Monday, June 17, 2013

Hijab And Youth: A Modern Look At Modest Dress In Saudi Arabia

I have the pleasure to share with Blue Abaya readers another article from "Anonymous Saudi Man". It's always interesting to read his view points as we hardly ever hear the Saudi men's side to common issues in the Kingdom. This time he is discussing the hijab and what he feels has been lost from its original meaning. Read also these posts from him: Saudi Punks and Thoughts on Tribalism Love and Marriage
Islam requires its faithful to dress modestly and I know many Muslims who apply this tradition to their daily lives. I believe there are several important and positive reasons for modest dress. One reason is modesty stops the poor from feeling any shame for their lack of wealth, and it reminds the wealthy that their money is to be spent wisely and shared with those less fortunate. Another reason is modest dress helps build a friendly, comfortable society. Modest dress also invites creativity, and encourages people - both men and women - to express their individuality in artful and beautiful styles. Modest dress does not mean boring clothing!

Women in abaya
For years Saudi women have been wearing the Hijab, Saudi men limit wearing gold and other forms of jewelry or adornment for religious reasons without really understanding the wisdom and implications of their actions.
I believe the spirit and interpretation of the Hijab is currently lost among modern Saudi youth. Perhaps they’ve been following religious leaders blindly without digging deeper into the legislations. Maybe they are simply confused, as I would assume everyone who studies religion in Saudi is. This might sound like a “Soufi” approach to the Hijab. However, I am not associated with any Soufi groups.
Modest Dress in Other World Cultures
Many world cultures have religions that strive to dress modestly. Some notable examples include the Amish Christian sect in the United States, other world-wide Christian sects (including the Roman Catholics), the Jewish settlers in Israel, secular and religious Shinto or Buddhists in Japan, and Muslims from both the Sunna and Shiaa sects in Saudi Arabia and Iran. I also see modest clothing popping up in non-religious societies like in China. I have also witnessed a revival of modesty among feminists in Western societies. It seems to me that the original meaning of modest dress in the Islamic religious tradition is much better understood in other parts of the world that by Muslims themselves.
Taking Back Modesty - Women
Modesty is also important for men. I find that people are easily impressed of other men in the workplace by the cars they drive or by the suits or accessories they wear. That is why I personally wear modest plaid shirts and a pair of simple jeans and sneakers at meetings or other work-related events. When more formal attire is required, I select a simple thobe with simple plain colored pair of sneakers. This doesn’t mean I do not wear clothing that is more fashionable, personalized, or artsy; I do wear what pleases me, just as I prescribed for women. However, I stay away from any excessive display of wealth through clothing.
Plain, simple, and equal clothing allows people to receive credit and respect for something they worked for rather than something they are given at birth. I believe this is so much more satisfying and healthy for a person's ego and tends to help level the playing field among all people in this life.
Modesty in the Saudi Youth
As I stated earlier, it seems the original meaning of modest dress has turned into a modern phobic reaction against sex. I see the original reason for the Hijab has changed into clothing that people preach about, something that protects women from sexual threats. The Hijab is now designed to cover a young woman's “check lists” of body parts that could arouse men's sexuality. This makes the Hijab seem more like a punishment to young Saudi women and a reaction to men's inability to control their sexuality.
What’s interesting is how there’s no mention in the Saudi justification of wearing hijab on how it’s supposed to limit the vanity of a woman and help keep excessive display of wealth under control. I feel the current interpretation of the Hijab has left out limiting the exposure of brand-name handbags, expensive shoes, or expensive jewelry. Those items are flaunted everywhere. The spirit of the Hijab I believe is now ignored through these displays of excess wealth. I also see this with young Saudi men. The Saudi men drive expensive German cars, wear expensive vanity accessories, brand-name watches, carry the latest cell phones, wear fashionable sunglasses, expensive jeans, designer thobes and gold threaded Bishts (Meshlah or Robes) although Muslim men are forbidden to wear gold. Sadly, I see many religious people tempted by this showing off, and some do indulge themselves in displays of wealth. They justify their actions through religious texts and opinions.

