Muslim women’s rights: the politics of fashion

Women’s rights in the Islamic world have been reduced to culturally relative fashion rights.

Last week AltMuslimah explored feminism and faith in relation to patriarchal movements, and concluded that it is not possible for women of any faith to thoroughly enjoy their God-given rights in a society where “God” is replaced with “men.” Saudi Arabia is perhaps the quintessential example of the modern display of faith gone awry when religion is defined by men. The kingdom is home to the birthplace of Islam; its extreme gender disparities, largely symbolized by women in veil, are how we in the West view the status of women in Islam. So when Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, head of the Mecca branch of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, recently denounced Saudi’s strict gender segregation and dress code, he astounded Saudi and Western audiences alike.

Speaking at a women’s conference in Jeddah, Ghamdi acknowledged that scholarly opinion on Islamic modesty varies greatly. Some scholars claim women must cover entirely, with not even the face showing, while other scholars approve showing the face, hands, elbows – and some even approve showing hair. Ghamdi also added that the kingdom’s gender mixing ban should only apply to preventing men and women from meeting in private, pointing out that Islam “orders a woman to cover her body to allow her to participate in social life, not to prevent her from doing so.”

When the Qur’an speaks of modesty, it speaks of both outward appearance and inward attitude, and it speaks to both women and men.Yet, women’s rights in the Islamic world have been reduced to culturally relative fashion rights – the right to wear or not wear hijab (headscarf) and niqab (veil), the right to cut bangs while wearing a hijab, the right to wear make-up, etc. The issue of what a woman wears or does not wear on her head has become so divisive because it determines whether women are able to seek education, employment, or even husbands. We see a direct correlation between the status of women in a country and the personal freedom women possess regarding their public appearance. In Saudi Arabia, specifically, women are unable to fully engage with society because of the enforcement of niqab. At the other end, women are also unable to observe their faith and choose what to wear in secular countries like Syria and Turkey, which ban the niqab and hijab, respectively, though Turkey is beginning to quietly recant its ban.

In addition, Saudi Arabia has long been criticized for its human rights violations of both men and women, particularly for the actions of its morality police. It was recently ranked 129 out of 134 countries for gender parity by the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Gender Gap Report. So when a prominent Saudi official like Ghamdi openly acknowledges that the Qur’anic text of modest women’s fashion can be interpreted differently, it can be a big step forward for not only Saudi women, but also the country as a whole. If Ghamdi is able to initiate the change he purports, it could mean greater mobility for Saudi women who are currently unable to drive or travel without a male guardian. It could also mean greater career opportunities in a place where few women work outside the home and even fewer hold positions of power. Over 150,000 unemployed Saudi women are estimated to be college-educated and yet are unable to find work due to the segregation rules. In contrast, most unemployed Saudi men are not educated beyond high school. One could argue that perhaps the Saudi government is realizing it has an valuable untapped workforce at its disposal. But would a more lax dress code actually enhance gender parity in Saudi?

Iran also has a growing female workforce, but it enforces a more moderate dress code for women in comparison to Saudi, making women increasingly independent. Fewer of these working women want to marry when Iranian law, similar to Saudi law, permits married women to work only with the permission of their husbands. The younger generation of women, accustomed to these allowances, expects men to share in the workload inside and outside of the home. A youth unemployment rate estimated to be up to 25 percent has created an even wider disparity between the genders; as less educated men are having a hard time finding wives and work.

The example of Iran is not unique; and perhaps it is the growing pains of a theocracy attempting to find its place in the modern world. However, it does illustrate that shifts in dress code are not enough to create gender parity if men are not cultured to be part of the discourse. Ghamdi’s words remind us that women have a fundamental Islamic right to choose to how to dress and engage in society, and he should be applauded for speaking out. Unfortunately, his words also show that after all these years we have not moved very far in our discussions of gender relations – we are still stuck on women’s fashion. So the issue remains something we in the West are still not able to resolve for ourselves – how can women engage in society with men as equal partners when we still cannot get beyond the discussion of a woman’s appearance?


Image courtesy of Christine Olson.

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  • rentianxiang

    Islam seems stuck discussing many things that at least appear to be ridiculous to those of us living in cultures that expect genders to be treated equally and for whom “separate but equal” is unacceptable. What is interesting is that it at least appears that the more religious a Muslim becomes, the more likely they will become focused on issues of women’s dress and “honor.” Is it perhaps rooted somewhere in the Quran or hadith that men are superior to women or that they are, in some respects, the possessions of men? Is it perhaps related to the concept of a women’s virtue being a source of honor for the man that must be guarded or protected by the man? The fact that so much discussion takes place around the topic of women’s dress is, for me, an indicator of the primitiveness of the worldview and the inability for the Muslim world to overcome the misogynistic tribal cultural baggage that is part and parcel of their faith.

  • elwoll

    Islam, as with other supreme being belief systems and their saviors,prophets and enlightened ones, is definitely evolutionarily “stuck.” Unfortunately we humans have put ourselves in this mystical myths situation over the long course of time and it will a long time for us evolve to where the abdication of reason (faith and superstiton) becomes an historical curiosity.

