Debate has for some time been raging worldwide, and questions are again being asked about Muslim women’s attire.  

In many cases we Western women who wear Muslim attire are seen to be, at the very least, creatures living under male oppression; and at the worst, ungrateful to our host nation for not taking up its culture of dress.

Many critics are completely unaware of the reasons for our choice of clothing, and due to a political and media push, in most cases have fallen into the trap of trying to align it to male-dominated customs. Therefore, coming from an Anglo-Saxon background, I choose to write about this subject from the viewpoint of an Australian Muslim woman.

The Western culture of dress 

If one looks at Western dress as part of culture, then one must say that it is a changing culture.  It changes from year to year, from season to season.  It has evolved from very modest beginnings.  Even up to World War 2 Australian women were seen wearing dresses with long skirts, gloves, and hats which often had face veiling for those who were considered to be well-dressed.

Two issues, I feel, led to change of this modest culture of dress in Australia: (a) Post-war fabrics and materials were not always readily available, and for a time were very expensive and (b) American movies came to dominate the minds, as well as the leisure-time of a nation which had grown tired of war and clamoured for entertainment.  Unfortunately, through this medium, scantily-clad girls and women came to be considered glamorous and before long the culture of fashion was carried along with the wave of being “modern” and “attractive”.

Australian women, even today, reflect many facets in their style of dress: sometimes their fashion is dictated by their economic status, at others by the newest designs or in some cases as anti-establishment statements. Nevertheless, modest fashion may still be found for those who choose to do so.  This does not mean, however, that we, as Muslim women sit in judgement on our fellow-Australians, nor do we try to alter the way Australian women dress or think.   

The Muslim woman and culture

So where does the Muslim woman fit in? If Western culture embraces true democracy, then the Muslim woman’s garb should not be a problem.  However, this is no longer the case.  It has become a problem to those who look at it with jaundiced perceptions.

Firstly, culture is not at the root of the Muslim woman’s dress code, though style may reflect her own particular choice.  It is a religious requirement.  To state that Muslim women are not required religiously, to cover, that it is purely culture, is not only erroneous, but offensive to we,  Muslim women, who have chosen to cover.

Religion and women’s dress

The Qur’an is not the first Scripture to command women to cover, and may be seen in the Bible., Even today it may be noted that pious Jewish women cover their heads, as well as Christian nuns and women from various Christian countries.  This was never to oppress women, rather, a protection and to show that they are, just as Muslim women are today, believing women.

It is commanded in the Qur’an: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty…..” Qur’an 24:31.   This is interpreted by most Islamic Scholars to encompass all but the face and hands.

Muslim women, as others, who choose to wear cover do so because of deep faith. However, should compulsion be the cause of a Muslim woman being covered it would be completely against the spirit and the law of Islam and should certainly be opposed.

Whether it is oppression forcing to wear cover, or oppression forcing to take it off, it is, nevertheless, oppression.  Whether the compulsion springs from the unlovely demands of a husband, or the equally unlovely demands of a State, the result is the same.

Politically it is apparent that democracy in some Western countries is selectively being extended even into fashion. As an Australian Muslim woman it is my fervent hope that true democracy will win out in Australia. May women be free to choose their form of dress without being stigmatized or pushed into uncovering by those who should be protectors of the people and guardians of democracy in governments worldwide.