Art and Beauty Does Not Mean Expensive
Beauty does not need to be expensive. This is something that I try to live by. I don’t have to buy expensive accessories and brand names to look fashionable and artistic. In reality, most art and beautiful accessories are very personal and are not sold in stores, nor do they need to be made out of expensive materials. One might debate that expensive name brands and purchased “kitsch” actually diminishes the beauty and artistic value of an accessory or piece of clothing. Bring back modest dress in your life, and stop the excessive display of wealth. Men, you can still look elegant, smell nice, and look professional in inexpensive and modest clothing. Women, if you elect to wear the Hijab, do it for the right reasons. Spread the positive energy of modest dress through art and creativity.
-Anonymous Saudi Man
What do you think? Do you agree with his observations?


Jenny said...

I love these thoughts about the purpose of hijab being to promote unity and an emphasis on the non-material.

Coming from a religion that also has a strong emphasis on modesty (I'm a Mormon), I had viewed modestly primarily as being important in reducing the objectification of the female body. I had never considered modesty to apply to wealth as much as body image.

The ideal for modesty that you painted here is beautiful.

But I'm curious how prevalent the author thinks the phobic perspective is (the idea that hijab is necessary to protect women from sexual threats, an idea that is demeaning to both men and women).

Excluding extreme liberals and critics of Islam, how many people feel that the reason for hijab is to guard against sexual sin? Is this a common attitude?

Layla said...

Anonymous Saudi to Jenny:

I think that the attitude that Hijab is a way for women to protect themselves is very popular and dominant amongst people in saudi arabia
its a very common attitude, and the idea that women are asking for it is still considered a valid justification of sexual assault, its really sad to see actually.

Unknown said...

I totally agree with the fact that today's youth have lost the meaning of hijab. They just use hijab as tradition without knowing the importance behind it. And once they are out of their parent's reach, or an unrestricted place they throw it away, which is very sad. All this is due to failure of acquiring Islamic knowledge.

Anonymous said...

I really like this article and I totally agree!

Taher Kagalwala said...

I grew up in a liberal society, albeit not as liberal as the US of A or any of the developed countries of what we, in India, call the "West" or the "wild" west. In my society, women do cover their heads, their "objectified" areas, but mostly, as Indian women wear the sari, they leave their upper back and the waist open (although not the belly button). There is practical reason behind such an attire. Most dressing should be based on a) practicality b) affordability c) modesty and d) ability to dress/undress/carry off the dress easily and without much fuss. If you look at dressing in this way, an abaya clearly meets all the requirements, but so does the sari from India, the sarong from an East Asian country, the blouse and skirt from Europe or the robe and obi from Japan. Thus, I only partially agree with the blog-poster. I think if the woman wants to, she should be able to dress modestly even WITHOUT resorting to an abaya.

Dr. Taher

Layla said...


"I would much rather the youth work on what makes them better people in general than to just focus on which body part to cover."

-anon saudi

wonderweenie said...

I am a 59 year old American woman who adheres to no religion. In my opinion, women should dress as they wish, not as someone else wishes. That is my opinion and mine only.

Jerry Mc Kenna said...

I think his ideas about modesty are at least a step forward. As someone who grew up in the 50's and60's in the US, when businessmen wore almost identical clothing, I understand how society can impose impractical ideas. I cannot imagine my father in an un-airconditioned office with a suit on. Saudi society seems to take this to another level. I won't comment anymore other than to say that there are many ways of being modest and the Saudi idea that women are restricted to black seems a cultural innovation and not anything relating to modesty.

Layla said...

to wonderweenie:
that was the point I was making, everyone has the right to dress as they wish and that judgment shouldn't be placed on anyone who dress in this or that. ( maybe i will judge them if they dress like lady gaga... just kidding)
but there should be a higher consciousness in people, men and women that excessive display of wealth in clothing does harm others.