  • manifestdestiny

    the truth is, Islam is misrepresented by it’s practitioners, particularly those from the Arab world. Women used to have greater authority, and the simple/small minded men of that region have worked for centuries to remove those rights (using false justifications and creating myths about the religion). the misogyny is cultural, not religious

  • abbyandmollycats

    Last Sunday’s sermon at my church dealt with how we read scripture. The point was that Holy Scripture is neither a white elephant, (in both the original and modern American vernacular uses of that term) nor is it a sacred cow. We can’t overlook the parts we wish weren’t there and we can’t blindly follow the parts that we think we understand today. Muslims are not the only people who can be tempted into a simple “just follow the directions; scripture is perfectly plain” appplication of sacred writings.

  • tom75

    Islam needs a wholesale reformation not unlike that which Martin Luther spearheaded western civilization toward some centuries ago. And it was reformation of Christianity that peeled it back from its stranglehold on the state that was in turn responsible for propelling western culture forward to its present state of (relative) world domination–a domination that’s only now fading.Having said that, I would tender that however Iraq turns out, the original neocon idea, as married to Fukuyama’s The End of History notion, was to promote a toehold of democracy in the Middle East. Much maligned as this initiative has been by liberals–who themselves promoted “liberal interventionism” throughout the 20th century, i.e., WWI (Wilson D), WWII (FDR D), Korea (Truman D), Vietnam (JFK/Johnson Ds), Kossovo (Clinton D)–the liberation of Iraq could very well be seen going forward as the beginning of reformation in the Middle East. In addition, as has been noted recently by Robert D. Kaplan, 60% of Muslims live in the Orient, and they have traditionally been far less strict in their interpretation of Islam than have Middle Eastern Muslims; yet Kaplan also noted that this has slowly been changing and for the worse. Kaplan said Wahabi Saudis have influenced Oriental Muslims toward radicalism over the years through the Haj experience when Eastern Muslims journeyed to SA at Ramadan’s end, and more recently they have began publishing Mein Kampf and other toxic writings such as the Protocol of the Elders of Zion to influence Far Eastern Muslims. According to Kaplan, to an increasing degree Saudis have been successful in radicalizing the previously moderate Eastern Muslims.My contention is that what Bush and the Neocons started in Iraq could very well be seen in the future as the beginning of the reformation of Islam and that that would be a major turning point in international relations across the globe much for the better of all of earth’s inhabitants.That Islam could curb its enthusiasms and move toward a more moderate POV and that this necessary manifestation could be the ultimate response of Islam to our liberation of Iraq–i.e., a reformation– is something liberals will never be able to accept. Nonetheless, it could well end up being the case and it could well already be in progress.

  • bandmom22

    Oh don’t you just love the look of full body shrouds in the morning?

  • Praytell1

    I confess that seeing a woman clad in a burka makes me sad, especially when it is enforced by a man. But then. I stop for a moment, and realize that nuns in America, not all of them, but many of them, wear different kinds of clothes. They do so to reveal their faith, as evidence of a choice they have made. I do not know of men tell them how to dress or not. In short, all cultures do something to signify a spiritual leaning. When it becomes ideological, rather than personal, perhaps much is lost. Uniforms have that power. And there is always somebody who decides what the uniform shall be.

  • ThishowIseeit

    Q. How can women engage in society with men as equal partners?

  • LeighOats

    Faten Khorshid should learn her place in the world. God knows that she’s only a woman and is therefore far below any man and any boy. Science is men’s work. She shouldn’t be trying to impersonate men by dabbling in science. Such hubris!

  • samsara15

    Any nation which has ‘morality police’, as does Saudi Arabia and some other Muslim nations, already has a human rights problem. Forcing one’s moral and/or religious beliefs on others is in itself a violation of human rights.

  • AKafir

    “Forcing one’s moral and/or religious beliefs on others is in itself a violation of human rights. “Not according to Islam. Islam is the only religion acceptable to Allah. Kafirs are treated like second class humans in all Muslim countries at present.

  • abrahamhab1

    Manifestdestiny rules:I do not wish to delve in Muslim Fiqh (jurisprudence) because every aspect of human practice has as many interpretations as those jurists involved. Let us view misogyny from a sociological point of view. Muslims live in 57 majority Muslim societies that span two continents while there are pockets of them throughout the world. Their cultures are different and so are their languages and customs, yet misogyny is common to all. What would your conclusion be? Is it cultural or has basis in their religious teachings?

  • hitman2

    I wonder if this “Akafir” has any other work to do – is he full time employed to read all these blogs and then to write comments – using his pigmy “wisdom”.

  • abrahamhab1

    Hitman wonders thus:A typical Mickey Mouse logic of Mohammedans: They cannot refute others’ comments and remarks about their cult mainly because there is a 1400 year of historical evidence against it as well as large stack of so-called “uncorrupted texts”. Thus they childishly vent their frustration on the person of the messenger.

  • hitman2

    abrahamhab1The low mentality of people like Akafir and his various guises, like yours, desisted decent people to come here for any serious discussion.