“Western” vs”ethnic”…? Does it really matter?


Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem

Screenshot - 12142012 - 07:40:16 PM

I recently found this article and had been wanting to post something about it for awhile now, but darn finals…got in my way!


I really am deeply saddened by this article…its quite uninformed and totally buys into the whole “modern Islam” thing where the aspects of the deen is discarded so everyone can blend in and be just like everyone else…you know where you have Muslims telling you, your an extremist for practicing your faith and covering the way your supposed too?

Don’t Judge a Faith by Its Cover

(I took out the name as I dont want to be considered back biting!)
May 19, 2011

Stripping Culture from Religious Clothing

“Do you find it strange to see Western converts dressing more “ethnically” than other Muslims? My Ethiopian husband has often wondered how a woman born and raised in North America can look like more of a foreigner than he does.

In the early days after my acceptance of Islam I adopted what I thought was a traditional sense of style. Which tradition you ask? Arab, African and Pakistani were among the many. But in the ten years since reverting, I have realized that there is no particular culture dictating proper modes of dress for Muslim women.

Chapter Al Ahzab states “O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their persons…” The specific obligations of modest dress are generally interpreted to be the full covering of a woman’s hair and neck with an outer garment covering the rest of the body which is thick, opaque, wide and loose.

In Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Tariq Ramadan notes that the principles of deen remain the same regardless of cultural influences and that “the concern should not be to dress as the Prophet dressed but to dress according to the principles (of decency, cleanliness, simplicity, aesthetics and modesty) that underlay his choice of clothes.”

With some consideration, just about any clothing style could fulfill the conditions of modest Islamic clothing. So why wear a foreigner’s clothes?

Some reverts may dress this way because they are yearning for the deep attachment and connections born Muslims have to the religion and to each other. By blending in with traditional Muslim ethnic groups, reverts may attempt to achieve a sense of this shared belonging.

Reverts also typically have a keen desire to fulfill the expectations of their new faith group as strictly as possible. Indeed, I was encouraged, even warned, that continuing to wear western clothing indicated a weakness in my deen and that I had to reject any attachment to the faith I was raised in.

Of course there is no Islamic basis for this ‘encouragement’. In fact dressing head to toe in a black niqab in the western world may not actually be modest, considering how much attention women dressed in this manner receive. We also have to be careful about the assumptions we make. For all we know, a Muslimah wearing western clothing may be very pious, while another sister may be having a party under her abaya.

In any event, this ‘encouragement’ seems to be born out of a fear of cultural loss. Immigrant parents see their children straddling between the world of ‘back home’ and their new environment and in many Muslim countries, religion and culture are one and the same. But as western immigrants, the blurring of the lines between culture and religion can create unnecessary religion-culture clashes.

While few people convert to Islam for the couture, western born Muslim children may resent going to the mosque if they have to wear “embarrassing” ethnic outfits. By taking the focus away from Islamic principles, we run the risk of pushing away both potential reverts and western born Muslim children. It is more important that our children adopt Islamic values, irrespective of the style of clothes they are wearing.

Eventually I discovered that there are many different ways to fulfill the obligation of modesty, and importantly, that submission to God is independent of fashion. Now that I have embraced my western self much more as of late, to the joy of my husband, I realize that being Muslim does not require me to deny my ‘westernness’. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with wearing the clothing of a particular culture, merely that I no longer believe it is a religious obligation.

Islam and western culture are not incompatible because Islam is a religion for all times, all people and all places. And as we build Muslim communities in the West, a continued opposition to all things western will not foster healthy integrated communities. While cultural attachments may be maintained, it is the principles and values of Islam which must be the priority. In our outreach and our outfits, we only need only to display those values proudly for them to endure.”

What I think…You know, I do not think that western Muslim women are choosing “ethnic-style” looking clothing so as to better fit in with the Muslim community over here nor are they ignoring their western roots! What they ARE trying to do is dress in a manner which is modest and which fulfills religious requirements for their attire!   This sister is unfortunately, neglecting the numerous ayaats, hadeeths and rulings which relate to hejab and covering…one purpose of hejab according to the Quraan and Hadeeths is so that Muslims, esp. Muslim women are recognized AS Muslims and not harassed, annoyed or propositioned by men unrelated to them and also as an outward sign of piety and religiosity (this goes for BOTH Muslim men AND women! as hejab is NOT just for us sisters, but also for the brothers too!).

