Appearance and Faith in the Muslim World

I am a Muslim, but when I travel to the “Muslim world,” I certainly do not feel like one. I wish to neither disrespect the culture nor my sense of self, so I would never dress like a typical tourist in denim shorts, but at the same time wearing a headscarf has never felt right for me. I wear traditional attire for individual prayer, but my faith has always left me comfortable to leave it at that. In various parts of the Arab world, however, uncovered hair is equated with promiscuity.  Such dress is responded to with catcalls, suggestive glares, and not-so-subtle propositions. If I cover my hair, I feel as though I am submitting to the notion that a woman’s presence should be muted, or that she does not deserve the respect of her fellow human beings. Yet if I do not cover my hair, I feel an even greater disconnect from the very Muslim identity that I came to the region to reclaim. The Muslim world’s use of physical appearance as an indicator of valid religious faith undermines the more essential elements of Islam. The culturally enforced mistreatment of nontraditional women makes me ashamed that this region has come to represent my religion.

Two years ago I traveled to Morocco with a small group of American high school students to study Arabic and culture. I felt an advantage immediately once I arrived. I knew the prayers (although my Shi’a prayers differed slightly with Morocco’s Sunni tradition), and I was familiar with the appropriate house and religious etiquette. My assumed homecoming was quickly shattered, however, when my host sister informed me that many Moroccans would not believe her when she said I was a Muslim. Why not, I asked her, confused. She ventured that perhaps it was because I am from America. When I pointed out that no one seemed to question the validity of a fellow Muslim woman in the group, she replied, of course: she wears a hijab. A Moroccan teacher begged that same hijab-wearing student to go to the mosque with her, but when the student declined and suggested that I might accompany her the teacher dropped the subject all together. On a cab ride home from school one evening, I made the mistake of speaking English to the cab driver, who asked where I was from. I explained briefly that I was American and explained my Muslim background. This man, with the rosary hanging from his mirror and scripture lining his dashboard, proceeded to ask if I would be willing to meet him at a hotel later and offered a free cab ride in exchange for a kiss. I declined, respectfully, and ran from the cab.

To be fair, these instances could have been a result of the misrepresentation of American women—Sex and the City 2 was playing in Moroccan cinemas at the time—but his actions were still unacceptable, especially for a man of professed piety.  If traditional Muslim garb betrays modesty, why is it that any women who does not dress in the culturally prescribed manner becomes immediately susceptible to objectification by the same men insisting upon Islamic dress? Are women supposed to guide the moral behavior of men?

The Gulf Region of Kuwait, which I visited last month, mandates Sharia law as well, but differs from Morocco in that there is little tourism. The country embodies American consumerism and material wealth, and has an underclass of poor immigrants. Kuwaiti citizens are visually distinguisheable from Bangladeshi and Philippine immigrants by their burkas and keffiyahs (traditional Arab headdress for men). In one instance, I watched as a Kuwaiti family enjoyed authentic American cuisine at Applebee’s while their maid, an immigrant from the Philippines, sat in a corner and watched. At this moment, I finally understood the problem with a people so focused on their collective religious appearance. Although Islamic law emphasizes feeding the hungry and treating all as equals, such practices do not receive as much adherence in the Middle East as dressing in the culturally designated way. It is a lot harder to mandate compassion and generosity than it is to require the superficial trappings of religion, because the latter is visible to the naked eye. When you try to turn what should be a personal relationship into collective action, you eliminate the understanding and choice that make faith valuable. When a woman decides to wear a headscarf, it should be because she wishes to act morally and appear modest, not because it is a cultural norm or law.

Religion is by nature open to interpretation and therefore cannot be standardized. There are more than 70 sects of Islam, and religious conflict between them during the past few centuries only highlights the fact that Islam cannot be understood in one way alone.  By merging religious scripture with the law, nations like Kuwait are trying to enforce upon their citizens something that ought to be enriched by personal choice. As a result, the essential characteristics of Islam are lost, as is the hope that it will be sympathetically understood across the globe.

Shazmin Hirji ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Matthews Hall.

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