What is “modest clothing?” For Muslim women, “modest clothing” may mean a multitude of different things. For some, it will mean a burqa. For others, modesty means loose clothing and a head-cover. For others, loose clothing that does not reveal cleavage, arms and legs is modest. And the variations continue.
Now, let us focus on head-covers alone for the purpose of this post—or perhaps because most people are focused on head-covers rather than on the many features of “modest” clothing and modest behavior. Muslim women who wear headscarves in public may do so for one or more of the following reasons:
1.) Many Muslims believe God requires women to cover their hair. Many people who don’t believe it’s required believe that it is preferable for Muslim women to cover their hair. The writer does not wish to enter theological debates over textual meanings in this post. It is sufficient that for many Muslim women, covering the hair is a religious act.
2.) Many Muslims believe that covering the head engenders a certain spiritual state of receptivity and centeredness. (Many Sufi Muslims believe that both men and women should cover their heads. In India and Pakistan, for instance, men usually wear skullcaps during ritual prayer.) So, many women who do not wear head-covers all the time may do so for religious occasions, or when inspired to do so.
3.) Head-covers convey a message of purity and godliness to many observers. Different traditions of religious iconography use mantles and other head-covers to symbolize purity and even saintliness.
4.) Many people believe that a headscarf engenders respect and honor for women, thus preventing men from flirting, etc. (This is not, of course, universally true. The writer feels that this is truer in Muslim countries and communities, and may or may not be true in non-Muslim countries. In some cases, head-covers are perceived as “sexy” and “submissive.” To Muslim women who believe in reason #2, that doesn’t really matter.)
5.) Head-covers may assist women in maintaining overall religious identities and behaviors. This is especially the case for young girls, converts who are racially indistinguishable from the majority, etc. Head-covers and other forms of “religious” clothing serve as mnemonic devices to remind the seeker of what s/he needs to do.
6.) Headscarves look really chic as part of a head-scarf-ensemble. The author, in her hijab-wearing days, could never quite hack the look (but that’s just her).
7.) Headscarves actually accentuate many women’s beauty by drawing attention to the face and away from the hair and the body. In many cultures, the face is more important as a place of beauty than is the body, and head-covers facilitate this focus toward the face, facial expression, conversation, etc., and away from secondary sex characteristics. This may be part of a woman’s attempt to deemphasize sexuality in her persona.
8.) They identify a woman as an observant Muslim to non-Muslims. This facilitates awareness of her lifestyle right off the bat, without necessitating lengthy explanations (“Sorry, I don’t drink.” “I’m sorry, I’m a conservative Muslim woman and I don’t shake hands with men.” “Oh, it’s time for me to pray; you see, um, I’m Muslim.”)
9.) They do the political work of representing a Muslim presence in society. Many Muslim women believe that headscarves are perhaps the only effective method of Muslim visibility in diasporic Western communities.
10.) They identify a woman as Muslim to other Muslims, allowing for instant community and exchange of salams. This may come across as a superficial benefit, but in a diasporic community, this instant community is psychologically invaluable. A subsidiary advantage is that head-covers identify a woman to potential spouses. In a diasporic community, where Muslims may be lost in huge suburban neighborhoods, this may be an enormous advantage when a person is looking to marry.
11.) They may be used in particular spaces such as mosques, ethnic enclaves, and other community spaces for the establishment of a certain cultural-religious “home” tone.
12.) They may be worn to achieve conformity to Muslim community norms and perhaps even to avoid stigma (of being “uncovered.”) Sometimes parents, religious leaders, and the like require the wearing of head-covers, but this happens less often than Westerners tend to imagine. (The writer, in her teenage years, rebelled against her parents and older kin by donning the veil.)
13.) In relatively newly-industrialized societies, they facilitate women’s mobility; by identifying status and chastity, these women may safely and freely enter public life. They may facilitate anonymity and security in spaces where visibility may endanger a woman.
14.) In certain cultures, covering one’s head is respectful to other people, especially to status superiors such as older people.
15.) For many Muslim women, head-covers are culturally normative and/or beloved, and are part of an ethnic outfit.
16.) It is convenient to simply wear your head-cover so that you have it handy for the next prayer time, instead of having to carry it around in a handbag.
17.) It’s not that easy to stop wearing a head-cover, especially in high-visibility diasporic communities. If you start wearing it, it’s possible to simply continue because it’s easier to continue than to give it up. (Post-9/11, however, we have a new situation where it may be easier to give up the head-cover.)
The list above shows that the Muslim headscarf is capable of a number of meanings, many of which are rather more mundane and less dramatic than outsiders might imagine.