My inspiration for this blog came from the next book that we are reading, Season of Migration to the North written by Tayid Saleh. There are many sexual undertones and references in the book which surprised me because the Middle Eastern culture is recognized for its conservative behavior and dress. I am unable to include a dense background of gender differences in political, economic, and cultural areas in such a short blog. Thus I would like to use this blog to examine the basic reasoning for the specific behavior and clothing worn by women in the Middle East.
Many Muslims believe that in the presence of an individual of the opposite sex, that is not a close family member; a woman should cover her body and act in a way that does not draw sexual attention to her. This includes content of speech, the way they communicate, laugh and joke around, contact with others is limited, and even their gaze must be lowered when passing a male so as to not have eye contact. The Quran says:
“Say to the believers, that they cast down their eyes and guard their private parts; that is purer for them. God is aware of the things they work, and say to the believing women, that they cast down their eyes and guard their private parts, and reveal not their adornment save such as is outward and let them cast their veils over their bosoms, and not reveal their adornment save to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s father, or their sons, or their husband’s son, or their sister’s sons, or their women, or what their right hands own, or such men as attend them, not having sexual desire, or children who have not yet attained knowledge of women’s private parts; nor let them stamp their feet, so that their hidden ornaments may be known.” (Quran 24:30-31)
Although this quote doesn’t specifically express that wearing a veil is compulsory, Muslims have interpreted it this way. This quote is just one of many that reference modesty of women. In practice, adherence to the ideology of veiling has not always meant total covering of the body, but it has had varying degrees and forms of concealment. These references from the Quran are interpreted as regulations of women’s rights in daily life. Modesty was first established with complete veiling via a burqa. The burqa is the traditional garb in Islamic culture; it is a loose dress that covers the entire body from head to foot with only allowing the eyes to be shown; it is worn over a woman’s normal dress when she leaves her home.
In a region where governments have long tried to curb Western influences, the women of the Middle East increasingly use fashion to make a political statement- blending Western concepts with distinctively Islamic elements. With the advent of modernization or westernization, most women prefer the hijab. A hijab is a headscarf, which covers all of the head and neck besides the face. The hijab is a way of ensuring that the moral boundaries between unrelated men and women are respected. In addition to the hijab a woman is required to wear clothing that covers her body and skin from head to toe. This used to be limited to a loose fitting, full-length garment, but now a day the westernization of the Middle East has broadened those options to western clothing that covers the body (i.e. tight long sleeve shirts and pants).
The modernization of the Middle East has resulted in western influence on the style of clothing young women wear. For instance, now that security in Baghdad has tightened, women feel safer to shed their traditional dress and cloth themselves in Western-style clothes that are portrayed on the television and in various ads. One must keep in mind, however, that Western-style cloths usually allude to clothes that still cover a lot of a woman’s body- they are just tighter and show off the woman’s form. In addition to clothing, Islamic women have adopted the use of cosmetics. However, an article in the New York Times points out that woman often drop this modern style and adopt the traditional cloths in time of danger because they are at risk for being punished by the government.
Hamas, a fundamentalist Islamic organization that operates on the West Bank and Gaza is dedicated to religious, military, political, and security activities. Recently it has launched a campaign titles ‘Upholding Values and Virtues’ which targets Western-style clothing especially low-waist and tight jeans. The campaign will begin advocating against ‘immodest woman’s clothing’ in order to turn people more towards their religion. Hamas hopes that this campaign will reverse the negative impact that this style of clothing has had on society. I think what makes this even more interesting is Israel’s relationship with the United States.
Although, Hamas is trying to bring back a more traditional style of dress I don’t think it will be completely successful because even if Western style is banned it is sometimes adjusted to meet Islamic standards. For instance, women continue to challenge the dress code by adding personality to their modest clothing. Instead of simple black headscarves and manteaus (a long coat-like covering) they choose bright colors. The way the manteaus are worn has even become a fashion statement with it’s varying lengths and colors.