Some of you may or may not know, but I am a hijabi. Why this is relevant, I don’t know but a lot of people seem to be very surprised when they find out. In any case, this post is focused on how the idea of modesty plays out in the religio-socio-cultural context of the Gambia (homeland and diaspora). I was initially going to write about the hijab and how it is viewed within society and all the rules we impose on each other regarding it but to be honest, that felt boring and rinsed out.
I think that the hijab can have personal significance for the individual, like it does for me, but that there is nothing about it that makes it inherently special or attention-worthy or ‘different’. How is adorning oneself in an olive chiffon scarf different from reading Ayat Al-Kursi before stepping out of the house or whispering “Bismillah” before your first sip of morning coffee? Aren’t they all, in essence, acts of worship?
I believe that we create a dichotomy; a false distinction between people using the Madonna v Virgin formula and we use ideas of modesty to police and shame women. There needs to be a realisation that modesty is a spectrum, that it’s as personal as can be and that it does not have a ‘look’. It is what it is.
Below, have a read of a diverse group of Gambian women as they talk through their journeys with these ideas..
“In 2003, both my older sister and mother started wearing the hijab. The copycat that I was (still I’m – low-key) also started wearing the hijab, without understanding the why and how of it. I was in my very early teens, had just hit puberty and really knew nothing about what I wanted in/out of life. Interestingly though, this decision lasted for about 7 years and then I stopped wearing the hijab. Why? Well…Sometime in 2009, I experienced the greatest culture shock I have experienced to this date. I was unceremoniously uprooted from the Gambia, away from life as I knew it and thrown into the lion’s den (it really wasn’t that bad, I’m just dramatic) i.e. a foreign country, of course without any friends and I was literally unable to communicate with people because well, you know, language barriers. I felt lost in this new environment. Also, for the first time, I found myself having to explain (to white people *insert eye roll emoji*) why I wore a hijab and why it was a part of my lifestyle. This became too tedious, really, because white people know how to not mind business. Anyway, the longer I stayed in this foreign country, the more it felt like home and I became more assimilated into the society. I adopted this new way of life and somehow, the hijab did not ‘fit in’. Bear in mind that modesty was really all I knew until this point in my life. This was also at a time when my faith was probably at its lowest and I was going through major identity crises. So, my hijab became a turban, which then somehow slipped off my head and landed on the ground. Because I had encountered old age very early on in life, I was unable to bend down and pick it up so that was that. By the way, this happened around October 2010.Between 2010 and now, my struggle with modesty has been a tough one. It’s been a bit of roller coaster ride, filled with more downs or lows than ups.
At this point, I believe it would be important to note that the term ‘modesty’ is not new to Gambians. However, in my opinion, modesty or modest dressing as we now sell it is a new hip term ascribed to anyone who wears long sleeved shirts or blouses, with long pants/skirts/maxi dresses or just to anyone who wears a turban. This is no different from what our parents and grandparents referred to as modest or yiiw. The only major difference would be the covering of the hair especially by young women, which was frowned upon in the past because ‘aaye gaaf’. Anyway, back to modesty and me. Post 2010 was just weaves and wigs for me, with instances of me taking a break and wearing turbans for a few days and sometimes weeks. However, a year ago, I made the conscious decision to start wearing turbans again -full-time. This decision was not influenced by my faith or anything like that. It just became a part of my aesthetic. Although, gradually, it somehow rekindled my faith and now has me reconsidering wearing the hijab again. Personally, I believe that modesty is very subjective. My modesty is greatly determined by what mood I wake up in. It could be a skimpy dress today (I said what I said!) and then a full hijab the next day. Because I believe it is a state of mind, I do not feel immodest in either outfit. Understandably, this may not be the case for a lot of women out there. In addition, I believe that as Gambians, our idea of modesty is more influenced by what other people think of our outfits, than it is influenced by what we think of ourselves and the things we wear.“
Anonymous, The Gambia
“I started dressing more modestly in September of 2012. It was around the time I had begun to explore what religion meant to me and for me, instead of simply following what I had been raised to believe. So, I wrapped my hair in a turban, and wore longer selves and full-length pants. In the beginning, I had friends and family come up to me and ask whether I was a hijabi or not and why. If I said no, then they would ask what my goal was with a nameless covering, and if I said yes, I would be asked why I wasn’t being modest enough. My personal path confused more people than I could count which eventually started to confuse me. This forced me, for a very brief stint, to call myself a hijabi even if that word felt foreign to my heart (still does) and was not congruous to my beliefs, just to stop confusing everybody and fit myself within an acceptable mold. But calling myself a hijabi for peace of mind purposes became more burdensome because people now felt like they were entitled to tell me how to dress, who to talk to, where to go and even what to touch. So, I finally decided to live my truth and make peace with who I was (and wasn’t).
