This essay was originally a guest post at Avicenna’s blog A Million Gods.
For quite a while now, I’ve been planning to write an essay about religious dress codes and discuss some of my own experiences with them, specifically in Islam (as that is the religion my family belongs to). Avicenna graciously asked me to share my experiences after I commented on a recent post of his, which motivated me to move this essay to the top of my list of planned writing. There are, of course, many subtopics that one could address, but here, I will focus on two main ones: (a) being judged primarily based on one’s appearance and clothing; and (b) the complexity of choice in a society or community which puts great pressure on individuals to conform to a certain dress code.
My experiences are, of course, my own. I do not claim that others share them; however, I do demand that those who had negative experiences within a religious faith have just as much right to share their stories, and have them taken seriously (without claims that it is “not real religion”), as those who had a more positive experience.
The Shallowness of Religious Dress Codes
There are those who will claim that wearing certain articles of clothing that cover certain parts of the body (e.g. hijab, niqab, burqa) allows women to be free from being judged based on appearance, so that they will be judged based on their character, ideas, and actions. Whenever I hear this claim, I notice a certain irony. Living in a Muslim family in the United States of America, I have heard from people of different religions that their own community or ideology judges women based on character, while other communities or ideologies judge women based on appearance. Just as there are non-Muslims who claim that their belief systems judge women based on their ideas and actions while Islam judges women based on appearance (e.g. religious clothing), there are Muslim apologists who claim that they judge women based on ideas and actions while secular society judges women based on appearance (e.g. fashion magazines). I have found that people tend to dismiss the claims of women in their own society who say they are being unfairly treated, in order to focus on how women in other societies have it worse. These are people whose concern for women in other societies seems disingenuous, used as it is to dismiss the concerns of women in their own societies; they are more worried about making themselves look good than they are about gender equality. One of the things I learned is that only those who agreed there weren’t problems in their own society were encouraged to express their views, while those who thought there were problems were ignored or silenced.
While growing up, my religious education was sporadic. It included learning to read the Qur’an (in Arabic, which I do not understand) with some family members and, for some time, attending Islamic Sunday School classes. The classes were no den of violent teachings, and I attended a secular public school for my regular education, so my experience was not so extreme; I’ve heard of other people’s experiences in religious classes that were much worse. However, I do feel that my time there left a lasting impact on me, including a very negative impression of Islam and religious instruction of children. Some of my most vivid memories of this Sunday School are those of being judged based upon my gender and clothes. People claim that religious education is supposed to leave a person enlightened, but this was not the case in my experience. I maintain that I learned more about morality from Harry Potter and Star Trek (and, before that, from the The Baby-sitters Club and Power Rangers) than I ever did from my time in Sunday School. My memories of Sunday School are less about morality and more about feeling excluded and discriminated against.
Much of the sexism was ongoing, but there are two incidents that stand out in my mind; one involved the hijab and one involved the length of my pants (the shalwar of my shalwar kameez). One day, I forgot to bring my hijab to Sunday School, as I was not in the habit of wearing it every day, since my parents don’t force me to wear it. I borrowed one from the school, but my hair is long, so it wasn’t completely covered. One of the adults commented on it. On another day, the shalwar I was wearing was a little short, by about an inch, because I had grown a little taller. It did not cover my ankle bones. One of the adults commented on that as well. There were rules for the boys as well, but the rules were less strict; they were able to show more skin. Girls’ pants had to cover the ankle bone, but boys were permitted to wear shorts (as long as they ended below the knee). Wearing hijabs was mandatory for girls, but wearing topis (which cover less than hijabs) was optional for boys.
Even though I was also a bit of a loner in my secular public school, the Sunday School was much worse. At school, the people who made fun of me were other kids, and I was encouraged to ignore them; I knew that my parents and most other adults around me were on my side if someone made fun of me. At Sunday School, the people who made me miserable were mostly adults, and they were in a position of authority over me. Whereas I received sympathy from adults if I was made fun of by other children, I had to listen to the adults who were commenting on my clothes. At school, I at least felt that some people (e.g. teachers, some friends) liked me and cared about my thoughts and ideas, and I learned about subjects I found interesting and important. At Sunday School, I felt alone and felt that I wasn’t learning much. I’ve learned more about Islam since becoming an atheist than I did while attending religious classes, because much of the religious classes emphasized obedience and created rules based on gender.
Despite claims that the religious clothing makes people more likely to judge women based on their character, ideas, and actions, this is not the case. As Avicenna pointed out in the blog post cited above, women’s beliefs mostly gain attention if they disagree with Islam. Women are judged to be less moral, and sometimes even deserving of violence, if they wear revealing clothing (with the definition of revealing being dependent on the society). Even if they follow the dress codes, however, they do not get respect (outside of being praised for following the dress code). If it were true that wearing certain clothing lead to women being more respected, why is it that many women are not permitted to be in positions of power over men, get an equal education, lead prayers, and sit in the front row? Ultimately, the very idea that women should only be listened to if they dress a certain way is, in and of itself, an example of judging people primarily based on their gender, appearance, and clothing.
