Since I love clothes and have always loved clothes, I've been fascinated by the various ways in which Muslim women in Jordan interpret the Quranic commandment on modesty in dress. At least, I am assuming the prohibition against showing lots of skin goes back to the Q'ran, but I could be wrong. It could be part of the hadith (stories told about Muhammad after his death) or sharia laws. I will have to find out.
The most common female attire is a long-sleeved gauze tunic over long trousers. Sometimes the trousers are tight jeans, sometimes baggy pants. Either way is actually very sexy, at least in my view. Sometimes women wear long duster coats, or elaborate long skirts with tight military-style jackets. Again, both styles are very flattering to the female form and, if the color and fabric and fit are right, lovely. And then there is the matter of head scarves. Every woman seems to have her own style here. Some women wear a double scarf: a tight-fitting inner band, often in a light color, and then a darker color outer scarf in a dressier fabric. Today in the ladies room at the lunch house in Petra I watched four young teenagers fuss with their elaborate scarf arrangements. They seemed quite pleased with themselves--reasonably, I felt, because their choice of fabric and manner of draping were beautiful. You see all colors of scarves, all fabrics, many different drapes. Some ladies hold their scarves in place with pins, what we would call hat pins. The overall effect, therefore, is feminine and flattering--much more so than what western women often wear, when you step back and consider.
So I am re-thinking the head scarf issue, especially since, paradoxically, a head wrap beautifully frames a face. That's the most important thing I've noticed. Sometimes I will see a Muslim woman and she will seem to me to have just stepped out of a Vermeer or a Van Eyck painting, for her face is luminous and remarkable. Truly, as the Elizabethans sang, the eyes are windows to the soul. There is a readable particularity to a be-scarved woman's face. It offers an immediacy and intimacy that, ironically, we have lost in the West. Part of it is the effect of stillness, of course, without all the fussing and nervous twisting of hair we see in our own culture. And part of it is the effect of concentration, without the distraction of the hair competing for attention with the face.
So in the end the Islamic prohibition against women displaying themselves in public seems to be subverted by the very nature of the human form, by the power of the feminine and its ability to find expression in many ways, and by womanly ingenuity. And perhaps beauty shows itself off best framed. That's the thought I'm taking back home with me.
I do have one stumbling block in this train of thought. The head-to-toe black shapeless chador, complete with face mask, is just plain creepy. For the first time, I saw a lady so clad who also wore black gloves. I had read about this uber-modesty but had never seen it. I have encountered the full kit-and-kaboodle twice in the last week--once in the Rome airport, once in downtown Amman--and in both instances the husbands wore sloppy western sports clothes and flip flops!
For full disclosure, I should add that chez autobus is the Eileen Fisher crowd. Eileen Fisher's clothes, when you think about it, owe a lot to Muslim style, fabric, and cut.