Hi, I’m Cecily and I’m an author. My latest book is a piece about world religions. Along with ordering hundreds of reference books from the library and pouring over the Qur’an and hadiths, I wanted to experience a little of how it felt to be a Muslim woman. So, I traded in my tank-top and jeans for a tradition Islamic head-covering, the hijab.
I tried to follow my normal schedule as a stay-at-home mom to a 2 ½ year old. So, on Thursday night, I decided to go to Zumba class. Zumba-ing in a floor-length skirt, polyester sweater, and head-covering, was that even possible? The hijab I’d bought was marketed for “athletic use,” so I intended to see if I’d gotten my money’s worth.
I received some aghast looks as I walked onto the hardwood floor. I could see women’s brains scrambling as they tried to reconcile the sexy, salsa moves of Zumba with a hijab.
The instructor, trying not to too obviously look at me, asked the class, “Will anyone be offended if I turn the music up loud. I could try something different?”
“I’m fine with loud,” I quickly assured the instructor.
She uncomfortably pushed the play button and rollicking lyrics filled the room. But she warmed up soon enough. About a half-hour in when a song with some suggestive spoken lines came on, the Zumba instructor demonstrated a hip-swaying move without batting an eyelash.
There were only women in the room. Zumba is heavily female anyway, but we often have one or two men in the class. This time, one man entered for a moment and quickly exited. I wondered if he was trying to be respectful of the hijab.
My feet caught on my skirt as I chased back and forth. The high kicks were impossible and my sweater kept riding up. I tried to hold onto the sweater with one hand and use the other hand to keep my elastic waist-band from being ripped off every time my foot caught in my skirt. I hadn’t gone to all the trouble of covering every last strand of hair just to show my midriff to the world.
The skirt twisted around my legs. Now the Islamic dress code wasn’t just inconveniently covering my skin, it was restraining me. Luckily, I was in an indoor gym and the fans kept things fairly cool. Outdoors on a summer day I would have overheated in minutes working out that hard. I don’t ever sweat much, but I’m sure some women’s hijabs would have been dripping in sweat by that point.
How do you stay fit in a Muslim country like Iran where hijabs are mandatory, I wondered. Or what if a woman is required to wear the even more restrictive burqa? I was told that in many Muslim countries gyms have separate male and female workout times or even separate gyms for men and women.
I thought about this segregation for a while. Curves, an American gym for women, is incredibly popular. The entire gym is geared towards female workout routines. And women that might feel intimidated by working out next to the 200lb bodybuilder can ease into a more comfortable workout routine there. I, on the other hand, spent a significant amount of time working out at military base gyms. Military gyms are swamped by men and I was always outnumbered. Many times I thought it might be nice to have a female-only gym.
Yet, in a society where men are the prominent force, like almost all nations where Islam is the dominant religion, segregating women never leads to separate, but equal institutions. Men are the political leaders in Saudi Arabia, so if women don’t get to interact with them, then women won’t get a say in government. But an even greater issue than civics is the Islamic restrictions on women in family law. “Honor killings” are alive and well in the Muslim world even in secularized nations like Turkey. Rape is rampant and rapists are rarely punished.
I’d argue the passionate Islamic emphasis on modesty leads to blaming women for all extra-marital sex—consensual and otherwise. I’d also argue it leads to women being imprisoned in the private sphere. Men walk freely in public looking where they will. If modesty is the supreme virtue, what better way to keep men from lusting after women than to lock “your” women up. According to the Qur’an, women are not even allowed to leave the house without the permission of their husband or other male relative.
What do you think? Do mandatory hijab laws lead to blaming women for others’ actions? Are “honor killings” the natural extension of blame-shifting? When modesty becomes the highest virtue, do women become prisoners in their own homes?
Check back for Bikini to Hijab Day 4 when I go to a Mosque and get to speak to some wonderful real-life women who grew up in Islam. Many are recent immigrants to the U.S. as well.