Islamic Dress, Contemporary

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For both insiders and outsiders, dress is often at the center of debates concerning how Muslims should live in the rapidly changing, globally interconnected world of the early 2000s. Should women cover their heads? Is the hijab, the veil, a sign of oppression or a symbol of liberation? Who decides what Muslims should wear? Are Western styles of dress appropriate? Are they necessary for modernization? And what is acceptable for Muslims living in the West?

Islamic dress is layered with overt and subtle symbolic meanings. Many individual men and women dress as Muslims for the purpose of showing their devotion to God. The word Islam means "submission"—not to the religion itself, but to the guidance and will of God. A Muslim, therefore, is literally "one who submits," and Islamic dress displays that commitment. At the same time, specific styles of dress have been shaped by other factors such as climate, cultural aesthetics, economics, trade patterns, and political ideologies.

The "five arkan," or pillars, of Islam have fundamentally shaped what Muslims believe and practice, including how they dress. These pillars include the shahada (a declaration of faith that "there is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God"), salat (five daily prayers), zakat (the giving of charity; which is sometimes regarded as a religious tax), Sawm (the annual month of daytime fasting known as Ramadan), and the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). Cleanliness of the body and clothing is highly valued. Muslims must wash their face, hands, and feet before prayer. Loose clothing makes it easier to bow and kneel. Men and women who have completed the Hajj are called "Hajji" or "el-Hajj" and frequently wear garments that display their new status. There is also a special form of dress called ihram that is worn during the pilgrimage. For men, this consists of two lengths of white cloth that are wrapped around the upper and lower body. Women on the pilgrimage are expected to wear a simple form of dress from their own culture. One of the major purposes of ihram is to eliminate the display of rank and wealth. This is a reflection of the philosophy that all Muslims are equal before God.

Detailed discussions about the five pillars are provided in the Qur'ān (believed to be the literal word of God), the hadiths (sayings and traditions of the prophet Muhammad), and codes of Shari'ah (Islamic law). Unlike the Catholic church, there is no central authority in Islam. Muslims often follow the pronouncements of religious scholars and leaders, but there is no barrier for individuals who want to study the religion for themselves. There are many different interpretations about the "correct" practice of Islam in everyday life, including how Muslims should be dressed. Many choose to adopt practices that are sunna (meaning "encouraged" in religious law as well as "following the path of the prophet Muhammad") and avoid practices that are haram ("forbidden" or "dirty"). It is considered sunna for men to grow a beard and dye it with henna. Devout men avoid wearing silk and gold, including anything dyed yellow (because it might look like gold). Women avoid wearing perfume that contains alcohol, which Muslims are also not allowed to drink.

Often, these ideals are tempered by more worldly concerns. Although beauty is closely connected with haya or "modesty," some simple forms of dress are actually very expensive. In oil-rich states around the Persian Gulf, women from wealthy families can buy a designer Islamic dress that looks modest but costs hundreds of dollars. Under these layers of clothing (or at private parties segregated by gender) they might also wear couture from Europe. Some fashion houses, such as Chanel and Dior, have many clients in the Middle East. In communities where people are not as wealthy, there are often other forms of dress—such as the chaadaree, or burqa, in Afghanistan—that can be worn to display a higher level of social and economic status. Clothing that covers a woman from head-to-toe is not only costly but makes it physically difficult for her to perform manual labor. Many families cannot afford the expense or loss of income. This is equally true in the United States and Europe, where discrimination against women who are visibly Muslim can make it difficult to hold a job outside of the home.

A Common Interpretation of Islamic Dress

  • Men and women should not dress the same
  • Clothing should not be tight or reveal the form of the body underneath
  • The design, texture, or scent of clothing should not attract undue attention
  • A man should cover his body from knees to navel
  • A woman should cover everything except for her hands and face
  • These rules for men and women apply in public places and private gatherings where both men and women are present; bodies are not for display
  • Modesty is appropriate at any age, but particularly important after a girl or boy has reached puberty

Dress and the Rejection of Western Influences

"A Muslim who wears Western dress cannot but betray his preference for Western civilization and all it stands for. If a man truly loves Islam, is it not logical that he should express that love in his physical appearance?" (Samuillah, pp. 24–25)

Forms of Dress

In the Middle East, the most common form of dress for men consists of several layers of clothing including trousers, a dishdasha (an ankle-length shirt that buttons down the front), and a cloak called an aba or abaya. This outermost layer is usually white or brown and is worn with a close-fitting cap called a kufi. Over this, men wear a loose head covering known as a ghutra that is held in place with a thick cord called agal. The agal once had a functional purpose (used by Bedouins for tying the legs of camels together), but is now manufactured specifically as an item of dress. Women also wear the abaya, but this outer layer is frequently black or gray. Other items of dress vary depending upon the location. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, women in that country have been required to wear a head covering and are encouraged to wear the chador, a waist-length (or longer) tailored garment that fits closely around the face. In Saudi Arabia, many women wear a niqab (a kind of veil), along with dark gloves and socks, leaving only their eyes visible in public. In Oman and the United Arab Emirates, women traditionally wear a mask (also called niqab) that covers the face but leaves the hair and neckline showing. This practice is falling out of favor, as many young women prefer to wear the chador or the style of niqab that is common in Saudi Arabia. These forms of dress are generally made out of wool or cotton cloth and are not only modest but offer protection from the piercing sun and blowing sand.

