Hijab and Bikinis: Sexy, Oppressive, Modest?

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Hijab and Bikinis: Sexy, Oppressive, Modest?

Yesterday I saw three college women sitting on a park bench at the playground in Minneapolis. They were all in bikini tops and bottoms. I felt bad for them. I felt like they were oppressed more than the Somali women sitting on an opposite park bench in full hijab. They had bought into the cultural belief that women ought to bare their bodies for the entire world in order to be valued, receive attention, feel attractive. It is almost (dare I say it) like a religion in this country.

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But can you imagine the backlash if a Muslim woman wearing a scarf were to write articles, books, provocative magazine articles, about these women being oppressed, forced to wear bikinis, or dominated by men? And yet that is how Muslim women are so often presented in the media. Oppressed. Forced to wear scarves. Dominated by the men in their lives.

So instead, here is a wonderful articles about the hijab, or Islamic head covering:

Hijab and Modesty by Dilshad Ali at the Muslimah Next Door blog on Patheos.

And though I feel it is always best to let the women who actually wear headscarves be the ones to talk about them, here’s an article I wrote for Skirt magazine a few years ago: The Dress on the Back of the Door comparing my black abaya with my pink bikini, and how I wear them both in Djibouti.

Since I live in a Muslim country, as a person who tries to be respectful of local modesty norms, I feel I’ve earned the right to at least bring up the topic now and then.

The scarf seems to have taken on a life of its own, with book covers and titles all making use of it. Most of the time, it is used as a symbol of oppression. But is that what the majority of Muslim women feel? I don’t think so.

Not any more than saying that the majority of non-Muslim women believe that the bikini is a symbol of oppression. Some might say that, but probably not most.

The author in the article above refers to an essay by a woman who calls herself a pagan. This woman talks about covering as sexy and empowering because it allows her to decide how much of her body to reveal, and who gets to see it. She decides, in my own words, that there is just as much beauty in the concealed as in the revealed.

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In my experiences in Djibouti with friends, I rarely find women who feel oppressed or forced into covering. And I understand and have experienced the appeal of modesty while also feeling sexy in a full-body covering, which might seem contradictory. Again, there is just as much beauty in the concealed as in the revealed.

To say that because women cover in response to cultural pressure and therefore the scarf is oppressive is like saying that because women wear skinny jeans in response to culture pressure, skinny jeans are oppressive. I guess that’s not entirely true because head scarves are more than a cultural phenomenon, they are a religious one as well. Confining the discussion to one of culture oversimplifies the issue, but I will let these women speak for themselves. And in her article Hijab and Modesty, Dilshad Ali does a fine job.

I have also recently stumbled across some nice blogs by Muslim women who write about this.

A Muslimah’s Musings

The Hijab Diaries

Hotchpotch Hijabi in Italy

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I have skinny jeans. I have a bikini. I have an abaya (the black robe common among Arab women). I have a niqaab (the face veil).

Am I oppressed?

(I initially wrote that the women in bikinis were overweight. This was a poor choice of words because it put the emphasis on weight and led some people to believe I only felt this way because of their body shapes. I would have felt the same had they been thin and regret mentioning that at all. It took away from what I was trying to say.)

By |May 16th, 2012|Categories: Faith, Islam|Tags: , , , |23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. Carolyn May 16, 2012 at 10:47 pm - Reply

    Hi. I found your blog when you posted on the Desiring God site. I am an expat mom, having lived in (and going back to in a few months) Afghanistan. I too have worn small head scarves, scarves as big as bed sheets and all encompassing burqas. Most Afghan women I know don’t feel opressed, but they all don’t love the burqa either. Young girls I know hate the thing, but there is very little cultural shift in attitudes, and so they will wear it — out of duty, honor and social pressure as well as modesty and devotion to God.

    I agree with what you wrote about body image and self worth being a religion here in America. I’m so glad I found you blog and will be a daily reader.

    Carolyn

    • Djibouti Jones May 17, 2012 at 1:21 am - Reply

      Great to hear from you Carolyn and welcome to Djibouti Jones. I appreciated your comments about how the younger girls feel about the burqa.

  2. Tim and Richelle May 17, 2012 at 6:54 pm - Reply

    Hi Rachel! Thanks for expressing so well what I’ve so often felt, living and working with women in a Muslim country. I’m amazed by how blind we can be to the slavery of our own culture and perspectives… and yet call ourselves free.

