Last week I was on my train ride home after a long day at work and as usual I was on my phone scrolling through my Instagram feed. I happen to be following a few motivational Islamic accounts that post images that are reminders to help maintain your faith level. I came across an image of a Muslim woman adorning a black abaya (long loose garment) and a black hijab (headscarf). She had her back turned to the camera and was sitting on a beach. The image had a text which read, “A woman modestly dressed is as a pearl in its shell.” The image was beautiful, there was no doubt about it and the message accompanying it was just as appealing. However, something inside of me was dissatisfied, dare I say even annoyed.
You see images like these are scattered across the internet. A simple google of ‘Muslim women’ and you have yourself thousands of images of women adorning black garments, black niqabs, black hijabs – oh did I mention black garments? You see the issue isn’t the black, the issue isn’t even the niqab, nor the fact that there are many Muslim women who choose to adorn the niqab. The problem, however, lies in the heart of representation. The proliferation of such imagery ignores a very important reality that we are living today: it actually ignores millions of other Muslim women, those women who have chosen not to adorn the hijab, those women who have chosen not to wear black, nor a burqa, nor an abaya. I am one of those women.
Although I wear the hijab and like to think I dress fairly modestly, I don’t believe these images do justice to the diversity of Muslim women across the world. Muslim women, like any other group of women, come in all different shapes and sizes, veiled, not veiled, modestly dressed, not modestly dressed. Now I know what you’re thinking: “A Muslim women should be modest in appearance because Allah has commanded them to be so.” Yes, I agree, however that’s not to say that a Muslim woman who has chosen to not wear the hijab is any less of a Muslim than one who does.
Within the Muslim community, we seem to be intolerable of categories, for example moderate Muslims vs. radical Muslims, good Muslim vs. bad Muslim etc. With that same theory, Muslim women too don’t appreciate being categorised, for example ‘hijabi’ vs. ‘non-hijabi’, ‘niqabi vs. non-niqabi’. This categorisation establishes a good vs. bad dichotomy of what constitutes a ‘good’ Muslim woman. The veil is being used as a measuring tape for a woman’s faith and reducing a woman’s belief to a piece of material wrapped around her head does an injustice to Muslim women and to Islam. Representing Muslim women with images of long, draped jilbabs and abayas automatically implies that those who don’t ascribe to that dress code are inferior.
Images of Muslim women that compare us to ‘a protected pearl deep beneath the sea’ or a ‘diamond buried under the ground’ or ‘a lollipop uncovered with flies around’, portray the image that we are delicate beings that need to be handled with care. Furthermore, these analogies imply that the sole purpose of a Muslim woman is to be completely covered up and await a savoir to ‘unwrap the lollipop (Muslim woman)’ by a good Muslim man who has gone to the effort of digging deep for his prized possession.
These images ignore the reality of today’s world and reduce Muslim women to their physical appearance. They in turn also perpetuate the message that a Muslim male’s behavior is lustful for a ‘wrapped’ Muslim woman. I have many female Muslim friends who don’t wear the hijab and knowing their personal stories and their devotion to their deen (faith) makes those glorified images all that more inappropriate. The comparison of Muslim women to objects, which suggest that without a ‘covering’ we are ‘impure’, reduces us to sexual beings, ignoring our intellect and depriving us of our right to define ourselves.
Wearing the hijab isn’t easy and any woman who does so should be supported, however, those who have chosen not to wear hijab should not be ridiculed nor mocked. One of the many beauties of our religion is that we have countless opportunities to be a good Muslim and our dress code is simply one of many of these methods. So next time you think of posting one of those images, remember the other believing sisters, remember that just like you they struggle and just like you they have their faith, so don’t assume they don’t simply because you can’t ‘see it’. I’m not only speaking to men when I say this, but to my fellow sisters who all too easily are in agreement with such images that pin us against each other, comparing us to an pearl, a lollipop or diamond. It is not a compliment, it’s degrading and it needs to stop because we Muslim women are so much more than what we wear.