Why we — Somali or Muslim women — cover our bodies in different ways is a question I have been asked as long as I could understand English. From about 13 years ago to this day I continue to hear it in one form or another. Below is a list of questions that I have received repeatedly through my Ask a Somali email. Even my Somali female friends are calling me and are wondering why I haven’t written about this subject yet.
“Why do you cover your head? Did your husband tell you to cover it?”
“Why are there different styles of clothing for Somali women?”
“Can you explain the various kinds of clothing and coverings for Muslim women? I think there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about this.”
“Yesterday I saw an African woman with a face mask. I’m more interested in why there are different styles. Are Muslims like Christians and Jews with sects that are ultra-conservative?”
Nobody told me to wear my headscarf when I left home this morning, yet here it is on my head. There can be social pressure on women to dress a certain way, and it’s always a balancing act between what you want to wear and what is socially appropriate, but to think that the headscarves you see are something forced upon the women wearing them is very mistaken. Ninety-nine percent of the time it is voluntary.
Some people are really concerned for me. I’ve been told by some that I don’t have to wear this if I don’t want to. I think they believe I am oppressed. This is America, you wear what you want to wear, they say. I reply, I am wearing what I’ve always worn. It would be irresponsible of me to say that there aren’t places where things are bad for women, where arbitrary morality rules are enforced by government-paid thugs, and where fear of men is an acceptable substitute for fear of God. It’s important to remember, though, that we don’t live there, and what people wear here, they wear by choice. This is my choice, and the women you see around town with their heads covered? It was their choice, too.
As for there being different sects in Islam, that is a topic for a much longer and in-depth column. People write libraries full of books on the topic. What I can tell you is that the divisions that do exist have very little to do with how people dress, and most of the time, unless you ask, it’s difficult to determine where somebody falls on the social/political/religious map, and which school of thought they agree with.
It is not so much about different sects in Islam, but rather the individual’s interpretation of what modesty means to them. Some of us are very ultra-conservative and take modesty to the extreme. They might wear gloves, socks, heavy garments and cover their face so that the only part showing is their eyes. In their mind, modesty is of the utmost importance and they want to make sure they are doing all they can to follow and stay on the right path. So to them, if their interpretation of what the Qur’an (the holy book of Islam) says is to literally cover their body head to toe, then that is what they will do. The “face mask” that one question writer saw is a good example of this. It’s called a Niqab or Indhashareer in Somali and, while the overwhelming majority of Islamic scholars agree that it isn’t required, some women wear it as a way of being extra modest. They would rather overdo it than underdo it. And as long as they don’t tell me to wear my clothes just like them, I love them no matter what they’re wearing. Niqab is tradition and practice in some countries and it is not a requirement in Islam. I just want to make sure we’re clear about this.
As for the variety of styles of head (and body) covering, my answer can be summed up in two words: women’s clothes. We wear different colors and styles of Hijab (the blanket term for all modesty garments) for the same reason we wear different colors and styles of everything else.
Believe it or not, we are not a homogenous people. If you get three Somalis arguing you’ll hear five opinions. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that we don’t all act or dress the same.