-anon saudi

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jules said...

All I can say is that the person sitting on the step could be anything; a ghost, demon, person, man impersonating a woman, creature from another dimension. There is nothing about the sitter to tell me that it is a female of the human specie.

I couldn't even connect to her on the human level, because I cannot see her, probably cannot hear her properly to have an aural memory of her because of her facial covering, likely cannot smell her to have an odour memory of her. I can only imagine walking down a dark road and seeing this thing floating towards me, I would be utterly terrified and likely pass out from fear

I fully support modest dress if that is what an individual wants, but when it takes away from leaving a memory of your uniqueness, then something is terribly wrong.

KMS said...

He explains these ideas from my faith more beautifully than most Christians I know:

"Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight."

Thank you, Saudi Man, for being real and interesting and for addressing this topic. And thank you, Layla, for your fascinating blog and for showcasing gems like Anonymous Saudi Man. Your style rocks!


Chilies - Add Spice to Life said...

I think 'Saudi Anonymous Man's' opinion is a bit skewed, because he is trying to repackage an old idea and sell it as a new one, dressing it up in flowery details and language. But the undeniable truth about the Hijab - which has been widely accepted by Muslim scholars and participants – is that the Hijab is mandated as a way for a woman to cover up her most beautiful and attractive attribute. In this way, a man is less likely to be attracted towards her. Also, it is mandated in Islam that a woman should cover up her feet and some scholars also believe that they should cover their hands. The face is the only part a woman can reveal, according to widely accepted academic and scholarly opinion. Therefore, there is no other point to the Hijab than to cover up a woman's most attractive attribute. The 'Saudi Anonymous Man' tries to list many other reasons for modest dressing and while they maybe true, his focal statement in the article is, “I believe the spirit and interpretation of the Hijab is currently lost among modern Saudi youth.” And I absolutely disagree with that. Because the 'spirit and interpretation' of the Hijab is to cover a part of a woman's body that makes her attractive and that is exactly what modern Saudi youth believe, as does the rest of the Muslim world. It is a bitter truth that most Saudis and Muslims don't want to accept. The brutal truth of the matter is that Islam as a religion objectifies women as sexual objects, more like property. Women need to be covered, can't travel alone, can't talk to other men (be it their clients, business associates, mentors/mentees, research partners, etc etc). I also disagree with 'Saud Anonymous Man's” efforts to encourage modest dress. He claims that it encourages creativity, but infact, modest dress restricts you from showing certain parts of your body and thus, limits creativity. It also certainly does not remind wealthy to spend their money wisely as we all know that Saudi Arabia has the most modest dressing laws and yet we all also know that Saudis flaunt and spend their money carelessly. Modest dress does not discourage poor people from feeling shame either. Infact, one could argue that it encourages poor people to work harder for the things they cannot have. The fundamental principle of capitalism is competition. From competition, arises creativity, higher productivity, and upward mobility. And I also want to point out that dressing 'immodestly' does not necessarily mean that you spend more money on your clothing. I know a lot of people who dress 'immodestly' but buy their clothing from discount stores or even thrift shops (an idea that is not prevalent in Saudi Arabia). Point is, immodest dress can also be inexpensive.

In the end, I am not advocating for modest dress (like the author of this article) or even immodest dressing. I am clearly pointing out the obvious (perhaps not so obvious in Saudi Arabia): the inherent right of every person to choose their own wardrobe that expresses their sense of individuality and creativity. Their inherent, basic right to personal dignity and freedom.


Chilies - Add Spice to Life said...