None of this is to imply that pressure to dress a certain way and judgement based on appearance are exclusive to Islam. I certainly felt pressure from society to look and dress a certain way, according to the latest fashions; there’s a reason why I cheered inside when, at the age of twelve, I first read the words, “Hermione’s hair was bushy again; she confessed to Harry that she had used liberal amounts of Sleekeazy’s Hair Potion on it for the ball, ‘but it’s way too much bother to do every day,’ she said matter-of-factly, scratching a purring Crookshanks behind the ears.” Though it’s one sentence located a bit of narration in between two major events, it has a special place in my heart; I could relate to Hermione quite a lot, and I admired the way that she was able to dress up when she wanted to and also ignore pressure to look a certain way when she wanted. I felt that this passage acknowledged the legitimacy of not participating in certain fashions if you don’t want to. It was a message I cherished, because there are definitely messages outside of religion which also shame women for dressing a certain way; there are magazine articles dedicated to criticizing the appearance of celebrities and portraying only a narrow selection of women as beautiful. To pretend, however, that these messages are only in secular society is false.
The very idea of having a dress code, especially one that is mandated and considered a sign of morality, in a belief system claiming to teach the most important message to ever exist seems absurd to me. What sort of ideology teaches that you can become closer to the Almighty, the one who created the universe and knows everything, by wearing certain articles of clothing? It’s like worshipping the classmates who made fun of your clothes in middle school, but with the added element of divine torment in the afterlife. Is this not yet another example of human characteristics assigned to a supposedly divine being? Religious dress codes are every bit as shallow as people whose idea of fashion is to insult people who do not fit into a narrow category. It’s still a way of judging people primarily based on what they are wearing, while feeling free to insult them if they don’t wear what certain people approve of. Those who advocate for religious modesty are advocating the same superficial judgement of human beings that they claim to decry.
Coercion and Choice
The existence of judgement based on one’s clothes leads inevitably to the question of choice. There are those who claim that religious clothing is a choice. For some, it certainly is. There are attempts to defend those who wear these articles of clothing from discrimination in societies where they are members of a minority religion. I do not favor a ban (though I do think there can be rules against certain articles of clothing if they interfere with a job a person holds). Certainly, we should not discriminate against those who follow religious dress codes in society. We should not assume that they are inferior or less capable. It’s also important to keep in mind that an article of clothing is not a certain indicator of other types of discrimination; there are, for instance, women who wear hijab who are allowed to go to school, and there are women who aren’t allowed to go to school but not forced to wear hijab.
What bothers me is the one-sided concern only for those who are forced to not wear certain clothes and the lack of concern for those who are forced to wear it. I have seen people deny that there are women who are forced to wear hijab, burqa, or niqab. People claim it is just a stereotype used to demonize Muslims, that only non-Muslims think it’s a problem. In reality, the idea of women wearing some type of head-covering is mainstream to such a degree that it’s become a symbol of the faith. When speaking about a practice with that kind of status, the possibility of coercion shouldn’t be ignored.
Choice can be a complicated thing, because we are inevitably influenced by people around us; I have often wondered how my choices in life would be different if I’d grown up in different circumstances. It’s because we live in societies and influence each other that it’s important to address the issue of how the expectations of our belief systems influence people’s choices. Just as we can choose to do certain things in our own lives, we can also affect the lives of others (both intentionally and unintentionally) in both good and bad ways.
I know many girls and women who wear hijab; I do not know what role their parents’ influence and their own choices had in that decision. The topic of girls and women being forced to wear certain clothes is taboo; if you were forced, there is pressure to not talk about it, because only the personal experiences of those who say they wear it of their free will are considered acceptable.
In her book Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji points out that wearing some form of head-covering is the default belief in the most vocal parts of Islam, adding that even liberals are reluctant to point out the culturally conservative beliefs of illiberal Muslims. She writes,
After 9/11, the Interfaith Center of New York circulated a postcard. It showcased Muslim women of varied ages, sizes and skin colors praying side by side in the middle of a Manhattan thoroughfare. A fully veiled woman sat at the end of the prayer line. The picture became less conservative with each passing supplicant, but not to the point of including a Muslim woman who prays without a headscarf. Every last one of the women is marked as a Muslim by her pre-Islamic mode of dress. Adding to the incoherence, the blurb on the back of the postcard celebrates “the diversity of Muslim communities in the city.” Diversity? In the all-hijabi homage to Islam? Terminally stereotypical.
