Muslim Women Dress:
the Media Debate

The way Muslim women dress has been the focus of debate in the media for many years now, and a particular focus on the headscarf, continues unabated.

The scarf is seen by many as a symbol of oppression, by others as a symbol of freedom.

On another level the way Muslim women dress is viewed as encapsulating the struggle of patriarchy versus feminism, or Christianity and Islam. But things are not always as simple as they seem and the truth lies somewhere in between these extremes.

Above: Chinese Muslim Girl Holding a Harry Potter Book by Anne Darling

In 2007 I travelled extensively throughout China, during which time I encountered a moderate form of Islam and visited many all-women mosques. Their existence came as a surprise, partly because Islam in China, a country which is officially atheist, in itself is little heard of, but also because women in China can become imams or spiritual leaders to the women in their community. This situation has existed for a long time in China but but there is no other country in the Islamic world which allows a women to become a female imam.

It seems to me that society needs to move away from stereotypes of Muslim women, and make a real attempt to understand them as people if we are to understand Islam itself. This five-part article is my attempt to show how the media portray the way Muslim women dress, starting back in the 19th century, and how our view has been shaped through painting and photography, with the resulting stereotypes that persist to the present day in the popular media and advertising.

I also explore briefly the popular press before looking at attempts by contemporary photographers to shed light on Islam and how they have consciously or unconsciously dealt with stereotypes, including the work of artists living and working in the west and the ways which many photographers are now attempting to go beyond these stereotypes. Finally, I talk about Muslim women in China, and the unique role that a female Muslim imam has.

It is my hope that the articles here will contribute to the ongoing dialogue concerning Muslim women dress in a positive way that will contribute to greater understanding, a broadening of our view, and greater tolerance.

Part 1: The Origins of Stereotypical Imagery in Art


Orientalism is a term which was used as early as 1769, and which "denotes something... associated with or characteristic of Asia or Asians". In general usage today, it encompasses a train of thought dating from the 19th century that divides the world in two, namely the East and the West, and in which the West is dominant.

Edward Said, well-known for his critique of Orientalism, claimed that this divide was due to a tradition of romanticising images of Asia and the Middle East, and that this Euro-centric view helped to support Europe and America's colonial and imperial ambitions.

Above: A Painting by Jean-Leon Gerome

Orientalism is also the name of a genre of European art and literature from the 19th century. One of the leading Orientalist painters from this era is Jean-Leon Gerome who produced paintings with such great detail that they almost have a photographic quality. Gerome's work dealt in stereotypes about Muslim women (see the above image), emphasising mystery and inaccessibility through the way the Muslim women dress which was one of the fascinations the West held for the Middle East.

Other artists such as Delacroix, Sargent and Matisse, also painted the female figure as the quintessence of the mystery and exoticism with which they experienced unknown lands.

Western stereotypes in photography

With the advent of photography, Europeans began to travel with their cameras to Muslim countries and to document the daily life of local people and their traditions.

Above: Vintage Postcard of a Moorish Dancer by Jean Geiser

In Algeria for example the Colonists made postcards which showed the way Muslim women dress using props that the photographer included in the pictures, making the images seem more real. They were imaginative constructs which seemed authentic in the same way that Gerome created his Orientalist scenes using Islamic architecture and material props to authenticate his works.

For the western audience, images of Muslim women were thereby eroticised and at the same time she was seen as submissive but inaccessible.

The Veil in Advertising

These stereotypes based on the way Muslim women dress persist to the present day and underlie many images seen in advertising. The photograph below left shows an American advertisement for perfume. On the left of the image is a sombre-faced woman wearing a veil next to which an American woman is seen laughing and clearly enjoying herself.

This kind of stereotypical image helps to maintain the idea that Muslim women have to submit to Islamic laws which deny them the freedom that American women believe they have.

Above: Muslim Women in Advertising

In the second advertisement, a photograph of a veiled woman is used to sell President's Choice couscous soup. She fulfils the requirements of the western stereotype of the mysterious woman hiding behind her veil while clearly a sexual object for male consumption with her heavily made up eyes and alluring gaze.

Above: Muslim woman in an advert for couscous

The Veil as a Symbol of Oppression

The veil today has therefore become a symbol to represent any Muslim woman. Many people think the way Muslim women dress is oppressive and that the veil in particular is unnecessary, something forced upon the women.

This view is not confined to westerners but also includes Muslims such as Amir Normandi, a student of Harper College in the US who caused controversy with his exhibition in 2005, in which he said he was “trying to open the window from the Islam of narrow view to a wider view.

Above: Image by Amir Normandi

One of the images showed a woman covered from the waist up in a burqa but wearing nothing from the waist down. Another image (above) showed a face imprisoned by a scarf of the kind many Muslim women wear to cover their heads. The exhibition was taken down after some female Muslim students said they found it offensive as the pictures portrayed them as prisoners of their own religion.

In fact nowhere in the holy book of Islam, the Qu'ran, does it state that Muslim women dress code must include the veiling of women and in most Muslim societies, including the huizu, the largest ethnic minority in China, veiling is the choice of each individual and is considered a sign of modesty.

Moreover, this need for modesty is not restricted to women only; both muslim men and women are enjoined to guard their modesty as the following quote from the Qu'ran demonstrates: "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them". (Qu'ran 24:30-31).

Above: Member of the Tuareg Tribe Wearing the Tagelmust

Generally, women wear the veil more than men but in some societies men wear the veil as well. An example of this is the Tuareg tribe in North Africa (see above) whose veil denotes status - the higher the rank, the more a man covers himself.

The tagelmust as it is called is part veil, part turban. It is only worn by adult males and never removed in the presence of anyone other than close family. Touareg men are known to cover their facial features (particularly the nose and mouth) with their hands if the tagelmust is  not available.

Follow the link to read Muslim Women Dress: Part 2 which covers the following topics:

  • Veiling in the West
  • Muslim Women Clothing in the Popular Press
  • Muslim Women Clothing & the Taliban
  • Muslim Women Clothing & the Veil
  • Recommended Reading

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