Nowhere in the Quraan or Hadeeths-as far as Ive studied, does it say that hejab is about blending in and “when in Rome do as the Romans do…”…does it?  And what about the rulings from pretty much every Islamic madhab which in a nutshell considers a Muslim womans hejab to consist of an overgarment OR overgarment-LIKE outfit (i.e. loose, baggy and long enough that no curves are hanging out and which still looks distinctively and obviously “Muslim”) and a khimaar/headscarf which covers the hair, neck and chest. Above and beyond that, almost no mention is made to any one specific mode of attire or color and the finer details vary by madhab (to cover the feet or not, to cover the chin or not, to cover the face or not…). So really does it matter if a sister chooses to go out in a long tunic and baggy, loose skirt and a covering scarf or a abaya from Saudi Arabia or a Pakistani Shlwar Kameeze which is long and baggy…?? No, not really…is the baggy skirt or even wide legged jeans with a long tunic and less “foreign” than the abaya…?  Perhaps to some people yes, but who should it matter to anyway?

If a sister is more comfortable out in public in a black abaya and shaylah imported from Dubai or a jilbab imported from Jordan or, heck, even a Senegalese BouBou…then what does it matter if its not jeans and teeshirt ala’ stereotypical American style…and really who is to say that jeans and a teeshirt and distinctively western anyway and a jilbab is foreign…?  Who?  Jane Doe down the block?

It really shouldnt matter as long as the sister is comfortable and is covered according to what she follows as proper hejab…If we cover Fi Sab’Illah (For the SAKE of Allah!) then we really wont care if people think we are stepping out in “foreign”-ish looking clothing…We arent covering for them anyway.

p.s….and how can you judge someones eastern-ness or western-ness or northerness or southerness by what they are wearing…its illogical!



16 thoughts on ““Western” vs”ethnic”…? Does it really matter?

  1. Sounds like all she was saying was that its ok to dress however you are most comfortable as long as it fulfills requirement from hijab. I don’t know where you got the jeans and tshirt idea but I may have missed that.

    I’ve seen a lot of women converts going through a crazy identity crisis after converting of wanting to be the best Muslim ever and overdoing it, taking out things from their old lives that were niskamimc but also other things that were perfectly ok. And being left with no strong sense of who they were in all this (not fitting in with any group, all that). And for a lot of the ones who came out of it, finding the right balance between their “western” self and their new, main identity as Muslims made them better.

    I read this article and I only see someone saying “You an be Muslim and youself, whoever that is”. Take a different perspective and you should be able to see this too.

    • I never said jeans and a teeshirt constitute western clothing…but in general people do consider jeans and teeshirts to be quintessential “stereotypical” western clothing…sorta like how people overseas think all we Yanks eat is burgers and pizza! LOL

      I got the vibe that she considers anything less than what would be deemed stereotypical western attire as being too foreign. Its a shame some Muslims do that, but i get feeling that unfortunately some Muslims are ashamed to be seen AS Muslim and are embarrassed to see other Muslims who are proud of being Muslim and so consider them as playing dress up and ethnic clothing for choose garments like jilbabs or abayaat to fullfill what is required for hejab…as its much easier and is not akin to what non-Muslims generally wear.

  2. I totally agree with you. That article is ridiculous. Wearing what you want to wear is not denying your Western-ness. What a narrow way to look at things. Jilbab and hijab is universal for Muslim women. It’s not ethnic. Does she tell Arabs they can’t wear western clothes because they’re denying their “Arab-ness”? Lol

