“Modesty”: unpacking the baggage

My inbox is still kinda conservo-Muslim-ish. I still get emails from a number of Muslim orgs and businesses. Including Shukr.

Shukr's "fitwalking skirt."  Not sure what kind of exercise I could do in that---even walking quickly would probably be rather challenging.

Shukr’s “fitwalking skirt.” Not sure what kind of exercise I could do in that—even walking quickly would probably be rather challenging.

Clearly, Shukr is rather proud of their line of “modest” sportswear for women. I clicked on the link… and sighed.

Move with modesty.” Trademarked, no less. Wow.

Hoodies to the knees, sweatsuit material “fitwalking” and even “powerwalking” long skirts… oh, did that bring back memories.

Because I and a good friend of mine used to do a lot of fairly “active” things while wearing conservative hijab. I well remember hiking, skating and boating in long, heavy skirts or jilbabs—even swimming in lakes in jilbabs or long dresses and headscarves. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy or comfortable (and in some cases, it wasn’t very safe either). Though, at that time we were less worried about ease or comfort or safety than about our kids, as well as community gossip.

We wanted our kids—especially our daughters—to know that hijab does not need to limit women. We were concerned that if they picked up the idea that hijab comes with a long list of “can’t do this/go there/be involved in that” then they wouldn’t want to wear it. So, we felt that it was on us to set an active example. For sure, no one else in our conservative community was likely to. We exercised in those conservative clothes, and tried to ignore the disapproving glances and the sideways comments about how we evidently hadn’t really understood the “spirit of hijab.”


At that time, if I had seen Shukr sportswear being sold anywhere, I would have questioned the practicality of its construction, but that wouldn’t have been my focus. I would have felt vindicated. Because if there was enough of a market for selling hijabi sportswear, then this must mean that there were more than a few crazy converts out there who thought that exercise is compatible with hijab.

But now, I look at this stuff and think: you mean someone thinks that women should exercise in stuff like this in order to preserve their modesty?

I’m not sure how the skirts would work even for walking—at least, walking as someone would walk when they are trying to get exercise (or even, to get somewhere in a hurry). Even wide skirts have a way of snapping around the ankles and slowing you down, even when you are walking on even ground. And anything with polyester in it gets static-y in the colder weather.

And hoodies down around the knees… sigh. Well, you’d sure work up a sweat in those, I suppose. And if you wear them with track pants, at least they’d allow for a wider range of motion than sports jilbabs. There is that.

I guess this sort of gear might work for those thin, bird-boned petite young women that the Islamic fashion industry primarily caters to. At least, for less vigorous sports. But I somehow doubt that it would work as well for larger women, or for pregnant women, or for women who have thyroid problems.

What does “modesty” even mean? Why should “modesty” mean that women (somehow, it’s always girls and women) have to be slowed down, have their range of motion limited, and risk overheating? Or be discouraged from exercising at all, because they get too hot and uncomfortable in hijab, and they don’t have access to a women’s-only gym?

I think back to when it all seemed to make some sort of sense. It basically made sense to us because we had been told that hijab is an obligation on all Muslim women, period. And we were quite aware that in the eyes of many conservatives, even exercising in hijab was compromising its spirit. Therefore, no matter how uncomfortable we might get, or how impractical exercising in hijab might be, we knew that we had pretty much already stretched the limits of what is doable, so we made the best of it, and hoped that we hadn’t gone too far over the limit.

We were told (and we believed) that hijab is about respecting women, valuing women, and liberating them from the tyranny of the objectifying male gaze. And that above all, hijab is an act of worship undertaken for God. So, it was very difficult for us to ask ourselves honest questions about what we were experiencing. Because this was supposed to be liberating, after all, so if it wasn’t, then we mustn’t be doing it right. And whatever problems hijab might bring us, since it was all for God, then no amount of inconvenience or suffering was too little.

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  1. #1 by Deeba on January 19, 2014 - 10:29 pm

    Great Post. I remember when I converted I was callously told “just go to a woman’s gym or exercise at home.” It was like my love of outdoor running didn’t matter and I didn’t really even have the right to a form of exercise I loved and had been doing on a regular basis for over ten years. If I want to run, I need to get up before dawn just so I can exercise while it’s still somewhat cool. If I want a gym, I need to pay double for a woman’s gym. The list goes on. Not to mention even if I go out wearing full hijab, it’s still immodest (according to some people) to be running on the street where people can see me. I can just imagine the response if people tried to apply the same expectations to a Muslim man!

    I’ve always thought hijab would be a whole lot easier (at least for me) to come to terms with if it was thought about in a similar way that men wearing shirts is thought about. While a man is allowed to not wear a shirt, he would not go out in public in most cases not wearing a one. Showing up to work sans shirt, unless your job is a lifeguard or something would be highly inappropriate. However, if a man is working outside, at the beach, exercising or something similar there would be no problem if he removed his shirt. There’s a recognition that different clothing is needed for different circumstances. It’s always seemed to me that a similar understanding of hijab would be a whole lot more humane and compassionate. I often dream of a day when wearing a hijab to the office doesn’t mean I’m expected to wear it when going for a run or swim.

    • #2 by xcwn on January 19, 2014 - 11:40 pm

      Yes, that kind of approach would be a lot more workable. And at the time, I should have asked myself why even the possibility of such an approach would have been dismissed out of hand. But we had been taught to see our bodies as sexual objects in all circumstances—even in obviously “unsexy” situations. We learned to stress about things such as sleeves riding up and perhaps displaying part of our lower arm if we raised our hands above our heads for any reason. Or the “immodesty” supposedly involved in sitting on the floor with our legs extended, or reclining (so much for any sort of yoga…), even if we were fully clothed. And all the time, we were convinced that such “modesty” protected us from being seen as sex objects. It was madness.

  2. #3 by threekidsandi on January 20, 2014 - 2:01 am

    I lost fifty pounds when I stopped wearing Islamic dress and behaving modestly. I run with my children.

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