    Blessings!

  3. survivorweiss June 23, 2012 at 5:50 pm - Reply

    Hi rachel. i like the way you expressed yourself about this topic, it is very interesting and excellent.For me, hijab doesn’t mean oppression at all. Instead, it is a sort of freedom. A freedom they chose to embrace. thanks for bringing up this topic

  4. Lily October 18, 2012 at 2:24 am - Reply

    impressive

    bikini swimsuit

  5. SaritaAgerman November 18, 2012 at 5:57 pm - Reply

    Really interesting & well written article – thank you for sharing your thoughts and also so many links to related posts. So glad I’ve stumbled across your blog. Hope you’re having a lovely weekend.

    saritaagerman.blogspot.it

  6. Sierra December 27, 2012 at 2:06 pm - Reply

    Hi Rachel! I saw your success story on collagevideo.com and thought- wow, I bet that woman is a christian. I totally agree that a bikini or the maxim magazine cover that seemingly every young starlet ends up on is heavily oppressive. Being a woman and confident in your own beauty and having enough self respect to dress modestly is a beautiful thing. Modesty to me means, in the words of Nancy Leigh DeMoss- “tight enough to know you are a woman, loose enough to know you are a lady.” Though, as an american woman, I appreciate being able to wear a t-shirt or tank top when it is hot!

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones December 27, 2012 at 3:16 pm - Reply

      Hi Sierra, glad you found the blog through collage! That’s a great quote, thanks for sharing it. Another thing I’ve thought about modesty lately is that it also is an issue with some exercise videos. Like what do the women say? Do they say – look sexy, go for that body you always wanted…etc, or do they focus on strength and health? Those are the ones I like.

  7. […] Hijab and Bikinis: Sexy, Oppressive, Modest? […]

  8. Tarwa February 27, 2013 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    Hello, I’ve stumbled completely by chance on your blog while searching for Djibouti related tweets. I’ve read only two articles so far and I really like what I’ve read. I would have even if I weren’t a djiboutian and a woman. You seem to be a lovely, sensible and open minded person, so thanks for being (and writing!) in our country. I’ve bookmarked your blog and will definitely be reading more 🙂

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones February 27, 2013 at 1:23 pm - Reply

      Wonderful to hear from you, I’m glad you found it! And that you enjoy it, that means so much especially coming from a Djiboutian. Thanks for commenting and reading.

  9. Pari February 28, 2013 at 7:36 pm - Reply

    I think that anything one wears due to social pressure and not because of personal choice is an oppression.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones March 1, 2013 at 6:31 am - Reply

      Agree.

  10. Lynushka April 2, 2013 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    My experience with Morrocans in France was different. My young friends were deciding to wear the “fular”, against the quiet counsel of their mother. She could not go against such a decision, but pointed out that once they decided to wear it, there was no turning back allowed. One-way decisions are not truly free choice. I would also point out that from Muslim theology perspective, the hijab is about submission to Allah as dictated in the Quran and the Sunna. That is definitely not freedom! http://www.muhajabah.com/whyhijab.htm
    Summary
    According to the Quran and Sunna, hijab consists of modest behavior in lowering the gaze, guarding the private parts, and
    avoiding showing off, and of modest dress. The modest dress includes a headscarf and must cover all of the body except the face and the hands. Outdoors and in open public places, a long coat (jilbab) should be worn in addition to the modest dress commanded by Surah an-Nur ayah 31. Each of these obligations is clearly set out in the Quran and has been explained by the Prophet (sAas).

  11. Lynushka April 2, 2013 at 1:45 pm - Reply

    My experience with Moroccans in France was different. My young friends were deciding to wear the “fular”, against the quiet counsel of their mother. She could not go against such a decision, but pointed out that once they decided to wear it, there was no turning back allowed. One-way decisions are not truly free choice. I would also point out that from Muslim theology perspective, the hijab is about submission to Allah as dictated in the Quran and the Sunna. That is definitely not freedom! http://www.muhajabah.com/whyhijab.htm
    Summary
    According to the Quran and Sunna, hijab consists of modest behavior in lowering the gaze, guarding the private parts, and
    avoiding showing off, and of modest dress. The modest dress includes a headscarf and must cover all of the body except the face and the hands. Outdoors and in open public places, a long coat (jilbab) should be worn in addition to the modest dress commanded by Surah an-Nur ayah 31. Each of these obligations is clearly set out in the Quran and has been explained by the Prophet (sAas).

