Modesty: Fashion or Oppression? Depends on Who Wears It

Ellie Watts

With an unsettling - but predictable - lack of resistance, legislation restricting the religious clothing of Muslim women has been proposed and implemented globally. Despite the widespread belief that modesty is oppressive for Muslim women, mainstream media frequently praises celebrities for their ‘ingenuity’ when they wear ‘fashionable’ attire that conceals their face, hair or body - or all three. The bigotry is undeniable, Muslim women are forced to undress while simultaneously oversized clothes, knitted hoods and face coverings are trending.

Burqa & Hijab bans
There are sixteen countries with burqa/niqab bans in total, and as of March 2022 ten countries have restrictions on hijab in certain public institutions and territories/regions. Not only are lawmakers ripping away Muslim women’s religious freedom and bodily autonomy, but they’re also making it harder for them to attend school, dissuading them from pursuing careers in the public sector and deterring them from leaving their homes altogether. Consequently, the hypocrisy of citing the liberty of Muslim women as the purpose of these bans is unnerving when they are nothing but restrictive.

Politicised Muslim women

Evidently, the global chokehold on Islam isn’t driven by genuine concern for women or ‘feminist’ ideals. If it were, mainstream feminists would be hysterical upon learning the number of civilian Afghan women who were murdered by the US during its ‘war on terror’. A war advertised and justified by images of Afghan women in blue burqas. Yet the 2020 peace talks left the future of these women (and the blue burqa) in the hands of their other oppressors - the Taliban. Muslim women were abused for the political gains of others and left in a country that was even deadlier for them than it was to begin with. 

‘Women's rights’ are being used as a shield under which Islamophobia and human rights violations are rampant. Islamophobia is widely accepted (if not popular) and mainstream ‘feminism’ is infested with it. Therefore, politicians and the media can pull out the ‘Muslim problem’ at every election - or as needed - to boost their popularity and relevance. The outrage of ‘feminists’ when fighting to ‘free the nipple’ is rarely - if ever - seen when politicians impinge on the religious freedom of Muslim women; unless of course, it can be manipulated to justify Islamophobia. 

Double Standards 
If it isn’t obvious by now, the issue people have with the burqa, hijab or niqab is less to do with women's rights and more to do with Islamophobia. The double standards are indisputable and the fashion industry, media and celebrity culture has been happy to participate. The bigotry was truly illuminated when hordes of adoring fans and reporters clamoured to praise Kim Kardashian's all-leather outfit, complete with a leather face covering. Humankind should surely come into question when it is more socially acceptable to wear a truly demonic-looking outfit than it is for Muslim women to wear their religious clothing.

What also came to mind when looking at these photos was the common phrase that all Muslim women are familiar with: “Are you not hot wearing that?” usually accompanied by an expression of pity after you’ve been thoroughly looked up and down. It's hard to imagine that the same people feigning concern over a breezy abaya were not amongst the 6,455,453 people who liked Kardashian’s post. Even polyester and viscose are more breathable than the leather which covers every inch of her body. Yet there was no concern for Kardashian’s body temperature, and neither were there fears of radicalisation and oppression. Instead, she was branded a “Fashion Icon” in the comments.

Appropriation
Even when Islamic clothing is clearly the ‘inspiration’ of the outfit or even just directly copied, the wearer is received with adoration. Headscarves and knitted hoods have gained popularity on runways, the latter has even been branded a “kooky alternative to your beanie or beret this winter”. In 2021 Vogue magazine published an article “How to Style a Bandana or Headscarf, Inspired by Versace and Dior”. The author was quick to acknowledge the headscarf's religious and cultural roots but still unfavourably termed it as an accessory; it's hard not to internally cringe at the “are headscarves the new headbands?”. In the current social and political climate where hijab is restricted in at least 10 different countries, it is tone-death to think of headscarves as anything but an act of worship Muslim women are fighting for.

It seems covering your hair, face and body is okay for everyone but Muslim women. Vogue France infamously demonstrated this hypocrisy with their ‘yes to the headscarf’ tweet attached to a photo of a famous white woman (Julia Fox) covering her hair, a stark contrast to images of Muslim women being forced to strip publically on Frances beaches. It's painful to imagine how being forced to undress by a group of armed male police officers in front of crowds of onlookers must feel, a feeling Muslim women are experiencing worldwide. As face coverings and headscarves are branded ‘iconic’ when worn by the rich and famous, hijab-wearing girls in India - amongst other countries - can’t go to school; they’re being forced to sacrifice either their beliefs or education. 

Fight for the religious freedom of those who dress modestly every day as an act of worship rather than to merely chase the superficial gratification of fashion trends. 

Ellie Watts

"It didn’t take me long after I reverted to realise people don’t listen to Muslim women. Especially those who fail to recognise the importance of intersectionality in their ‘activism’, who see me as ‘oppressed’ by my faith that actually empowers me in indescribable ways. Self-proclaimed feminists can’t seem to comprehend autonomous, opinionated and loud Muslim women. I started writing to reclaim my narrative from such Islamophobic and patriarchal ideology, I won't be silenced. Everyone deserves to have their stories told how they really happen, not how oppressive systems choose to frame them to suit their own agendas."
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