  3. I wear a mix of different clothing that I feel fulfills hijab requirements, including middle eastern abayas, shalwar kameeze, tunics and dresses, “western clothing” (meaning I guess, something I bought locally) and even jeans :P. I wear these different clothes because I like them and they are comfortable and covering. As a practical matter, it is often easier to find modest, covering clothing of so-called “foreign” styles, though it really depends on what the trends are at the time. I’ve seen many people pull of hijab on a daily basis with “western” shirts and skirts, and I do this sometimes, but a lot of days it’s a whole lot easier and more comfortable to throw on a jilbab or abaya (especially since I don’t like layering a bunch of things). I don’t wear any of these things because I’m trying to blend in with or represent a particular ethnicity other than my own, though. I have noticed however that other muslims will automatically assume that my husband is of a particular country if I wear clothing from that country (I’m not married anymore, but this doesn’t make any difference to the assumption). Non-muslims usually have no idea where a particular garment comes from unless they’re already familiar with that area for some reason. I completely mix and match as I feel like and I also don’t think that dressing in “western” style assuming you’re still in covered hijab, makes other local people find your clothing any less exotic, hijab still looks weird to them (I do think this is why some people have adopted the “turban” style, because it’s not immediately identifiable as muslim or as “religious” headgear). However, I am happy to identify as muslim and show that through my clothing in the fact that I’m wearing hijab, without trying to look like I’m part of any particular ethnicity. When I was married, my husband wore “western” dress here and “ethnic” dress when he was in his own country. For men, it is some cases a choice in that there are many choices in western men’s clothing that is suitable for a “hijab observing” man. So a man can easily “blend in” where I live and not show they are muslim to most people they interact with, if they wish. I think the ability to be immediately recognized as muslim is very useful, personally, and does not mean I am denying my “own” culture. I wonder how much of the embarassment she talks about is generated by the male side of things, not wanting to be identified as ‘muslim’ by their wifes/relatives hijab. I have run into more than one man who seems to have an issue with this, and a lot of people who immigrate to this country adopt the “when in rome” attitude. I have had a lot of people tell me, “you’re in America now, you don’t have to dress like that here.” But, I’ve always been in America 🙂 (as would be fairly obvious if they observed anything other than my clothing).

  4. And this is why intentions far exceed the deeds. It is good for you, the writer, to point these things out and educate Muslimahs who could come from really ambiguous states in life as per the concern of covering. And Allah ta’ala knows best about these Muslimahs’ lives. I am a revert and I found it extremely hard to change my wardrobe because I was supporting myself and because my family wouldn’t approve of it. Everyone who knew me looked at me and thought some guy turned me around, which is really an insult to my intellect; because Islam initially appealed to me by its inherent logic. And when I went to the masjid, I felt so left out because the sisters who were from the same culture and were born Muslims would huddle together and speak perfect Arabic in front of me. And for some reason, I felt like a zoo animal because they would leave me alone after knowing my revert story. There was never really no one there who stuck it out with me. That is really far out from the covering issue but the lack of emotional support isn’t really helping. I’m just glad that I know I’m Muslim because of Allah ta’ala and not because of any of his creations.

    • Asalamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu sister! Welcome to Islam!!! MashaAllah!!! I’m a revert too, I support myself and wear proper hijab eventhough my parents and family dislike it very much. I was able to get a well paying job in my hijab as well… so there is no need to worry about things. Start at a gradual pace… don’t just throw urself into jilbab because you will over whelm yourself more then you need to; simply wear longer loose fitted shirts and pants/skirts. I pray that Allah Makes things easier for you my dear. Please don’t worry about what ppl say about your faith… Focus on pleasing Allah Ta’Ala and things will be easier for you. As for the muslims sisters at the masjid that aren’t welcoming you, that is a shame on them for not wanting to benefit and get good deeds for helping you on your new path (you are probably better off without them). I suggest meeting other reverts! Anyways, this was a great post because, I aslo have not-so-practising-muslims say i’m extreme because of the way I dress (it’s worse not that I wear niqab) and because I pray and don’t shake hands with men. SubhanaAllah

    • Sorry to hear it, it sounds like what I went through. And I do feel sympathetic towards sisters who approach hijab in their own unusual way instead of buying a whole new wardrobe, even if it’s long sweaters and jeans and a scarf or whatever, because I also couldn’t afford to just buy all new clothing when I converted. My previous wardrobe did primarily consist of jeans and tee shirts, and a lot of days I just put an abaya over that. But whether other muslims turn up their noses because I can’t afford a new wardrobe, or because I choose to dress a certain way, it’s bad both ways. Sometimes it’s easier being rejected by nonmuslims than being rejected by muslims. At least where I live now, the nonmuslims are nicer about it. Sad but true.

