The Importance of the Hijab and Modest Clothing for Middle Eastern Women

By Hayley White

Fashion has always been at the crux of cultural expression. From what colours you wear to the style of clothing you pick, fashion has always been a way for us to show others who we are, who we want to be. Cultural clothing is no different.

The hijab is one of the most well-known items of cultural attire that does not belong to the West. Worn by Muslim women everywhere, modest clothing, hijabi wear, or hijabi fashion is how women of this religion categorise their clothing. Zainab Mustafa is a young Auckland woman who says that the garments should not be called Islamic, nor Muslim. Yes, they may have Muslim or Islamic elements such as longer sleeves and hemlines, but they are always referred to as modest or hijabi fashion/clothing.

“We don’t really categorise it as Islamic or Muslim clothing because you know, as women who have lived in Western countries, we try and adapt to what we have,” Zainab

By Hayley White

Fashion has always been at the crux of cultural expression. From what colours you wear to the style of clothing you pick, fashion has always been a way for us to show others who we are, who we want to be. Cultural clothing is no different.

The hijab is one of the most well-known items of cultural attire that does not belong to the West. Worn by Muslim women everywhere, modest clothing, hijabi wear, or hijabi fashion is how women of this religion categorise their clothing. Zainab Mustafa is a young Auckland woman who says that the garments should not be called Islamic, nor Muslim. Yes, they may have Muslim or Islamic elements such as longer sleeves and hemlines, but they are always referred to as modest or hijabi fashion/clothing.

“We don’t really categorise it as Islamic or Muslim clothing because you know, as women who have lived in Western countries, we try and adapt to what we have,” Zainab explains. “They (the fabrics) are not necessarily from Islamic culture or anything like that, in fact they could be made from local resources, and we try to get creative!” she says, and tells me that modest clothing has really evolved since the 21st century.

Around 30 or 40 years ago, the traditional, very long cloak called an abaya (jilbaab would have been the more common term) was worn. There is now a whole different range of modest clothing that women can wear, depending on where you go within the Middle East. Zainab describes a Jesus-like, long cloak called a thobethat people also wear in places like Dubai. But she says that if women do not have abayas, especially here in a Western society where modest clothing is not a cultural priority, they make do with what they have.

“Thank God for YouTube and tutorials where we can make our own things; or we can buy things online. Essentially that’s what a lot of Muslim girls in New Zealand do,” she says and adds that there has been more of a market for modest clothing in New Zealand recently. In desperate situations, Zainab says that women often wear leggings underneath but that some form-fitting clothes do not meet the standard for modesty required by others. She emphasises that what passes as modest varies from woman to woman, and that the hijab is the most important form of modesty, expression, and identity.

“It’s important, especially in a Western country, that I’m able to walk around and to represent what I really believe in. So, for some people, wearing pink is a form of expression, it brings them happiness, it brings them joy; that is very similar with us Muslims,” says Zainab.

“I wouldn’t ask anyone else to compromise how they define their identity, whether that’s wearing a cross, wearing particular colours, or dying their hair. There are some women who don’t wear the hijab and that’s fine. For me, hijabi is everything to do with identity, you know.”

Zainab says that it all comes down to their faith, in which they are taught that women are sacred. They believe that God has made it very clear to men that women must maintain their sacredness, and this is why they dress modestly. In the Qur’an, some say the hijab is never explicitly mentioned in the text, but it does say that, for modesty, women should cover themselves from all men excluding their immediate families.

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their private parts; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their khimār over their breasts and not display their beauty except to their husband, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex…”

– Qur’an, 24:31 

Even before the Qur’an, face coverings were a big part of different cultures all over the world. In ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, and Persia, respectable women wore veils as symbols of nobility and high status. Greek women were also expected to wear coverings to protect their modesty. So, face coverings have long been a sort of protection for women, a way to keep themselves modest and to make sure that they caught no unwanted eyes.

“We as women know that we are prized, we know that we are beautiful, we know that we are capable, and so modesty for us means that we are able to carry ourselves with dignity in more ways than one,” says Zainab.

Zainab says that despite how Western media portrays hijabi clothing, and despite the idea that women who wear the hijab are oppressed or forced into it, their Islamic faith allows them to choose whether or not modest clothing is worn.

A lot of girls who are born in a Western society struggle with the hijab, Zainab tells me. And if they do have these identity struggles, their first step is to guide the young woman with love and humility. They help the woman realise who they are. But at the end of the day, says Zainab, “They are their own person, and we believe that God is gonna judge us individually, and that is that person’s choice.”

Zainab Mustafa

“The way we dress – our hijab and abayas – is a choice we make individually with the intention that it’s for a cause: for the betterment of ourselves, and as a requirement of our faith,” Zainab says, impassioned. And this is her passion: love for her culture. She believes that the hijab is a crown that no one can take away and that marks her as different from everybody else. And she also stresses that other women should never tear down or discriminate a woman who does not dress modestly. As a community, they should stand by each other and respect each other’s choices.

“This idea that you have to be like everybody else defeats the purpose of identity, defeats the purpose of individuality, it defeats the purpose of uniqueness,” she says.

“We have a place in society, and we make our own place. We can’t ask society to accept us, so, in many ways we demand it. We demand our own space, and we make our own path in the world by being fashionable but modestly, and as a hijabi woman.”