On wearing religious garb

When I see people wearing clothes that are identified with specific religious beliefs, I sometimes wonder why they do so. In this article, professor of sociology Caitlin Kilian discusses the hijab, the headscarf that some Muslim women (including new congresswoman Ilhan Omar) wear and the different reasons that women choose to wear it.

Many women who cover talk about it as a way demonstrating their submission to God and a constant reminder to hold fast to Islamic beliefs such as being honest and generous to those in need.

However, there are other reasons for adopting the hijab.

French and British colonizers encouraged Muslim women to remove the veil and emulate European women. Consequently, in North African and Middle Eastern countries, the veil became a symbol of national identity and opposition to the West during independence and nationalist movements.

Today, some women wear the hijab to signal pride in their ethnic identity. This is more so for immigrants in Europe and the United States, where there has been an increase in Islamophobia.

Muslim African-American women in the U.S. sometimes wear a hijab to signal their religious affiliation. They also want to dispel the assumption that all African-Americans are Christians, and that only people with origins abroad can be Muslim. In fact, 13 percent of adult Muslims in the U.S are black Americans born in the country.

For many other women, the headscarf has become a means of resistance to standards of feminine beauty that demand more exposure. Proponents of this view argue that removing clothing for the benefit of the male gaze does not equal liberation.

Whatever the reason, if it is a free choice on their part, they have every right to wear what they want. What is problematic is when people are forced to dress in ways that they would rather avoid because of pressure or even compulsion from the other members of their community. Women in some religious communities are usually subjected to far more rigorous dress codes than men and their dress is more strictly policed and deviations punished. In some strict religious communities (not just Islam) men impose these dress codes on women to curb male sexual desire, effectively demanding that women solve a problem that men have.


  1. says

    I find it fascinating when I see young Muslim women who abide by the word but not the spirit -- they’ll wear the hijab and have clothes with long sleeves, but the clothing is very tight. At first I thought they were rebelling against the hijab, but now I think it’s far more nuanced that that, and good for them.

  2. Mark Dowd says

    In some strict religious communities (not just Islam) men impose these dress codes on women to curb male sexual desire, effectively demanding that women solve a problem that men have.

    That’s only what they say publicly, and we know by all the various problems with sexual abuse that it most definately does not work.

    So the dress codes are obviously not a solution, and I’m sure were never really intended to be. What they are is a convenient excuse. Male misbehavior is blamed on women not following the rules. Stricter rules are easier to break, and even easier to falsely accuse people of breaking.

  3. ridana says

    It’s also used as a means to enforce gender role conformity. I grew up in a largely Mennonite community. This sect required women to wear little white net caps (similar to a yarmulke), always in church, but sometimes outside as well (mostly only (some of) the adult women wore them all the time), because it was shameful to go uncovered before the Lord. There was a religious reason for taking them off outside, but I’ve forgotten how they explained it. Likewise men were forbidden to wear any head covering in church because…I never understood it, men have no need to be ashamed? But even as a kid I could see that the coverings were all about differentiating roles and status between women and men.
    It’s always been a source of amazement to me how many rules people can concoct about how women should dress and wear their hair, with just as many conflicting justifications as to what their deity wants and why.

  4. says

    Every culture is having its own variations and we should be careful with them once we are concern with them. You are having a good point in this post but there are only a few people that are serious about it.

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