New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel


Muslim Women are Not Oppressed

By Nurunnahar Kashem


BRITAIN-Woman in the subway so astonished by the Muslim woman her apple is forgotten.

When Muslim women walk out of their houses, they immediately become a target for comments such as “go back to your own country” or “look, there’s a terrorist”, both of which I have personally experienced, being a Muslim. The reason for this is because people see the hijabs (typical head coverings) Muslim women wear on their heads and make assumptions about it without knowing the actual history behind it. Before delving into women’s clothing in Islam, it is important to understand that men in Islam also have dressing codes. It is not only the women who are required to dress a certain way. You can find more on men’s clothing in Islam here.

Was the Hijab Originally for Muslim Women?

Contrary to popular belief, the hijab did not start as a sign of piety by Muslim women. In fact, according to a study by the University of North Carolina, the first reference to veiling dates back to 13 B.C., in an Assyrian text. Mohja Kahf, an Arab-American poet and author writes that before Islam even started, Jewish, Roman, Greek, Assyrian, and Indian women also veiled. Veiling, in fact, was a form of prestige and those who were in lower classes weren’t even allowed to veil themselves.1 When Islam first started to be practiced around 600 C.E., veiling began to be associated with Islam. In the Qur’an, part of one verse says, “…let their headscarves fall to cover their necklines…” and since then the headscarf has been equated with Muslim women only. However, the hijab has come to mean so much more than just a simple headscarf to the women who wear it. For Muslim women, hijab is a symbol of perseverance, strength, and unity.

The Rules of Hijab

The hijab that is mandated covers the body enough so that it is not obvious what the shape of a woman’s body is, and all hair is covered. It does not have to be the full black coverings people see on Saudi Arabian women (pictured below), who wear those clothes mostly because of the country they live in.


Saudi Arabian women wearing the full niqab and jilbab.

The hijab can be expressive and one does not need to restrict oneself while wearing it. The required part to cover for a woman is called her awrah; it requires women to cover most of their body, with the exception of the face, hands, and feet. The Qur’an says (of women’s awrah), “and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress like veil, gloves, headcover, apron), and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms) and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons, or their (Muslim) women.”2

This leads me to another misconception people have. The women in Islam are not required to cover their faces with a covering called the niqab. The picture at the side shows women who are covered practically from head to toe. This is because they are in Saudi Arabia and that is the norm and culture there. This misconception comes from the clash between culture and religion. However, it is important to distinguish between the two because one’s rules and regulations do not equal the other’s.

Depictions of the Hijab in Western Media


Disney’s Jasmine confused because she’s not dressed in religiously OR culturally appropriate clothes.

Muslims have always been misunderstood by people in the West, as is shown by the explanation above, but the real fruit for thought is what promoted these stereotypes and misunderstandings? One cause is the media—specifically, how Muslims are portrayed in it. Let’s take the example of Disney’s Aladdin. Intended for the audience of children aged about three to thirteen, Aladdin takes place in a fictional Arabian city, Agrabah. In the movie, Princess Jasmine, the female protagonist, dresses in clothes that are overly sexualized—hence, Jasmine depicts Arab men’s lust. She perfects the portrayal of a “harem woman.” Driss Ridouani, a professor of Moulay Ismail University in Morocco interested in gender studies, writes, “The depiction of Badr Al-Buddur (the renamed Jasmine) matches the preconceived view of the Western artists about Muslim harem, focusing chiefly on her sexual fascination to appeal to the male’s lasciviousness.”3


Belle is dressed like a princess, with a long, flowing gown. Jasmine, on the other hand, lacks that grace.

Ridouani goes on to write that with Jasmine’s complexion and belly-dancer-like qualities, Jasmine presents herself as a sexual product. Instead of giving Jasmine the princess-like qualities every other Disney princess possesses, Jasmine lacks royal chastity and nobility.4 As you can see in the picture, she does not dress in clothes that are appropriate for a Muslim woman, but she is in an Arabian city. Her clothes are not even appropriate, in fact, for the culture she practices. As was mentioned before, Muslim women are allowed to show some parts of their bodies to their Mahrams (the people mentioned in the verse above), but there is still a limit as to how revealing one can be (except for with one’s husband). Jasmine does not follow any rules and dresses in inappropriate clothing both for her religion and her culture. What Disney decides to portray as their message falls flat because the authenticity of their movie is already compromised based on just Jasmine’s clothing.



Assimilation for Muslim Women

When Muslims immigrate to New York City, they most probably notice the way everyone is dressed—or, actually, how differently everyone is dressed. For many Muslims who follow the code of dress, it is hard to fit in in a country where there pretty much are no rules for clothing. Young Muslim women who wear the hijab are seen as different and even weird in some cases. A young Muslim woman I spoke to who would like to not be named told me that when she first started going to college two years ago, it was hard for her to make friends because of the way she was dressed. She said, “Sure, I was covered, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have thoughts or feelings. People mostly stayed away from me until they were forced to work with me, which is when I started making friends. That was when people started to see me as someone other than a girl wearing hijab.”

