Dress and the Muslim Woman

The question of dress for women is always paramount in any Islamisation programme both here and abroad. In fact, it is an obsession for some that dressing in a certain way is reflective of one’s faith. One culmination of such obsession is a proliferation of attempts to enforce faith through authoritarian means.

Coercion is contrary to the spirit of the Qur’an which states that there is no compulsion in religion (Surah al-Baqarah, 2:256; Surah Yunus, 10:99-100; Surah al-Ghashiyah, 88:22).

Women have been told that a particular mode of dress would protect them from evil. Yet social realities have shown that dress cannot shield women from sexual violence.

In fact, for the protection of women’s dignity, the Qur’an (Surah an-Nur, 24:30-31) first orders men, if they be believers, to lower their gaze and guard their own modesty. Some men have disregarded this responsibility, but have forced women to accept forms of veiling and seclusion. Women have been made responsible for limiting men’s lustfulness and for any loss of their self-control.

In this same way, the statements issued by the Kelantan Government have shifted the focus of modesty and moral self-constraint away from Muslim men. Instead, they insist on certain lengths of material that should cover women, be they Muslim or not, in order to sustain the type of moral order they envisage to be Islamic.

The Qur’an and Sunnah call for decent and respectful treatment of all women. Such treatment should be exemplified first by men of faith, the believers, to whom the verses cited above are addressed.

Yet, this injunction is denied, not because this is what the Qur’an and Sunnah have intended, but because men are in control. Refusing their responsibility to lower their gaze and guard their own modesty, some men require that all women be fully covered whenever they leave their homes. Men have dominated women politically and socially in many Muslim societies and this control has been falsely equated with legitimate authority. Institutions were established to support and reinforce men’s prejudices, enabling them to evade their responsibility toward Allah and other human beings.

Indeed, these prejudices have been projected as if they were divinely sanctioned.

Within the movement of resurgent Islam, the issue of women’s dress has taken priority over all other social concerns. A woman’s Islamic propriety and piety are judged purely on the basis of how much material she is wearing. While dress is part of identity and cultural expression, a woman’s right to decide her own form of dress is completely denied.

Although Islam aims at a certain moral standard which includes dress (among other things), resurgent Islam neglects all else in its prurient preoccupation with women’s physicality and social position.

If women were encouraged to understand fully the various Qur’anic verses and hadith concerning dress and related issues of modesty such as zinat (adornment) and tabarraj (wanton display of beauty and adornments), they would be able to make choices based upon their own faith in Allah, not on political or institutional coercion.

Muslim women should choose their dress from inner conviction. No coerced choice can ever really be moral; such coercion, in fact, runs counter to Islam’s emancipatory emphasis upon reason/freedom as the basis of human morality. To force upon Muslim women a choice – men’s choice to the exclusion of their own, violates the development of faith and personal conviction.

Coercion denies women their personal identity, their right to full social participation and their very existence as part of Allah’s creation on earth. That creation is an individual with inalienable rights, capable of thought and independent judgment.

Sisters in Islam
Kuala Lumpur
11 November 1991

This letter was published in The New Straits Times and Utusan Malaysia.

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