I am from a country wherein our dress code is not defined by religious beliefs. Until the war in the 90s that caused thousands to escape to neighbouring countries. Sierra Leoneans both Muslims and Christians wore ‘docket and lappa’ (blouse and wrapper and head tie) for women and locally sewn ‘gown’ for men regardless of religion. Added to this, Christians and Muslims co-exist peacefully. Religious intermarriages are very popular. Women are seen as Sierra Leonean women. Our faiths are not defined by our dress code.
This is what I grew up knowing and what I have grown to believe is the best for humanity.
However, it was only when I migrated to the United Kingdom that I realised that a woman’s faith can be defined by her dress code. Once I was approached by a colleague who asked me how comes I was called Mariama but I am a Christian. I was shocked at his judgemental approach of me being a Christian even before asking me and because I don’t wear the Muslim head scarf for women. I explained to him what I grew up knowing in a Muslim home and how my Dad a local Imam used to spend long hours exchanging religious knowledge with the local reverend in my neighbourhood. He was shocked to hear my story and confessed such does not exist in his country of birth. I took his ignorance to have emanated from his background knowledge of who a Muslim woman should be.
Living in London in a mainly black neighbourhood, I also realized that people will approach me differently based on what I am wearing. On Fridays after Jumaah (Friday) prayers, I normally go to the local market to buy food stuffs. I am always amazed by the way the meat sellers are quick to share salaam (peace) with me and treat me with special preference and respect all because I am in my headscarf that defines my belief. But I will come on another day without the headscarf and I will be treated like all others without the headscarf, devoid of the usual patience and excellent customer service I get on Fridays. Doesn’t Islam teach that Muslims treat everyone justly regardless of their faiths? Quran 60: 8-9 states "…Indeed, God loves those who act justly…”
Conversely, I have faced similar treatment from Black African Pentecostal Christians doing religious outreach in South London. Whenever they see me without the hijab, they assume like many Africans that I am a born-again Christian. They will shove their fliers into my face saying ‘Jesus loves you’. I always smile and depending on my mood, I will collect their fliers and keep to give to my sister who is Christian. On Fridays, I will meet the same people doing outreach at the same spot but they will not bother to share with me the love of Jesus or even the fliers because I am wearing the Muslim headscarf. I always wonder what the motive of their outreach. Is it to convert more people to Christianity or to remind non-practicing Christians about their faiths? I observed that they never approach someone they believe is a non-Christian. That is surprising.
These experiences spark a lot of thoughts in my mind. I noticed only women’s faiths are defined by what they wear. Most religions preach modesty. It is totally unprecedented for men to define what modesty is for women. Women should be allowed to make that decision. Besides, the human race is a culmination of diverse cultures. Modesty for someone in the East, may not be the same for others in the West, South or North. Let women in these four corners define and describe what modesty mean for them aligned with their faiths. Quran 49:13 and many other verses of the Quran make it very clear that the only thing that puts one human above the other is their righteousness. And indeed, righteousness is not visible like the headscarf or the clothes one wears. Righteousness is deep, it is mainly embroiled in the things we hide; those things we don’t reveal but only Allah/God is aware of. Righteousness is not wrapped in my headscarf.