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Clothing

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Clothing

    In Muslim countries, a person's clothing may reflect practical, religious, social, cultural, and political considerations. For centuries, Muslims typically wore long, flowing garments. Today some Muslims prefer Western-style clothing to traditional attire, and others opt for modern variations of customary dress.

    Practical Functions.

    Practicality has been a significant factor in the clothing choices of Muslims. Long, loose-fitting garments have many advantages in the hot, dry climates of the Middle East. Covering the body provides protection from sun exposure and allows perspiration to remain on the skin, which keeps the body moist. In addition, traditional Arab head coverings, such as those worn in Saudi Arabia, shield the head and neck from wind and sand. Of course, clothing varies according to geographic region. Muslims in mountainous areas wear woolen garments for warmth.

    Traditional styles have other functional advantages. Long, flowing garments enable wearers to sit and stoop without compromising modesty. Loose fitting clothes do not impede work. Women often tie back the sleeves of their garments in order to accomplish their household chores.

    The availability of tools and equipment has also influenced Muslim clothing styles. Traditional looms produced large rectangular pieces of fabric for robes and outer wraps. The introduction of the sewing machine enabled the clothing industry to modify dress styles.

    Religious, Social, and Cultural Functions.

    Islamic clothing serves a variety of religious functions. The Qur'an stresses modesty for both men and women, and Muslims generally regard the covering of the body as a way to conform to this teaching. Traditionally, the degree of covering increases if an individual is in public or with members of the opposite sex. Specific areas of the body are regarded as sexual in nature, and as such, must be hidden. Men cover their bodies from their waists to their knees, cover their heads, and don outerwear in public. Women traditionally conceal their hair and neck and cover themselves from the neck to ankles. Arm coverings extend to the wrists. Muslims believe that a woman demonstrates virtue by wearing such dress. In some parts of the Muslim world, women also wear an outer layer that covers the face or a burqa (face mask).

    Another religious function of Muslim clothing relates to the hajj. During the ceremonies, men wear two seamless lengths of white cloth and a waistband. This garment signifies that all believers are equal. Men do not cover their heads while praying during the hajj, but they cut their hair or shave their heads on completing this Pillar of Islam. Muslims from India and Pakistan often wear a green cloth to cover their heads after the hajj.

    Dress may signify status. In some Muslim societies, a woman traditionally wore certain colors to reflect her marital status. Red or orange embroidery on a garment indicated that a woman was married, and blue stitching showed that she was single. Veiling—the wearing of loose-fitting clothing and/or a headscarf—has been a custom of Muslim women for centuries. It originally meant distinction and honor. Upper-class women wore the veil to separate themselves from the lower classes.

    Some Muslims wear non-traditional garments, reflecting the economic and cultural impact of the West. In urban areas, women may dress in contemporary fashions based on styles originating in Europe or elsewhere. Shoes and stockings take the place of sandals or slippers. For some Muslims, traditional dress is associated with an older, conservative, rural status. Men, for example, may refuse to wear the jallabiyah (robe) because of its lower class connotations.

    Muslims have various perspectives regarding Western dress for women. Some men view modern clothing styles, such as sleeveless garments or miniskirts on women, as a threat to their virtue. Men often harass women who wear modern attire in public. Some women prefer Western-style clothing because they believe that it enables them to express their individuality and freedom. By contrast, others argue that veiling protects them from being treated as sexual objects. They see the hijab (veil), not as a sign of oppression, but as a symbol of devotion, discipline, and respect. These Muslim women believe they are more liberated than their Western counterparts who wear uncomfortable clothes to meet their culture's expectations of beauty.

    Clothing styles in the Islamic world also include unique ethnic variations. Some notable historic examples are the Moroccan bridal headdress, the Palestinian embroidered jacket, and the Lebanese tantur, a tall silver cylinder with a flowing veil worn on the head by Druze women. In Malaysia, Islamic dress distinguishes Malays from Indian and Chinese Malaysians.

    Political Functions.

    Islamic dress may also reflect a political agenda. Some Muslims don traditional clothing as a way of applying religious principles to society, and others use this type of dress to demonstrate their commitment to replace a secular political system with an Islamic one. During the 1970s, for example, Muslim women in Iran wore traditional clothing to show their opposition to the government of the shah. After Islamic revolutionaries seized control of the country, the new religious government made traditional dress a requirement.

    Over the past century, Muslims have often worn various articles of clothing to display political loyalty. Certain colors and specific garments have been worn to reflect a variety of causes. For example, in Palestine and Jordan, men who wear the kaffiyah (head cloth) show support for Palestinian nationalism. Wearing the colors of the Palestinian flag also has political symbolism. Dress may indicate membership in an association or party. Members of the Taliban—the Islamic fundamentalists who ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s—often wear turbans. See also Body Decoration; Hair and Beards; Hijab; Modesty.

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