Layla said...

to Chilies - Add Spice to Life:

"his focal statement in the article is, “I believe the spirit and interpretation of the Hijab is currently lost among modern Saudi youth.” And I absolutely disagree with that. Because the 'spirit and interpretation' of the Hijab is to cover a part of a woman's body that makes her attractive and that is exactly what modern Saudi youth believe, as does the rest of the Muslim world."
- this way of thought is exactly what I am trying to fight against in this article.
"The brutal truth of the matter is that Islam as a religion objectifies women as sexual objects, more like property."
- in my opinion, you are correct in your opinion of islam's current interpretation of islam
"modest dress restricts you from showing certain parts of your body"
- this is not what i meant by modest dress, what i was trying to do in this article is to change the definition of modest dress from covering up parts of your body, to refraining from excessive display of wealth.
"The fundamental principle of capitalism is competition."
- true, but I would much rather competition to happen not in display of wealth but with artistic expression

Anon Saudi

Chilies - Add Spice to Life said...

"this way of thought is exactly what I am trying to fight against in this article" - I know you are trying to fight against this way of thinking, but that's what I'm trying to explain. I don't believe you're completely right in your way of thinking and I think your way of thinking is somewhat flawed. I feel like you didnt use the word 'modesty' appropriately, because 'modesty' signifies clothing that is very 'covering', at a lack of words. Yes, it also does mean clothing that is not extravagant, but I think most people, in relation to Islam would interpret 'modest' clothing to mean clothing that covers us. Add in your narrative about the Hijab, and that's specifically the meaning you are projecting about 'modest' attire aka, clothing that drapes and covers women's 'attractive' attributes.

I'm not suggesting that competition should be in display of wealth, but I also don't think people shouldn't wear what they want at the risk of offending others (others, as you claim maybe those poor and unfortunate people).

Correct me if I am wrong, but it seemed like your article was advocating for modest dressing, but I think one should dress according to their desire - weather it be modest of imodest. Do you disagree?

And the reason I mentioned dignity, is because in my opinion, having free will to live allows me to live with dignity. And a lack of free will is enslavement, that's why the motto, "Give me liberty or give me death" was penned during the American Revolution. What point is there to a life of enslavement and lack of dignity? I know most people don't think that restricting the way you dress can be attributed to enslavement, but for someone like me, it can be.


Jenny said...

Freedom is paramount, but "everyone should do whatever the heck they want" is hardly a virtue.

Aisha, I agree with you that how someone dresses should be their choice, and I think the Anon Saudi author does too.

He wasn't promoting or defending the mandatory use of hijab and wearing of the abaya as it is currently practiced in Saudi Arabia. He was talking about the ideal that led to the abaya, which I think is a beautiful concept.

In my opinion, It only works if it's voluntary.

Can you imagine how improved society would be If people voluntarily refrained from dressing immodestly- if they didn't try to call attention to their appearance (both that of their physical body and the cost of their clothing) because they valued the inner self more?

I think it's wrong for a government to dictate how a person should dress, but I wish that more people would chose to dress modestly. Not due to fear or lack-of-creativity, but because they placed greater importance on the inner self and the welfare of others.

Stephanie said...

I do not identify with any religion, but I was raised in the Catholic church and attended Catholic school. This post on modesty is much more in line with what I was taught growing up and was also the justification for our school uniforms. We were not allowed to wear jewelry or anything with a brand name on it, as those were things that showed material wealth and showed inequality. the idea was not to judge someone by their attire or money, but rather by their character. although i advocate people expressing themselves through dress however they want, i can respect this egalitarian explanation for modesty much easier than the misogynist, oppressive view that women have to protect themselves from men, as if men were not human beings with ability to make choices but rather wild animals.

i want to add that, on both sides of the clothing debate (those who advocate modest dress vs those who don't really care) i think people tend to generalize too much. i am sure that it is frustrating for hijabi women to always be faced with the assumption, "you must be wearing that because you are oppressed and your husband forces you to." sure, maybe that is the case for some women, but there are a million different reasons why a person chooses certain clothing, and you cannot paint all hijabi women with the same brush. however, that works the same way for the other side, as well. the assumption that "a woman who dresses provocatively is doing so because she wants male attention and the only way she can get that is to objectify herself" is equally ignorant. once again, that may be the reason for some women. but there are many other reasons why people choose to dress the way they do.