I said a firm no whenever I was called a hijabi and shook off the odd comments. I wasn’t trying to be modest to be pleasing to my parents and family and everyone else who knew me, and I wasn’t wearing a turban as a fashion statement, I was and still continue to attempt modesty for my growth, and for God. I stopped placing a large value on what was socially acceptable for me to look like and stopped looking at modesty as an either or. I remember what I struggled with the most (and still do) was dressing to downplay my curves. What people fail to realize is that modesty is a spectrum and not a one-size fits all cloth, it is not always booty shorts or an abaya. We all have different versions of what our closeness to God looks like and no one has authority over someone else’s path.”
“Often times, I get questions like “why do you walk with your head bowed? Why don’t you make eye contact? Why are you distant/shy? Why are you so firm with your decisions? Why this why that”. I haven’t really been able to answer these questions satisfactory until recently after deep digging and understanding of myself. Mostly all I would say is “I don’t know, guess I have always been like this”. I come from a very religious home with firm beliefs and worship you cannot compromise. I still vividly remember always seeing my dad walk around with his head bowed and my mum was always fully covered hence the epitome of modesty. My siblings and I are the kids yunj yareh bott. My mum communicated to us with her eyes and we understand thus she spoke a little. To date we blame her for our shy/reserved nature but that’s just on the side. So I was governed by these principles throughout my teens without even knowing why I did some of them because out here you just obey, there is no room for questions. Now that I’m “adulting”, do I see still abide by these? The answer is yes! For the same reasons? Nope! Like I pointed out in the beginning of this write up, there has been a lot of changes, thorough digging and deeper understanding of myself and the things I do. My parents did teach me well. Till today these are things that wrought modesty for me and they govern every sphere of my life.
Modesty is about the dress code, yes! But goes beyond skin deep. It goes beyond wearing free clothes and a scarf over your head, this is about the way you present yourself, how you act in the midst of your peers, adults, your parents, and how you interact with people. Most importantly modesty is in your thoughts, at least for me. I slack at some of these sometimes but that doesn’t stop me from identifying as a modest person, as I’m just human and a work in progress. I don’t wear the hijab, but that doesn’t mean I let myself loose too and this is subjective. I remember this one time I went to the tailor and he was asking “fumo harr sipa b” and the person I was with said “kee ibadu la” the lady on the side asked “ana kala b” and I smiled. For modesty is not something to explain or defend, it’s loud so it should speak itself. It lives in your veins and directs your thoughts. Till today I object the idea of peer pressure, this is an argument for another day. Modesty means owning your beliefs and taking responsibility for your actions, it might be different for everyone else, but for me it’s in the thoughts and dictates your life.”
Isatou, The Gambia
“Modesty. We all have different views on the definition of the word. For example, in my culture, a majority of whom are Muslim, most people are quick to argue that wearing a hijab is the perfect embodiment of modesty. As a woman who wears the hijab myself, I find the overtly visual definition of the word quite cringe, and not very fair. Because it further imposes us as Muslim women to be seen as deacons of righteousness, and the slightest change in the way we don our hijab means we’re spiralling towards immodesty. My religion emphasises heavily on modesty for both men and women, yet we can rarely speak of modesty without a woman donned heavily in thick garments from head to toe being brought up. The concept and expectations of modesty upheld within my culture is not only sanctimonious but also highly sexist. Rarely do we adhere to the Islamic injunctions of behavioural modesty unless it is to emphasize on how being covered up should mean modesty. Each person –who are we kidding; each woman- is allotted as much modesty as garments she wears, deemed as modest as she is thickly clad.
I speak from personal experiences when I say that strangers often are quick to imagine I am indeed a modest woman, as I am mostly clad from head to toe in loose-fitting garments. In contrast, people who are familiar with me are just as quick to comment on how less modest I am because I choose to show more skin by being dressed in a neck baring turban instead of my usual wraparound hijab. Living in a world where women are sexualized from head to toe, showing neck or ankle is bound to quickly get you labelled as immodest. I would certainly be lying if I said trying to become more modest wasn’t one of the many reasons my younger self chose to embark on my hijab journey. However, in as much as I believe that I am fulfilling a religious requirement by wearing a hijab, I am also of the less popular opinion that a woman, whether in a hijab or not, has the free will to dress in the manner she prefers, without having the terms modest or immodest, prude or slut being a cloth-tag.”
Mamy Sira, The Gambia
I know this post was lengthier than usual but I hope that it was worth the read.
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