At my health club on the campus of a Chicago university, I recently watched a young Muslim woman covered in head-to-toe religious garb -- head scarf, long-sleeve tunic and long pants -- as she played basketball with her boyfriend, a tall, black-haired youth dressed in jeans and a striped button-down shirt. All around them, shapely women in skimpy shorts and tight tank tops cavorted on treadmills and Stairmasters, but the black-haired youth had eyes only for his head scarf sweetie. Pretty and slender, the girl moved with the grace of a natural athlete. When her boyfriend missed a shot, she caught the ball on the short bounce, then, planting her sneaker clad feet firmly on the court, launched it toward the basket, where it whooshed easily through the net. Her boyfriend gave her a high five, and she grinned proudly.
Though loose fitting, the girl's clothes were far from frumpy. With delicate embroidery on the front of her tunic and a floaty elegance to the soft trousers, the outfit recalled the kind of casual, boyish chic pioneered in the Jazz Age by Coco Chanel. Her hair and flesh were hidden completely, but hints of her lovely, willowy form were suggested in the contours of her clothing. What's more, she seemed as confident in her attractiveness and as comfortable with her body as the half naked, pony-tailed coeds sweating around her.
As I watched the girl leave the club, her boyfriend trailing behind her carrying his backpack and hers, I had a startling thought. Hijab ("modest wear") doesn't have to mean female subservience and sexual repression.
Westerners have always been uneasy with Islamic dress, which often seems like a rebuke to our liberal values. Consequently, head scarves have been banned in schools in several European countries, including France, and earlier this week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged parliament also to outlaw burkas, the face-hiding, all-body covering sack, which he called "a sign of debasement" that has no place in a democracy.
Burkas are scary. They spark associations with the Klu Klux Klan and bank robbers, not to mention Afghanistan-bred terrorists. But burkas are the radical extreme of Muslim dress worn by only a fringe minority. I've never actually seen anyone wearing one in the U.S or France, where I've traveled extensively.
Sarkozy would better serve the cause of liberté, egalité, and fraternité by mandating sensitivity courses in why Muslim women wear hijab. Several of the Muslims I've talked to say their attitudes toward dress have less to do with repression, than with a strong belief that God commands both sexes to be modest (devout men wouldn't be caught dead mowing the lawn or swimming shirtless) and a sharp sense of the difference between what's appropriate for the public and private spheres.
Westerners often assume that Muslim women would get rid of their veils and head scarves, shawls and chadors -- usually black, garbage-bag like garments that cover everything but the face -- if given a chance. It must be a husband or father who forces them to cover up. That's a serious misconception, says Kareem Mejri, a devout Muslim mother of two who also happens to be vice president of international business for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. "It has to come from the heart. A woman should not be forced to do anything," she says. "My husband is more religious than me, but when I started wearing the [head] scarf only two years ago, he was completely shocked."
Ms. Mejri, who lives with her family in Orland Park, a southwest suburb of Chicago, loves jewelry and make-up and has "tons" of Victoria Secret lingerie. "We care as much about beauty and fashion as do women everywhere," she says. "And we wear whatever we want indoors, with our families."
It might seem counter intuitive to non-Muslim Americans, but many Muslim women actually find hijab liberating. "I used to wear [short] skirts and fitted jackets like any normal business woman, and I travel all over the world," says Ms. Mejri. "Often times, I'd be sitting in a meeting, and men would be staring at my body and not listening to what I was saying, especially in Latin America. What I find now is that they're hearing me, they're listening to what I have to say. There's no distraction of sexual tension."
Until recently, it's been difficult to find attractive religious wear, and Muslim leaders in America know that young women who are surrounded by fashion TV shows, fashion magazines and fashion web sites will stray from hajib if they can't find chic clothes that conform to Islamic requirements for modesty.
To that end last April, the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove, Illinois, organized a fashion show. For the occasion, the community center's school gymnasium was outfitted with an elevated, 45-foot runway draped in pink and large beaded chandeliers to resemble the tents at New York's Bryant Park during Fashion Week. The 40 models vamped to the tunes of Islamic music blaring from loudspeakers as they paraded in colorful tunics, pants suits, dresses, headscarves and shawls.
The show featured clothing from online and local retailers, including
Contemporary Modest Wear, the Orland Park store owned by Ms. Mejri and her husband. "We purchase things from Paris and Turkey, skirts with mermaid [hems], and colors and fabrics that are more appealing to the eye than the dowdy old school clothing," says Ms. Mejri.
Westerners who tsk, tsk over hajib clad women, convinced that religious dress always reflects repressive, sexist attitudes, should consider their own history. In the west, fashion has often seemed like a torture foisted on women by misogynistic men. It was a male doctor in France, after all, who during the Napoleonic Wars invented the laced, S-shaped corset that allowed generations of women to cinch themselves to near suffocation. Couturier Charles Frederick Worth followed with filth collecting skirts, seat cushion bustles and catering tray hats laden with frou- frou and dead birds. Now we have Marc Jacobs's mini-skirt rompers that look like something your toddler wears, and Christian Louboutin's disaster-in-waiting eight inch high heels.
High Fashion, Oscar Wilde once said, "is a form of ugliness so unbearable that we are compelled to alter it every six months."
Western women are slaves of fashion. Muslims, meanwhile, answer first to God.