Local Time

Friday, March 04, 2005

Muslim modesty in the spotlight

By Cindi John and Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

The court victory of a Muslim girl excluded from school for wearing a full-length 'jilbab' gown has highlighted the issue of what is appropriate attire for Muslim women.

For many observers the uniform 'shalwar kameez' - tunic and trousers - of Denbigh High School in Luton - seem modest enough.

It had been approved by Islamic scholars as appropriate clothing and was a uniform Shabina Begum had apparently worn uncomplainingly for two years.

The view of imams in Luton that the shalwar kameez "fulfils the requirements of Islamic dressing" was supported by Dr Anas Abushadyan, an imam at London Central Mosque - one of the most important seats of Islam in the country.

Dr Abushadyan told teachers: "Looking around the Muslim world, we find an amazing variety of garments which meet these requirements. Hence we don't see any un-Islamic act for wearing a shalwar Kameez.

"Here the important thing is that the Muslim women dress must be within the Islamic guidelines."


But Iman Dr Abduljalil Sajid, chairman of the Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony, says for a strict Muslim, conforming with Islamic guidelines may not be enough.

The Koran devotes seven verses to appropriate clothing, he says, and while the hijab and jilbab are specifically mentioned as fitting attire for women, the shalwar kameez is not.

"The shalwaar kameez is modest dress no doubt, but it's Indian/Pakistani dress rather than Islamic," Dr Sajid says.

Humera Khan of the An Nisa Society, an organisation that represents the views of women, agreed the school had failed to take into account the huge diversity of the UK's 1.6 million Muslims.

"If you consult on what is Islamic, and you for instance only talk to the Pakistani community, they will say the shalwar kameez is suitable. But other communities would have a different view that then becomes excluded," she says.

The school's uniform policy also failed to take account of Muslim girls growing up, according to Dr Sajid.

While in western societies adulthood is largely delineated by age markers, in some Muslim cultures boys and girls are deemed to have matured with the onset of puberty, he says.

"A boy is mature when his voice changes and when a girl starts her monthly periods, it means she is a woman.

"Before that they are not responsible for their actions but afterwards in some cultures they would be expected to conform to Islamic dress codes such as the jilbab."

'Sign of oppression'

Humera Khan says many Muslims are frustrated that the West had become apparently obsessed with how women express their faith.

"The Western world has seen women's Islamic dress as a sign of oppression.

"But when Islamic movements reacted against colonialism [in the 20th century] the clothing was a sign of liberation with political connotations."

Islamic dress code is closely linked to the histories of the individual cultures within the faith, Ms Khan added.

"So when scholars say that clothing should be loose to hide the lines of the body for modesty reasons, this means different things in different places."

That point was emphasised by Dr Sajid who says that in some countries the long gowns favoured by Shabina Begum would not pass as a jilbab.

"According to some cultures if she was really wearing a jilbab only her eyes would be showing, and then she would wear dark glasses to cover them up. That's what they do in Saudi Arabia."

"Every country and every culture's style is different. It all depends on whatever interpretation has come up from their scholars," he said.


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