The attire of Muslim women varies widely in style, colour and meaning. A complex demonstration of religious faith, personal purity and cultural observation, the long dresses that Muslim women wear have multiple layers of meaning to be understood. Learning about the diverse perspectives on this wardrobe requires looking at the types of dresses and their complimentary head coverings, then touching on the importance of these garments within the context of different Islamic nations.
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Conservative and Strict Dress
Several forms of long dresses are found among Muslim women. The abaya ("cloak") is a traditionally solid black, long, loosefitting dress worn as the national female public attire in countries like Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. This robe-like fabric is called a chador in Iran and a burka in Afghanistan. The purpose of wearing this attire originates from the Koran, the Islamic religious text, which instructs both men and women to act conservatively by dressing reservedly, lowering their gaze and maintaining sovereign respect for their deity, Allah. For women, the goal of modesty means avoiding flaunting and suggesting any dazzling hint of her female figure. Even swimming costumes for Muslim women come in full-length trousers and long-sleeved tops with head coverings.
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Westernised and Modernized Attire
While many Muslim women wear the strict and conservative burka and abaya garments, some Muslim women in less traditional cultures choose to maintain their modesty (with a long dress) without fully abandoning their femininity. Depending on the culture and country, some modern Muslim women wear much more attention-grabbing clothing like long tunics boasting the fashionable and feminine flair of embroidered decorations on the front of long black tunics. A more bold Muslim women's clothing website, Artizara, even showcases tunics and tapered jackets with form-fitting torso and bust lines, sequinned formal dresses and glamorous, colourful jewellery. While these clothes and accessories appear unadventurous in comparison to the Western world's revealing women's attire, they are several degrees more daring than the clothing required in Islamic countries that enforce appropriate dress with their religious police force.
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The abaya dress covers a woman's entire body, excluding the hands, feet and face, so in some cultures it is paired with a head covering. The niqāb is a conservative head covering that conceals the entire head and face, except the eyes. A more liberal head shawl similar to this is the hijab (also called the jilbab in some countries), most commonly referring to the veil that covers a woman's head, hair, ears, neck and sweeps across to drape over her chest for modesty. According to Bodman and Tohidi's book, "Women in Muslim Societies: Diversity with Unity," the word hijab literally translates to mean "protection" or "Protector." The word can also be translated as "veil" or "cover" and can more broadly express the woman's modesty and privacy.
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Differing perspectives reveal that wearing the covering of the hijab paired with the floor-length, loosefitting dress can host an array of meanings, ranging from respectful religious reverence by free personal choice to the oppression of culturally and politically enforced isolation. In her 2004 New Yorker article, Jane Kramer suggests that much of the pressure for women to submit to Muslim law comes from close male relatives such as brothers and fathers, as was seen in the backlash of the Muslim community in France, immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Kramer writes, "For Muslim boys, transforming a teenage sister into a docile and observant Muslim virgin became a rite of passage."
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Forced compliance is not always the case, and many Muslim women choose to wear the veil for the feeling of liberation from sexual harassment and being valued for only their appearance. The critical difference is the freedom a Muslim woman has to choose what she wears. In fact, the freedom to reject the hijab and abaya isn't always the choice being fought for. In some cultures, Muslim communities are forced to act against their desires to live conservatively by wearing the long coverings. While some nations mandate that their women wear the hijab, other countries like Turkey, Tunisia (northernmost country in Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea) and Tajikistan prohibit veils in public like universities or governmental settings.