There is a certain hegemony that the most socially-conservative members of religions have; by the nature of their beliefs, they are able to bully others into doing what they want, while more socially-liberal believers are sometimes reluctant to criticize these practices, due to their belief in diversity and fear of accusations of intolerance. I’ve been to events with gender segregation, even though I knew that many of the people there didn’t support it. I knew this because I had previously been to parties with many of the people who were there, and there had not been mandatory gender segregation during the party (though there was still segregation during prayer). I was told that the mandatory gender segregation for the entire event was done at the request of some of the guests. Whenever there’s a conflict between different interpretations of a religion, people most conservative interpretations expect to get their way; though they will claim that liberals complain too often about being offended, it is they who claim offense to force those who don’t agree with them to do what they want.
The people who favor discrimination want the right to be in a place where everyone has to do what they want. This is why even someone like me, whose parents don’t force her to wear a hijab, may still be forced to wear it in certain settings. I didn’t really have a choice in the Sunday School, because of the social pressure to attend and the social pressure dress a certain way while attending. Keep in mind that I’m relatively very fortunate; there are other girls and women who are forced to wear these articles of clothing most the time.
As I’ve written before, not all children agree with their parents. Just as someone may choose to wear hijab despite not being forced, there are people who wear it because they are forced to. It’s just as wrong to force someone to wear it as it is to force someone to not wear it. As with many issues of equal rights, it can help to turn the situation around and consider how you would feel in a similar situation; just as women who wear religious clothing may stop wearing it due to bullying, harassment, discrimination, and threats, there are also women who wear it despite not wanting to for these very reasons. It doesn’t make sense talk about how women who want to follow the dress code face societal pressure while denying that women who don’t want to follow it also face societal pressure; it’s especially unfair when the people who don’t want to follow the dress code are the ones with the view that defies accepted tradition. It comes across as an attempt to hold one’s own religion to lower standards than one holds for the rest of society; actions that count as unfair societal pressure when done by a secular society to Muslims are considered acceptable methods of ensuring morality when done by Muslims to other Muslims.
There is a discriminatory motivation for certain dress codes, an attempt to segregate. It is not only a symbol of the faith, but also a symbol of the status of women. Women are discouraged from interacting with men, and one of the justifications given for forcing women to wear these articles of clothing is that their bodies will tempt men. There are girls and women who have been targeted for violence based on their clothing. To look at this and deny the element of coercion involved is to deny reality.
Islamic religious apologists should put more thought into their arguments about the role of choice in wearing the hijab, or niqab, or burqa. As long as head-covering is the mainstream view, as long as it is required (even if only at certain times, such as during prayer), as long as there is societal pressure to wear these articles of clothing backed up with harassment, it doesn’t make sense to claim that there is no coercion involved. If Muslims want to claim these articles are a choice, then they should be optional at all times (even during prayer) without harassment, there should not be a teaching that wearing them indicates morality, and young girls should not be forced to wear them. It’s disingenuous to make something required, either through the law or through social coercion, and then claim that it’s a choice.
It matters to me how people are affected by the ideologies in which they grow up, and I believe it is important to address the fact that what may have been a good experience for some may be an oppressive experience for others. There is an understandable, and necessary, effort to fight discrimination against Muslims by showing that there are Muslims who are happy in their religions, who aren’t oppressed or forced to follow interpretations they don’t agree with. Fighting this discrimination, however, should not entail covering up real problems within Islam. Considering the experiences of those who have had bad experiences within Islam is just as important for Muslims as considering the experiences of Muslims who’ve been discriminated against is important for non-Muslims.
Many thanks to Avicenna for asking me to share my experiences. As stated above, I’ve wanted to write about this subject for quite a while, and one of the blog posts that motivated me to write was Ophelia Benson’s response to an article titled “The Freedom of the Hijab” by Ayesha Nusrat in The New York Times. So, I offer belated thanks.
 Avicenna. “Progressive Liberal On the Niqab”. Posted on 29 September 2013 at A Million Gods. Retrieved on 4 October 2013 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/amilliongods/2013/09/29/progressive-liberal-on-the-niqab/.
 Sharmin, Ani J. “The Divine Languages” Posted on 6 July 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 4 October 2013 from https://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/the-divine-languages/.
 Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000, Ch 24, p. 377.
 Manji, Irshad. Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom. New York: Free Press (a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.), 2011, Ch 3, p. 98.
 Sharmin, Ani J. “On Segregated Prayers in Public Schools”. Posted on 24 July 2011 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 4 October 2013 from https://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2011/07/24/on-segregated-prayers-in-public-schools/.
 Benson, Ophelia. “A few yards of cloth”. Posted on 16 July 2012 at Butterflies and Wheels. Retrieved on 17 July 2012 from http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2012/07/a-few-yards-of-cloth/.
 Nusrat, Ayesha. The Freedom of the Hijab. Posted on 13 July 2012 at The New York Times. Retrieved on 17 July 2012 from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/14/opinion/the-freedom-of-the-hijab.html.