These problems are very real for many young hijabis, so Islamic designers also try to incorporate Western themes into their pieces. Unlike before, when women wore very loose robes over themselves, nowadays women wear skirts, shirts, and pants just like everyone else in America, with an added twist that makes them modest as well. Below are pictures where this is the case. The styles of some of today’s modern hijabi women are pictured, wherein dresses, skirts, and maxi dresses are worn for Islam and for fashion. From the styles of these women, it is clear that wearing the hijab does not mean being less fashionable. The rules of hijab are not so strict to the point where assimilation to the Western culture is not possible.hijab

Discrimination Muslim Women Face

In a diverse city such as New York, it is often much easier to dress differently because there are so many different people all over. Women who wear Islamic clothing, as a result, shouldn’t be stared at too much or accused of anything. However, this is not the case. Because of the negative images people hold of Muslims, wearing the hijab immediately makes a Muslim woman the object of discrimination. Hosneara Begum, a middle-aged Muslim woman, recalls how once a man came to her and started yelling things, calling her dirty and weird. However, it is also a rule of dressing that a Muslim’s clothes should always be clean! She recalls being afraid, but also being indignant. She told me, “How dare he point fingers at something he doesn’t even understand?” This is what the majority of Muslim women feel when it comes to situations like these. It is easy to judge with no background information. But when people find the truth behind all the lies in the media, they see the beauty of the hijab.

Ever since 9/11, more and more Muslim women have abandoned the headscarf. This is because of the discrimination Muslims faced after 9/11. (A more in-depth explanation of the discrimination Muslims face for their clothing can be found here). The attack on the Twin Towers spurred the discrimination for Muslims. Already frowned upon because they were more different than anyone else, now it was worse. People started seeing similarities between normal Muslims on the street and the Muslims that took part in the attack. Because of these “similarities” (namely that they all “practiced” Islam), the lives of Muslims became tough and even now continue to be so.

A famous case demonstrates the depth of the discrimination Muslim women face for their hijabs. Hani Khan was fired from Abercrombie & Fitch’s Hollister store in California in 2013 because she wore her hijab. In a report by ABC news, reporters found that Hani was explicitly told by her manager at work that if she did not take her hijab off, she would be fired. She refused to do so, which resulted in her dismissal. Finally, the heavier blow came when the manager reached out to Hani again to tell her Abercrombie would hire her again if she took her headscarf off. All of these events show that Muslims to this day are being discriminated against because of the decisions they make regarding their hijabs.

Does the Hijab Hold Muslim Women Back?

Often times people feel that the hijab holds women back from opportunities. Cases like Hani Khan’s have set this idea into stone, so to speak. However, this is not the case. If the hijab held women back, then there would not be successful hijabis. I would like to point two out to demonstrate this.

Saheela Ibraheem with President Barack Obama and the First Lady, Michelle Obama.

Saheela Ibraheem with President Barack Obama and the First Lady, Michelle Obama.

1. Saheela Ibraheem is a Harvard student of Nigerian descent. She was accepted into thirteen colleges–six that were Ivy Leagues–at the age of fifteen. Harvard is a dream for most high school students older than Saheela, but she managed to get accepted and now attends there–with the hijab on her head. She has met the president (pictured) and was even in the Top 50 Smartest Teenagers list. The hijab did not hold Saheela back from achieving her dreams. She is one on Harvard’s youngest students and is set to graduate this year, at the age of 19, with a degree in Biology.

Tawakkol Karman with her Nobel Peace Prize award.

Tawakkol Karman with her Nobel Peace Prize award.

2. Tawakkol Karman is the first Arab women to have received the Nobel Peace Prize. She lives in Yemen and is an activist. She received the Prize with three other women “for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work,” the Nobel committee said. She did it all–you guessed it–with the hijab on. Tawakkol won the Nobel Prize, at the age of 32. That a Muslim can hold this position and with it the great honor of being the youngest, is a feat to be celebrated–especially because she managed to do it all with the hijab on her head.



I interviewed a Muslim hijabi in Baruch College, pursuing her Bachelor’s Dregree in Finance. She said that even as she lives in New York, she is not held back by the hijab in any shape or form. Listen to some of it below.

It is clear that the hijab does not hold women back. It is people’s separate decisions and choices to wear the hijab or not. It is not up to the West to decide what liberates a woman and what does not. A hijabi Muslim woman becoming successful is not a surprise. There are many others who have achieved success–some more that can be found here. What the West likes to portray is not the true case and when one begins to research everything for themselves, they see the truth as to what the hijab truly is and why people wear it, as well as the beauty that comes from wearing it. Often times because of the actions of individuals who follow a certain religion or group, the whole group is hurt. However, the distinction must be made in order to be truly fair and just with everyone involved. For Muslims, discrimination has become a way of life. In a just and free America, and especially in a diverse place such as New York City, this should not be the case.

  1.  Kahf, Mohja. “From Her Royal Body the Robe Was Removed.” Veil : Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics. By Jennifer Heath. Berkeley, CA, USA: U of California, 2008. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 25 March 2015.
  2. The Holy Quran, Surah Noor – Verse 31.
  3.  Ridouani, Driss. “The Representation of Arabs and Muslims in Western Media.” RUTA: Revista Universitària De Treballs Acadèmics 3 (2011): Web.
  4. Ridouani.

Comments are closed.