HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Westernization of Dress in the Middle East

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).

Hijab Tutorial 

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.






  1. Kaitlyn Johnson says:

    First off I loved your article. I’m so glad these blog posts are becoming more than just whats on the news and evolving into us learning more about Islamic culture. I’m glad that women are gaining more individual freedoms in the Middle East even if it just is how they dress. Clothing is an outward expression of personality and taste of the person wearing them whether it be a colorful hijab and conservative western clothing, a full burka, or t-shirts and nike shorts. I do not believe that these women who are modernizing their clothing are giving up on their culture, just expressing their views and beliefs in their own way. I’m sure there are many women who would prefer a full burka over some levis. Thanks again for the insightful article.

  2. mjuren3 says:

    I very much enjoyed reading your article as well. I have high respect for cultures that value modesty in their women rather than urging them to wear skimpy or provocative clothing that reduces them to being objects of sexual desire. That being said, I hope as time goes on that women in the Middle East continue to have a greater voice in how they as individuals want to dress rather than being forced to wear what their culture/government dictates.

  3. jdowling6 says:

    I also enjoyed the read and am glad to see that woman in the Middle East can enjoy more freedoms than they have had in previous centuries. Yeah, crazy how far some people will go to try to reverse or even slow down the process of allowing the people to enjoy more freedoms. It is always sad to see (anywhere) a society where there isn’t equality between men and women. But it is good to know things are rapidly changing in a positive direction in the Middle East despite the opposition to change.

  4. I have watched this modernization with my own eyes. Last time I was in Iran, the people there were very traditional with their clothing, but now, with the existence of social media websites like Facebook, I see my relatives drastically changing their style of clothing. It seems as if the requirement to fully cover has become more relaxed, as women’s hair are becoming a lot more noticeable out in the public. I’ve also seen the adaptation to jean pants (and middle easterners love them) than ever before. As the middle east is becoming more modern (some would say westernizing), the clothing is evolving just as much as the countries are. With the influence of Facebook, I don’t see it ever going back to the old school traditions of clothing.

  5. Your article reminds me of what I learnt from high school Revolutions class. We talked about how Islamic costume rises fantasizing from other people. Because Islamic women never showed their skin or face in front of people, foreigners had no chance to see how Islamic women look like for centuries. Therefore, they fantasized. As we know, fantasizing can often lead to sexual way. I remember reading a article argue that western women are actually being insulted by their way of dressing instead of Islamic women because western women show too much of their bodies, which allow men to …..(don’t know how to express in english, you know). However, I think that fantasizing about women under veils is more insulting. Anyway, I prefer to take the middle way.

    Shitian Liu

  6. kledbetter6 says:

    In every country there is a standard of dress to which people are expected to adhere while in public. To go out in public in the U.S. wearing absolutely nothing will lead to charges of indecent exposure. In other countries, such as many in the Middle East, standards are stricter. Perhaps this focus on modesty is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I like the idea that modern Islamic women are being given more of an opportunity to dress as they wish while still adhering to the principles they believe in. The government trying to force people to acquire values such as modesty will rarely foster these morals; perhaps by loosening the strict government-enforced dress code, the women will be able to find their own levels of modesty without feeling as though the government is oppressing them.

  7. marymsherman says:

    I really find it interesting when you read about government-enforced dress code at all. It’s just a different way of thinking to believe that a government has the power to decide what women should wear based on Muslim morals even for non-Muslims.
    Also I don’t know why this came into my head after the picture of the women in burqa’s, but it must be terrifying for a Middle Eastern child to get lost and all the women are wearing very similar dress…

  8. akranc3 says:

    I think it’s great that women are finally getting a chance to express themselves. After reading a ton of Gelvin, it was only through time and interactions with European powers that Westernization finally took root. As rulers were deposed and replaced, with them came different ideologies. Only after so many successions were the people in power no longer part of the Islamic old-guard. These people actually looked favorably on Western ways. Who knows what is next with such a globalized world?

  9. nholdaway3 says:

    I’ve always wondered where the origin of the dress code came from. It seems like people have interpreted it a few ways from the strict, must wear a burqa, to a more lax hijab. My only question is how uncomfortable are the burqas to wear in the middle of summer?

  10. sstephenson3 says:

    This is a good article that raises some interesting points on the roles of women in Middle Eastern society. Once again, I find this as a representation of women’s rights to be a ridiculous notion. Having taken the previous course, I understand that this clothing change is a long way from the comfortable zone for this particular culture, but I have a very hard time taking a society that traditionally does allow a woman to look a man in the eye seriously. In fact, the notion that I cannot control my sexual desires, to the point where all I can look at on a woman is her eyes, insults me as a man. I think that it is great that the women of the Middle East are starting to accept Western styles of fashion, but there are far larger issues with women’s rights in the Middle East than fashion statements, like equal education, equality in the workplace, and equal legal rights.

  11. Jeffrey Lester says:

    Thanks for the great article. This has always been a topic of interest for me, at least as far as Islamic culture goes. I am interested to know if it is more the woman’s choice to follow the Quran and dress conservatively or if they are forced by their husbands or fathers. In my experience I believe the latter. I had many female Muslim friends in high school and some chose to follow the conservative path and completely cover themselves while others didn’t even dawn a head scarf. They all seemed to be friends so I don’t think it was a point of contention between them. Some years later I ran into one of my friends who had previously chosen not to wear traditionally but now that she had been in college decided to start wearing the full dress. So I’m inclined to think that her increased interest in her faith came from within and was not forced.

  12. drippykins says:

    Religious reasons or not, it’s somewhat admirable that cultures still respect their body and appearance. I think modesty is an important characteristic of a lady or gentleman. However, there’s certainly an invasive and oppressive aspect to the enforcement of clothing in Islamic culture, especially for women. In the US, it seems easier to justify laws on public indecency and nudity, but it’s interesting how much an ancient religious text can still influence the personal freedoms of women today. I hope women will continue to gain more freedoms, and are able to further express themselves by their clothes and cosmetic things like make-up.

  13. mitch7991 says:

    Being a very strong believer in Christ Jesus, it’s hard for me to take a viewpoint that isn’t with respect to true Christian ideology. Therefore I actually approve of the traditional dress in the Middle East for the exact same reason as in Islam. It definitely keeps lust to a minimum. And actually as our nation as strayed further away from Christianity, so has our dress. What took place in our nation about half a century ago is beginning to take place in the Middle East. However, it does seem that the rules for women’s attire get out of control sometimes. Women know what catches a man’s eye. If they are true believers, whether of Islam or Christianity, then they know of the immoral desires that dress can cause and are responsible enough to dress accordingly. And so, with regards to women’s rights, the only governing authority over their lives should be their faith. In Christianity, this authority does not come from man but from God. This is claimed to be the case as well in Islam.

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