    • Rachel Pieh Jones
      Rachel Pieh Jones April 2, 2013 at 3:34 pm - Reply

      I appreciate your comments, Lynushka. It is so valuable to hear from around the world. I am pretty limited to Somali women in Minnesota and now in Djibouti and what I learn and hear from them.

  12. […] the concealed as there is in the revealed, because beauty isn’t about the body in a bikini or the body beneath a burka. Beauty is about the One who handcrafted women in his own image. Beauty is who we are, by […]

  13. Islamic Clothes June 25, 2013 at 7:14 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing valuable information .. hijab is most important for women.

  14. Sabina July 12, 2013 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Thanks for this important article. As a muslim woman I really appreciate it. The problem it, we as muslim women can say exactly what you have said, and nobody really buys into it. We are seen as brainwashed or stupid and not even able to make our own choices. I think the recent FEMEN incidents manifest this attitude quite well. I live in the west and am struggling with my decision for the hijab. I would love to wear it, but I anticipate that this decision will mean pretty much the end of my professional carreer.
    Of course, our religion (be it the fasts, the prayers or the hijab) means submission to Allah. But in this submission lies the real freedom. It’s not like submitting to a person.
    I hope that one day I will find the stregth to wear the hijab….

    • mach37 September 22, 2015 at 9:43 pm - Reply

      Sabina, your comment about wearing a hijab amounting to ending your career in the West shows that wearing a hijab amounts to a strong religious statement in countries where religious diversity is common and allowed; where overt religious.expression is considered flaunting, even belligerent expression of your religion.

  15. Medina July 18, 2013 at 8:57 pm - Reply

    It is so interesting reading thoughts on modesty and modest dress (esp. for women) from non-Muslim women. It shows that this idea, and the benefits that canbe gained from it, are universal and not exclusive in any way to Islam. I am a completely western Muslim and have always struggled with the decision to ‘go Sunnah’…but the truth is that as the prophet Muhammad (s.) said, ‘Modesty is a garment’…i.e. (in my opinion) that a modest attitude does the work of the clothes. But taking the decision to be a woman of substance instead of just a pretty face is so liberating – that’s the freedom in it. As for the Islamic aspect of of submission, I agree with Sabina above – surrendering to the Divine means being released from the bondage of the ego, which is really the ultimate liberation (though of course we are rarely completely surrendering!) Thanks for sharing your thoughts, drop by my blog any time for things in a similar vein!
    Medina x

  16. Rebekah December 26, 2013 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    I found this really interesting and have heard similar things from missionaries and others I know who have lived and traveled in the middle east. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on real issues of oppressing women. I am reading the book “Princess Sultana’s Daughters” by Jean Sasson right now (I’ve also read her book “Princess”) and it seems to me that at least in some middle eastern places women are very oppressed. I realize the book I am reading right now takes place in Saudi Arabia and is the perspective of only one woman, but the issues described (women not being allowed to drive, child brides, women and children in sexual slavery, genital mutilation, “honor” killings of rape victims, etc.) are certainly worth battling. The author never sets out to denigrate the Muslim faith and also makes it clear that many people in Saudi Arabia disagree with the lack of freedom for women but that the dynamics involved are very complex. I also know people who have lived in the middle east and have witnessed really horrible treatment of women. What variables do you think make the women you know and who do not feel oppressed different from those who are very mistreated and long for and fight for more control over their own lives and even their own safety? How do you find balance with these sort of issues?
    Just to clarify, I COMPLETELY agree with you that America’s obsession with the physical and sexuality is also oppressive. I believe that the female body is highly over-sexualized and that perhaps the two extremes of modesty are in part related to that over-sexualization. In my own life, I try to be balanced in my dress and and carefully examine why I wear what I wear or think what I think. For instance, I don’t bat an eye at a woman openly breastfeeding in public, but I’ll only wear a bikini around close friends and family and I wear a head-covering to church, as I believe it is a symbol of my submission to the appropriate authorities in my life and I want to be obedient in the small things as well as the big things.

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