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‘Islamic dress’ and ‘Muslim clothing’

Activity 3

Now read an extract from Aisha Lee Fox Shaheed’s article ‘Dress codes and modes: how Islamic is the veil?’ which was published in The Veil: Women Writers on its History, Lore, and Politics (2008), edited by Jennifer Heath. This is Reading 2. As you read this text, consider the following question:

Why does Shaheed question the use of the terms ‘Islamic dress’ or ‘Muslim clothing’, and the way that the ‘veil’ has been associated with these terms?

Reading 2

Source: Shaheed, A.L.F. (2008) ‘Dress codes and modes: how Islamic is the veil?’, in Heath, J. (ed.) The Veil: Women Writers on its History, Lore, and Politics, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, University of California Press, pp. 290–3, 295, 303; footnotes omitted.

If [man] orders us to veil, we veil, and if he now demands that we unveil, we unveil … [man may be] as despotic about liberating us as he has been about our enslavement. We are weary of his despotism.

Malak Hifni Nassef (1886–1918), Egyptian feminist, writer and activist

‘Do they make you veil?’

It’s a question I’m frequently asked when people hear I’m travelling to visit family in Pakistan. It has always caught me off guard. No individual, religion, or state has ever dictated that I – as a secular person of mixed heritage – must veil. Nonetheless, when the subject of Muslim women’s clothing arises, the discussion inevitably veers toward the veil.

Given the profound differences between styles of dress and conceptions of female modesty across Muslim communities – from northern Nigeria to Uzbekistan, the suburbs of Paris to Indonesia – I find the terms ‘Islamic dress’ or ‘Muslim clothing’ ironic, as if there were a singular uniform prescribed by Islam… .

My grandmother is an Indian Muslim who migrated to the newly created state of Pakistan following the partition of 1947. To me, a Muslim woman always wore a sari and covered her head only when she prayed in the privacy of her room. In downtown Karachi, I was well aware of the variety of women’s clothing within the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, from the baggy and brightly colored salwar kameez (trousers and tunic) worn by Muslims, Christians, and Parsis (South Asian Zoroastrians) to neutral-colored cloaks that we call arabis, and face veils.

As a child, I asked my grandmother if she had ever worn a veil and was laughingly told how she and her sisters were among the first generation of Muslim girls in Lucknow to go to college, a move encouraged by their father. He permitted all his daughters to study, reminding them that their behavior would be the key to whether other young women of the community would be allowed out subsequently. My great-grandfather did not want his daughters to veil their faces, although as the first women to attend the previously all-male Muslim University at Aligarh, they donned the Indian-style burqa (a slim black cloak); so they did not veil. In order to reach the college, my grandmother and her sisters had to ride bicycles through the crowded market: a foray into public space that, even for the most liberal of Muslim Indians at the time, required girls to dress modestly. With their heads covered by their dupattas, they cycled to school and attended lectures in classrooms where the female students sat at the back behind a black curtain…

The thought of my grandmother in a burqa is foreign to me. No one in our family now ever covers their heads or faces. When I asked my grandmother why, she replied, ‘We did so you wouldn’t have to.’

My great-grandfather, she explained, had not supported the cloistering of women, which in South Asia is called purdah or chadri aur chardivari (literally, a curtain and four walls). Of greater importance to him was that his daughters become educated to the same degree as his sons, and this would require them to leave the home and participate in public. By veiling for a specific period of time, related to their daily routine and their life stage as unmarried women, my grandmother and her sisters were able to overturn social norms by attending college and to observe the sanctities of public space or private honor. For our family, veiling was tied to our identity as a religious minority in India and symbolized familial honor but was never viewed as a religious injunction or a requirement of Islam.

Every person with Muslim heritage has a different experience, precisely because what we wear – including the veil – depends on our specific culture(s), the historical moment, and prevailing conceptions of female modesty and sexuality. Islam, like most religions, has been interpreted in different ways across communities, and what is deemed appropriate clothing for women varies accordingly. Whether Islam requires women to cover heir heads and/or faces is perhaps less pertinent to women’s lived experiences than whether their families, local religious authorities, and government require them to cover themselves. For this reason, contemporary debates around the veil should begin with politics rather than theology, as both state-level and nonstate groups further their own agendas by exercising control over people’s clothing in the name of religion, culture, and authenticity. In the context of Muslim women, this control can be played out through the imposition, or the banning, of the veil.


What may be assumed to be acceptable Muslim clothing in one place may not be so in another. In Tunisia, women are liable to undergo police intervention if they veil, while in Saudi Arabia, they are punished if they do not. This suggests that we should broaden our scope away from notions of a single ‘Islamic culture’,  to encompass women in multiple Muslim contexts: in Islamic states, in secular Muslim-majority states, in Muslim families and communities in the diaspora, among migrant Muslim communities, for non-Muslim women who are subject to Muslim laws because of their country of residence or their children’s, and for women who do not identify as Muslim but who are automatically catergorized as such because of their family heritage or the laws of their country.


By equating dress codes with religion we obscure the fact that clothing worn my Muslims is as varied and culturally specific as clothes worn by Jews, Buddhists, or atheists. A politically informed analysis moves us beyond theological debates (an arena where women are structurally disadvantaged in any respect) and into the realm of lived experience.

I’m asked, ‘What do you wear in Pakistan?’ and I hastily explain that I’m not representative of Pakistani womanhood, because of my hybrid outfits: blue jeans, a tunic-style kurta, and a bare head. But then I pause. Is my grandmother’s sari, accompanied by European high heels, more authentic than my blue jeans? Is that designer blouse any less traditional than the black arabi that covers it? Long flowing skirts have been worn by the nomadic women of the Punjab for centuries, but does that make them more Pakistani than the increasing number of women in face veils I encounter each time I visit downtown Karachi? My grandmother’s generation is the last to remember Pakistan it is infancy: a new state predicated upon secularism, diversity, and equity. She veiled so I wouldn’t have to …. What can I do for future generations of girls and women who are taught that Islam requires women to cover themselves without denying the Muslimness of a Muslim woman’s sari?

Searching for authenticity will always prove elusive, but a thorough excavation of our histories – through the colors of our creativity and the dark moments of control – unmasks the forces that dictate how we clothe our bodies for the world.


Shaheed highlights the diversity of different dress codes and of changing notions of ‘appropriate’ or preferred clothing across different generations and within different cultural, historical and political contexts. She believes that this diversity is often neglected and points out that ‘Islamic’ dress codes are often perceived as more clear-cut and homogeneous than they ‘really’ are in people’s lived experiences. In particular, she challenges the stereotypical association of the ‘veil’ with Muslim women’s dress codes on the basis that ‘veiling’ practices exist in many different religious traditions and that many Muslim women do not wear a ‘veil’. Shaheed even goes as far as to question the use of the notion of ‘Islamic dress’ or ‘Muslim clothing’ altogether. Her argument that local cultural and political factors are more important than theological or religious factors in influencing women’s dress codes is, of course, open to debate and depends very much on how the notions ‘religion’ or ‘religious factors’ are defined. We shall come back to this later, but you might want to keep this argument in mind during the following readings and activities.

It should also be noted that it was not only Indian or Pakistani universities, like the Muslim University of Aligarh mentioned in Reading 2, that were initially restricted to men and only gradually opened their doors to women. In the UK the University of Cambridge, for example, did not accept women as full members until 1948, though women were admitted (on a restricted basis) in the late nineteenth century. You might also have noted that the situation in Tunisia that Shaheed describes has changed since the Arab Spring in 2011, when the official ‘headscarf’-ban was lifted.