In Palestine, Syria, and Turkey, many women wear a head covering called khimar. This is simply a large triangle of cloth (or a square folded into a triangle) that covers the head and is wrapped around the neck or pinned under the chin. A new style of khimar that is easy to wear (particularly for children) is sold in packages of two pieces. The first one covers the hairline; the second one fits under the chin and covers the head and shoulders. This head covering is often worn with a buttoned over-coat called the jilbab, or jellabib.

Among Muslim women in Malaysia, Indonesia, and East Africa (including immigrants from these areas who live in the United States and Europe), the jilbab is used as a plain, "Arab" style of dress that covers the entire body except for the feet and hands and fits closely around the face. For men, a garment that has spread from the Middle East to many parts of the world is the kaffiyeh, a black- and-white or red-and-white checkered shawl that can be draped over a shoulder, wrapped around the head as a turban, or secured over the head with an agal. In the West, the kaffiyeh is one of the most recognizable symbols of Islam, worn by many political leaders including Yassir Arafat.

In Pakistan and India, men and women wear salwar kameez, loose pants covered by a long shirt. This style of dress is originally from Persia. Women also wear the dupatta, a long piece of cloth that can be draped over a shoulder or wrapped around the head and body depending on the situation. Men cover their heads with a turban. Many of these items are lightweight and made out of silk, cotton, or a synthetic material like polyester—practical for a hot and humid climate. Unlike clothing in the Middle East, these textiles can be very colorful.

In North and East Africa, religious men often wear headgear, such as a turban or kufi, particularly for communal prayers on Friday. (In the United States, many African American Muslim men wear just the kufi along with more ordinary Western clothing.) Women in Tanzania, Kenya, and Somalia wear colorful cotton textiles imported from India. These are sold in lengths of six to ten yards that are later cut into pieces—one for a long, loose-fitting dress, and one that is draped over the head and around the shoulders (respectively called dirac and garbasaar in Somalia). In Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, men wear a burnoose, a loose cloak with a hood unique to that area. In West Africa, men and women both wear a long, simple gown known by various names including boubou, bubu, and baba riga. Women are not expected to cover their heads, but many do wear a piece of wrapped cloth to signify that they are married. Coverings similar to the dupatta and garbasaar are limited to use by women who have completed the Hajj or live in Niger, northern Mali, and Mauritania, or other areas where many communities have begun to enforce Islamic law. In rural areas of East and North Africa, southern Arabia, and Central Asia, where many people still live a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle, it is also not uncommon for women to go without a head covering.

Political and Economic Context

Over the last century, the Islamic world has gone through many dramatic changes—the discovery of oil ("black gold") in the Middle East and Southeast Asia; the introduction (and sometimes rejection) of Western-style education, markets, technology, and dress; a series of revolutions and wars; and a rapid expansion in population. Although the Islamic religion began in the Middle East, in the early 2000s there are far more Muslims outside that area, in countries such as Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and China. The total number of Muslims has grown to more than 1 billion people.

The production and sale of oil has given some countries incredible wealth. In Brunei, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, there are no personal income taxes. Education and health care are provided free of charge. A number of governments have used oil money to build roads, irrigation systems, universities, and other public buildings—sometimes not just for the nation, but also for Muslims in other parts of the world. Farmers, laborers, teachers, and doctors from Egypt, East Africa, and South Asia have been drawn to the Middle East for jobs that pay much more than similar positions at home. Although the media is often closely monitored for sexual and political content, many people have access to videos, satellite television, and the Internet. The Arab television network Al-Jazeera competes with CNN and the BBC.

At the same time, there have been downsides to this economic windfall. Long-standing relationships and tensions that began when Great Britain and France colonized many parts of Africa, Arabia, and South Asia have intensified. The United States has been involved in two wars with Iraq and built or used military bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Djibouti. Oil money has brought a new wave of entrepreneurs and professionals from Europe and the United States. In Cairo, anthropologists Elizabeth and Robert Fernea have observed that colonization and contacts with the west have been accompanied by social changes that many Muslims (not only the fundamentalists) have found objectionable.

