Dressing Modestly As A Westerner In A Muslim Country

I think I may have mentioned before that last month I went on a glorious vacation to Northern Africa. This truly was a trip of a lifetime which included Marrakech and the Agafi Dessert. Morocco did not disappoint. It was everything that I thought it would be and more. The podcast above is about an hour long travelogue of my journey which includes some fascinating audio. It’s a pretty cool way to do some earphone traveling.

I had one hell of a time packing, though. I knew that I was going to Africa, which would be hot, but I was also breaking up the trip by spending some time in the UK, which not only was going to be much cooler but required a different dress code entirely. I believe whole-heartedly that as a traveler, it is your duty as a citizen of the world to respect the cultures that you are there to experience. As a woman going to a Muslim country, I knew that shorts weren’t going to cut it.

Of all the Muslim countries, Morocco is one of, if not the most, laid back in terms of dress codes for women. Still, I had no desire to offend anyone in the place that I was visiting, regardless of temperature or personal beliefs. In the end I chose to wear a maxi dress for the days that I spent there, in addition to various scarves that I could cover my head and shoulders with. I don’t think anyone would have expected me to wear a burka, but I wasn’t about to show much skin either.

Modesty is a virtue in all Judeo-Christian religions, and plenty of others religions, too. Muslim women wear the hijab not just out of devotion to God, but often times to be liberated, as well. That’s the word that many Muslim women I talked to about this issue described it – a liberation from beauty, from objectification. An Islamic woman is judged on what she says and who she is, not on how gorgeous her hair is or how perfect her body is. Sounds great! But (I thought to myself), shouldn’t you still be able to see all that if my shoulders are showing?

It is so difficult not to impose my western beliefs about equality and sexuality onto a situation like this. In my view, of all the things God could care about me doing, showing off my hair seems to be the least of it. Am I a good person? Do I do good in the world? Do I put others needs before my own? Am I charitable both to those I love and to those I don’t know? The way I look, covered or not, in my view isn’t on God’s radar. From a practical standpoint, the long dress and scarf worked. I never got sunburned, the cotton of my dresses offered coverage but was cool and the scarf protected my head from the sun’s glare. If the hijab is a mandate sprung out of practicality in terms of weather, I get it. However, it was hard for my heart not to go out to those women on the streets of Marrakech walking around in the intense heat wearing black burkas. I just knew they must have been roasting. It was really hard to buy the “liberated” agenda from that perspective. It was really difficult for me not to get on my Western soapbox and remind them that the Qur’an had been written by men and that had the prophet been a woman, things would probably be very different in their world.

However, as convoluted as I think their notions about temptation and modesty are, it was absolutely not the place for me to voice my feminist opinions. I was in their home, so to speak, and it was up to me to represent America in a way that was respectful and thoughtful by following the house rules.

On that front, I must say that every single person I met, male and female, were both kind and generous. I rethought much of what I believed to be true about Islam and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to do so.  I know the people I met appreciated that I dressed in a way that they felt was appropriate and were not shy about thanking me for doing so. You would have been shocked at what I saw some women wearing in the souks: short shorts and halter tops. Yes, as a woman you should be able to dress anyway you want. But, as a traveller to a country where modesty is so important, how can anyone be so blatantly disrespectful of the obvious traditions all around them?

In the end I reconciled that if I truly believe that the way one dresses has nothing to do with anything, then I must also put down my judgments about what these particular women wear as well. Covered or not, it really has nothing to do with who they are as people, and maybe that was the point all along.

Photo via my husband, Matt Freeman

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