Head Scarves & Little Black Dresses

An edited version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed feature in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on August 3, 2012.

“Daddy, can I get a bikini this summer?” my seven-year-old daughter asked toward the end of the school year. Sure, sweetheart. Could we stay indoors and watch episodes of Winnie the Pooh to recall when you were two? I remember not saying out-loud. It was a difficult image to avoid: Less clothing would be more—of my daughter uncovered.

Which brings me, coincidentally, to a question that often disturbs American sensibilities: What do we make of the way some Muslim women cover themselves?

Undoubtedly, since Eden, the boiling question of how women’s clothing communicates what it communicates, and in what context, is one overflowing with moral, religious and political nuance. Take two recent high-profile examples.

In May, on a “CBS This Morning” appearance, Ann Romney’s choice of blouse became an occasion for wide-ranging analysis: High marks for authentic individuality? Low marks for economic insensitivity? Why is she contrasting her husband’s more staid personality? Meanwhile, during a concert in June in Istanbul, Madonna’s “Material Girl” was on full display—albeit with less material. The deliberate exposure of her breast during the song “Human Nature” could be seen, I suppose, as equal parts theological and artistic provocation.

But try as they might, neither Mrs. Romney nor Madonna can relieve the social pressure emanating from the ever-vexed wardrobe of the Muslim woman. No one stands at the intersection of covering or uncovering—what it may or may not mean—quite like her. See, for instance, the ABC News experiment designed to gauge responses to a Muslim woman who was being denied service at a bakery because of her head scarf.

Of course, in parsing a Muslim woman’s closet, the hijab is forever Exhibit A. Often Western onlookers immediately see it as a symbol par excellence of inequality or oppression. Quite the contrary argues Ayesha Nusrat, an Indian Muslim activist for women's rights who poignantly reflected on the benefits of the hijab in an Op-Ed in The New York Times. And in the wake of FIFA’s historic decision in July to lift the head scarf banfor international soccer, it is interesting to note that both the original critics of not allowing female players to wear the head scarf and now critics of allowing the head scarf—unsurprisingly, the French Football Federation among them—argue on the basis of inequality.

Given the differing religious interpretations as to its obligation—and the interplay of custom or tradition—the hijab is simply an enormously conflicted article of clothing. At Virginia Commonwealth University, where I direct an interfaith initiative, a professor from North Africa who does not wear the hijab once told me she felt betrayed when a close colleague at another university began wearing it. An American-born student of South Asian immigrants confided with me that this piece of cloth, which she chose not to drape over her head while in middle school and high school in northern Virginia, still triggers tensions between her and her dad.

In Oman, a Muslim-majority country where I spent two weeks in January, the ascendancy of the abaya has made the little black dress of a Muslim woman a matter of intensifying Western curiosity. Loose, flowing and robe-like, the abaya, usually but not exclusively black, is worn as an over-garment by many Omani women. It is surely the anti-bikini in more ways than one, typically covering the whole body except the face, feet and hands.

Although the abaya’s origins are somewhat vague, its prominence in Oman—not unlike other Arab countries in the Gulf—is a relatively new sensation. The little black dress was literally everywhere: in the market, at the mall, in the mosques, behind the wheel of very expensive cars, in restaurants, along the promenade. Exhibit B.

Exactly right about now our varied assumptions, which are sometimes built on real concerns, kick-in passionately. In this case, they inform our leading questions about the meaning and messaging of the abaya.

Is it a religious development? If so, does it signal a tilt toward more conservative, potentially extremist, interpretations of Islam? In Oman, is it symbolic of another Arab country walking down the path to Saudi Arabia? Isn’t it a step backwards for democratic reforms and women’s rights in the Muslim world—not to mention Oman’s own positive sensibilities toward religious pluralism?

In a vibrant personal encounter with a middle-aged Omani woman named Hannat, I began to learn that until the 1990s the abaya was mostly worn—occasionally—by older women. In fact, if you visit Bait Al Zubair Museumin old Muscat, you’ll see a stunning assortment of colorful, patterned tribal dresses representative of different periods of Omani history.

A mother and a geophysicist, Hannat was giving a lecture at Al Amana Centre on women and Islam in the Omani context. She recalled that sometime in the mid-1990s younger women increasingly began favoring the abaya. Today, she said, the little black dress often gets accessorized by the most fashionable handbags and heels, which, admittedly, seems somewhat incongruent with the traditional austerity of Omanis. But along the landscape of, say, VCU, where handbags and heels also rule the day, the more likely accompaniment is an extreme miniskirt or a pair of Daisy Dukes.

Hannat went on to say, gently but emphatically, that the religion most influencing the growing abaya style in Oman was not Islam. Nor was any sinister expression of Islam guiding the plot. Rather, it was—drumroll, please—in a landslide victory: fashion. That’s right—a mundane, authoritative god if there ever was one.

To be sure, Hannat was a model of intellectual honesty: she did not play the naïve partisan; she did not argue that Islamic identity was a complete non-factor. However, perhaps much to the surprise of those of us who—whether innocently or insidiously—stop at mere assumptions, “Islam” was not the silver-bullet cause behind the cultural effect. Like the hijab, our conversation about the abaya was a blinding reminder that there is usually more than meets the eye.

As it turns out, at least in Oman, the almighty and pervasive dictates of fashion have given rise to a distinctive Arabian march of the little black dresses. Which only serves to remind this father: my daughter’s summer bikini—notwithstanding its cool American style—has me a bit conflicted.

Un-reported Olympic Moments | Part 1

Un-reported Olympic Moments | Part 1

Beyond Phase 10