Omani Princess (not Omani...yet) said...

I believe the purpose of hijab is so that women can interact with men in society and be valued more for their intellect and right actions than their beauty and social status. Same goes for men, but in Islam women aren't restricted from wearing wealth although men are, if you study ahadith. HIjab should cover all the right places, but men should lower their gazes too, which is emphasized more than what a woman should wear in the Qu'ran.

It would be wrong to say that hijab shouldn't be loose fitting or not see-through. Just as wrong to say that it should be bland.

Saudi the problem is, hijab seems to be about being the same as everybody else or it is your fault if something happens to you and that's not what hijab is at all. It is to enable educational and theological interaction between the sexes. Oman same problem but on a smaller scale since we do have limited forms of interaction and more freedom to choose how to interpret hijab.

inayah58 said...

Thanks for sharing these thoughts.

Affinity for Modesty said...

I would like to share this poem by a writer on as I believe it reflects the definition of modesty. Yes it is our rights to dictate how we wear what and when but this rights should not (ideally for Muslims) conflict with Allah's law.

Miss Flaunty meets Miss Hijabi
If I see a woman who is unlike me,
Does it give me a right to treat her badly?
No.. the answer that would spring forthrightly.
What if “her” is the kinda lady,
Who wears make-up, flaunts her stuff, confidently,
Men transfixed as she passes closely,
Her perfume sprayed on super heavy.
A perverse man may occasionally,
Make her uncomfortable and uneasy,
But she shrugs it off and thinks optimistically,
“Hey, at least he noticed me!”
She walks into work dressed smart-casually,
Getting annoyed if some men don’t take her seriously,
“Cut it out, you’re being cheeky” she slaps her colleague playfully,
But inside she wished that he would understand, sincerely.
Distracted by her beauty, he fails to see,
Remains incognizant especially,
Of the fact that she has much to offer intellectually
Is this woman truly happy?

Back in high-school, those days of self-discovery,
Of trying to find her individuality,
Something happened inevitably,
Before she knew it she lusted for comments on her beauty,
Only feeling good through displaying her sexuality.
And after looking at magazines, the mad TV,
Seeing scantily-clad celebrity after celebrity,
Skirt to school getting shorter daily,
And made-up quite conspicuously,
Pushing the school rules “innocently”,
Because, she’s discovered to say to her “you are pretty”,
Is not enough,
No, she wants to be sexy...
Then she becomes another woman in her community,
Losing satisfaction in how she looks naturally,
slowly, slowly..
Seeking to alter herself,
Fake hair, sunbeds, what next? surgery?
She yearns for someone to notice her, subconsciously
Every woman can understand that surely,
A woman may dream of a” prince charming” to be her hubby,
That’s all that bothers Miss Flaunty,
But to display your beauty to everybody,
When it is faithfulness to do it for your husband only,
Is not the way to go, unfortunately.

Affinity for Modesty said...

Second part of poem

But will you treat a muslim woman badly?
For being the contrast to the previous sweetie.
She is just Miss Hijabi,
Who says that she covers to obey the Almighty.
Some argue and argue that she has no rights, see?
That she was forced into become what’s known as a “hijabi”.
Some scream Islam negates women’s equality!
Listen, a woman easily becomes a man’s “Barbie”
If she doesn’t conduct herself carefully.
A manifestation of this is in darling, Miss Flaunty,
You have the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali,
Who claims a muslim woman is not free.
Who claims that she knows what it feels like truly,
To be a muslimah, a Miss hijabi.
To people like Miss Ali,
A muslimah is free,
No, she is free...seriously.
The likes of you would know, if you were speaking truthfully.
Why? hmm.. let’s see..
She is not tied to the shackles of society,
Nor does she feel the need to please anybody,
Except for her Lord, Allah, the Almighty.
She believes and trusts her Lord entirely,
He is her Helper and she turns to Him, trustingly.
Preserving herself, preserving her chastity.