      • True- we should support each other regardless of what we wear! My ‘hijab journey’ took years and is still ongoing! I remember being told off by a sister for praying in jeans and a jumper and a scarf in my local mosque – I was fuming astaghfirullah! But of course, she was right to advise me… Perhaps she could have been more diplomatic and I could have had a better attitude! So I know how difficult it can be to start covering more and I know that lots of sisters can’t leap into everything all at once (I didn’t), and indeed when Islam was brought to us the rulings came slowly and the first Muslims could get to grips with Tawheed before doing all the specifics. Perhaps that’s how it should be. But the difference is between a sister who doesn’t wear hijab because it’s her jihad and she knows she should and she is striving for it, and a sister who genuinely thinks it’s ok not to cover according to Qur’an and sunnah. The second situation is more worrying.

      • asalaamu alaikum…yes I was much the same way too…I started to cover as a teenager in the mid-90’s and there was NOTHING available in mainstream shops which was long and modest-unlike now and it was all just mailorder and most of what was available was not-I admit, very appealing to a new to covering teenager who was still trying to deal with a family who was very much against it…as much as I liked the pleated jilbabs from Syria (what was available at the time) it just wasnt feasible for someone like myself-at that point in time, so I made do with what I could get and I strived to learn and improve both my deen and my dress…now its easy as pie to get modest stuff…alhamdullah.

  5. The issue is the idea of an over garment. I don’t have a problem with wearing clothes deemed to be western or non-western (whatever they are!) but the giant abayas and jilbabs are over garments by definition and easy to throw on. What would be a ‘British’ over garment for me? Long skirts and tops and scarves fulfil some of the hijab criteria but are not over garments in themselves so are not enough officially. I guess I could wear a full length coat but that’s not very practical, and some are quite figure fitting. I came across a fab Japanese kimono in a charity shop which is huge and black but elegant and ‘different’ – that would fulfil all the criteria! And is definitely not British 😉

    I can see where she’s coming from, and it is odd in a way that people are adopting clothes from other cultures… But there is more to a person than her clothes and more to our faith than what we wear.

  6. Ican tell you that the most unconfortable figure showing clothing was an outfit I had made in Pakistan. They took my measurments and made the top EXCATLY that size, couldnt brethe

    • The kameez salvar can get kind of tight sometimes and they rarely seem to put enough “ease” in them. I have seen some more “traditional” loose fitting ones online years ago but mainly the fashionable ones are close-fitting.

      • I agree about the fit. However when getting them tailored, you can still get a more comfortable fit if you specify it to the tailor. I love wearing salwar kameez indoors and order them quite often with a more modest fit with no problem.

  7. After reading Candice’s comment, I decided to re-read the article. However I still feel that the author has a biased view towards reverts in particular wearing clothing originating from muslim populated societies. As it has been mentioned, the Quran is clear that an overgarment is required. And unless your dress, whatever style you choose, fulfills that it’s not complete. Allahu alim.

  8. I know the sister who wrote the quoted article and she is a so-called ‘progressive’ Muslim who now doesn’t think it is necessary to wear the hijab at all, and doesn’t. She wrote this article a while ago when she still wore hijab but was starting to change her views on many things. So some context there. I think it’s sad as I think for whatever reason the sister is taking certain bad experiences with certain sectors of the Muslim community as a reason to reject things that are totally ok in the deen such as wearing ethnic clothing if one wishes.

  9. I think Muslims should wear whatever they want as long as it’s within the Islamic dress code. And I don’t mean “border-line Islamically” either. I like abayas and kameez yet I also like Regency dress, Japanese kimono, Chinese & Korean dress and Victorian style clothes. Shucks!! I’ll even throw in some 1990 Insha’allah I want a Poiret inspired Empire dress and I know how to do it Islamically, then by the will of Allah SWT, I’m wearing that despite it throwing Muslims and non-Muslims curveballs.

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