Along with our technology go our sales techniques, administrative methods, ideas about investment and economic growth … [as well as] rock music, bars and nightclubs full of alcohol and fashionably dressed women…. [This is often viewed as] the loss of Egypt ian, Arab, and/or Muslim ways of life—a shameful loss of independence, respectability, and honor (p. 440).

In the early 1900s, many Egyptian feminists adopted Western dress and removed their veils as a sign of liberation. In the early 2000s, a new generation has returned to covering their heads. This practice offers some protection from sexual harassment on overcrowded city streets and buses, but it also signals a resurgence of pride in Islam and Islamic practices in everyday life.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, people in many parts of the Islamic world turned to religion as a source of guidance and unification in their efforts to resist colonization. Remnants of these movements, such as Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia and Mahdism in the Sudan, still exist. Similar approaches are reemerging as a response to cultural and military invasion and to counteract the excesses of globalization. In Afghanistan, where the population has been involved in continuous warfare for more than two decades, the Taliban made an effort to establish order by imposing a very strict interpretation of Islamic law. Girls were forced out of schools; professional women were dismissed from their jobs, required to wear the chaadaree, or burqa, and could appear in public only if accompanied by a male relative. Many feminists in the West were horrified by these practices and circulated petitions over the Internet begging the Taliban to stop. During the invasion of Afghanistan after 11 September 2001, the United States government and media networks made use of these sentiments by citing the "liberation of women" as one justification for overthrowing that regime.

A more moderate version of political Islam is gaining support from both intellectuals and ordinary citizens in many countries. In Turkey, where the government has tried to "modernize" the nation by banning Islamic dress in public buildings, women who are sympathetic to the Islamist movement have been forced to leave universities and even elected positions in Parliament for expressing their religious and political beliefs through dress. In France, the children of immigrants from Turkey and North Africa have sometimes been expelled from public schools for violating a strict separation of church and state by wearing head coverings. Unfortunately, many people view Islam (and Islamic dress) as being incompatible with democracy. This has become a very sensitive issue in Turkey as that country is trying to become part of the European Union.

Outside of the Middle East—in areas such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Somalia—men and women are beginning to wear the kaffiyeh and jilbab to signal that they are looking to Islam for social and political change. In Malaysia and Indonesia, the government has provided money to build mosques and support religious education, but political Islam is forbidden. Approximately 15 percent of Indonesians are Hindu, Catholic, or Protestant (a designation that must be recorded on official documents such as a driver's license), but there are also more than 180 million Muslims—the largest number of Muslims in a single nation (Farah, p. 273). Indonesia has oil resources and is a member of OPEC, but millions of people live in absolute poverty. Some would like to replace what they view as a corrupt government with one founded on Islamic principles. In East Africa, Somalia has been in a state of chaos since the last government collapsed during a civil war in 1991 without being replaced. Some Somalis would like to initiate a new government based on Islamic law. Others see this as "Arabization"—a non-Somali influence from the Middle East. The rebuilding of that government is complicated by internal differences as well as accusations from Ethiopia and the United States that Somalia is a harbor for terrorists.

The events following September 11th—including the passage of the Patriot Act and military action in Afghanistan and Iraq—have brought intense scrutiny to Islam and Muslims. The visibility of Islamic dress has led many women in particular to feel they must make a choice between personal safety and religion. A report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations notes that many Muslims have been effected by religious and ethnic profiling in public places and at airports, often based on their dress. "The experiences of Muslims in the post–September 11 climate have been unmatched by any previous period…. A Muslim woman from Lincoln, Nebraska, was ordered to remove her hijab [head covering] before boarding an American Airlines flight. She was frightened by the guard with a gun, so she complied" (pp. 4–5).

At the same time, the number of Muslims in the United States is continuing to grow through immigration as well as conversion. For many people, these difficult times have renewed their sense of commitment to the religion and religious dress. An awareness of Islam in the general public is also growing as more people than ever read books and attend lectures in an effort to gain a better understanding of what is going on in the world.

See alsoBurqa; Ethnic Dress; Jilbab; Middle East: History of Islamic Dress .


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Arthur, Linda, ed. Undressing Religion: Commitment and Conversion from a Cross-Cultural Perspective. Oxford: Berg, 2000.

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Farah, Caesar E. Islam: Beliefs and Observances. 7th ed. Hauppauge, N.Y.: Barron's, 2003.

Fernea, Elizabeth W., and Robert A. Fernea. The Arab World: Forty Years of Change. New York: Anchor Books, 1997.

Haddad, Yvonne Y., and John L. Esposito, eds. Muslims on the Americanization Path? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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Internet Resource

The Status of Muslim Civil Rights in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Council on American-Islamic Relations Research Center, 2002. Available from

Heather Marie Akou

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Islamic Dress, Contemporary

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Islamic Dress, Contemporary