What right does one have telling her to dress inadequately?
I mean, garments, clothing, the main point is modesty,
Yet, to try and invoke the “less is more” story,
Seriously, seriously, seriously?
Why strip a woman of her dignity?
Muslimahs don’t mind if you have a different philosophy,
But she has her own, so leave her be,
People need to agree to disagree,
“Live and let live” sums it up cleverly,
Hijab is a concealment of her utmost beauty,
Preventing the exploitation of her femininity.

You only have to look back in history,
A plethora of instances where men couldn’t see,
That a woman is more than a bit of “eye-candy”
And yes,
Women truly weren’t free,
Until the introduction of Islam,
In the 7th century.
Allah, the Provider of Security,
Tells us to share our beauty
with our special ones (husbands) only,
It doesn’t take a philosopher, nor a theologian to see,
That the best interests of a lady,
Are resting with The Almighty.
A muslimah believes that, alone, independently,
And thus she dons the garments of modesty,
No-one, nobody, should treat any woman degradingly,
The one who flaunts and the one called the “hijabi”,
Well, simply,
Every woman out there is a natural beauty,
Who deserves to be treated

Unknown said...

I think you blog has some technical problems ! I can't read it like the past ! I'll try to write to you again, from my PC !
Regards from Athens, Greece :)
(Unfortunately I can't read your other blog about saudi images ! :(

Stephanie said...

Umm Gamar, the problem with your poem is that it is based on the false, misogynist assumption that everythiing a woman does (and wears) revolves around what a man (or men) are going to think about it. I cannot speak for all women on the planet, but I can speak for myself and my girl friends, I have not had that mentality since I was about 16. Then I went through puberty. Thank god that stage of insecurity is behind me IN MY CHILDHOOD.
I do follow common sense clothing norms - when I go to work I dress professionally to be taken seriously, and when I go to the gym i wear athletic shoes n a sports bra - however, what I wear on my own personal time is about what I feel comfortable in, not what insignificant men on the street are going to think about it. That clothing choice is different for every woman, and sure, some women feel comfortable in a hijab - but i do think that is something those women should do for themselves and for GOD, not for their husbands.
Your poem makes wayyy too many narrow assumptions about the reasons women dress a certain way. A woman covering her hair does not always mean she is trying to be modest - my mom used to wear a scarf on her head bc she had so many "bad hair days" and my cousin used to wear scarves bc she had cancer and was uncomfortable with a bald head. And hey, by global statistics, only about 90% of women are even sexually attracted to men at all - the other 10%, if they are trying to get attention from anyone at all by dressing sexy, are trying to get it from other women. Point being that there are many different reasons why women dress a certain way, and most of them have NOTHING to do with men.

Unknown said...

Absolutely wonderful post!

As a muslimah in South Africa I get asked so many times why I wear hijab,and only after some research and observation,I have found the concept of Hijab and modesty to be one that extends beyond the cloth. Be modest in clothes,manners,wearing perfume,makeup etc has so many benefits not to mention, it is the cornerstone of elegance. Hijab is definitely not something that covers one's beauty because so many times I have found woman with hijab beautiful and I have found men dressed in thobe beautiful. True beauty always shines through.
A nuns garments gives her identity,from their we understand how we should treat her as she carries certain principles that she lives by,same concept :) Hijab gives identity to the world watching and to the wearer, a means to focus on excellence of character and faith :)
btw from one layla to another, could you please tell us how to wrap the saudi hijab ( i use so many pins and when i was in saudi the hijab just seems to sit perfectly or niqab style(one that uses the sheila over the face and eyes please-min fadhlik lol)
Have a wonderful eid :)