexuality, nudity is just nudity, it's not much different than drawing someone in a bathing suit. And in cultures where they don't wear many/any clothes, intimacy is more than body parts. Sharing yourself, your house, your time is more important than covering yourself. Monogamy can be intimacy, raising children is part of intimacy. Different ideals are more important than others. Perhaps modesty is still valued in those cultures, but expressed by the tones used in communication, or posture, or how you share yourself with others.

    I really appreciate that you are struggling through this, and that you are open to the challenges that present itself in discovering your own roots as well as Islam. It's so exciting to see the things that complement each other, but it is also overwhelming because you're juggling two very different worldviews. Inspiring, nonetheless. Keep on keeping on!

  5. Someone out there on blogger hates both of us, Keith, because I wrote a swell response to you, and I LOST IT TOO! Here's trying again.

    First, thank you for your comments. I would not make my thoughts public here, or I would at least disable the ‘comment’ feature if I did not want to hear the valuable input of my closest friends, so please continue to challenge me and make your perspectives known!

    Here is my thought on intention. It is one thing if a woman or man dresses in response to pressure from mass media, or in order to gain the sexual attention of onlooker, and another if a person is a member of a culture, society, or environment that accepts nudity.
    I hope to write more about this in future posts, but I am learning that in Arab culture before Islam, women were completely oppressed and treated like nothing more than property. It was the religion of Islam that gave women status and entitled them to respect. With this in mind, I consider your point that a woman covered from head to toe might be buying into an idea of freedom and modesty that has been imposed by a male-dominated society. Once I attended an Equality and Diversity meeting at the University in which a male member of staff expressed his discomfort with veiled women around campus. He was offended that these women assume that he will find them attractive, and that they shield themselves in advance. Would he complain about the ‘Essex girl’ parading around in her knickers? ANYWAY, I think that the many many men in the US and Britain, for example, feel entitled to accessible female bodies. They feel entitled to seeing women dressing attractively, whether in the street or in their business office.
    These thoughts lead me to ponder where the instant gratification is for Arab men who live in cultures with veiled, modest women. Do veiled women really indicate a male-dominated culture, or perhaps a redemptive aspect of Islam, which entitles women to dignity and modesty?

    As for art, I once questioned Bookstore Eric about some of the ‘art’ books sold at Midtown. There are several there featuring children photographed in the nude. Such images made me very uncomfortable, especially when you notice that they are being delivered to men in prison and so forth. But he tried to explain to me something about a different perception of nudity in Scandinavia, and that these photographs are not considered anything near child pornography. Still I am uncomfortable with the photographs, but that’s because of something that you pointed out: in the US nudity is strongly equated with sex.

    I am definitely jealous that time and communication and hospitality can be generally understood as more intimate activities than sex and nudity. I’m sure that in our immediate social circle these values hold true, but I can’t imagine how much healthier I would feel if these values were more widely held. Sounds like an ideal world!

    Hopefully I’ll get to post something new soon. Thanks so much for your very thoughtful and challenging responses! I appreciate the way your keeping my mind open and challenges! My love to you and Katie! Miss you both!