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Soap Box: The Paradox of Muslim Mums and Our Fashion Industry

Maria Zain is disappointed in the coverage designed for pregnant and breastfeeding hijabi mums.

This is funny. I’m in the third trimester of my sixth pregnancy, and I’m back to the normal dilemma drill of frustration. It’s not so much about dealing with pregnancy challenges – I’ve kind of absorbed those into my daily life, anyway. Dealing with midwives, accepting and declining medical tests, planning yet another empowering and beautiful birth – why, yes – my walls are laced with affirmations and we have aromatic candles on our shopping list – but that’s not the issue at hand.

 
Ever since the first trimester of my first pregnancy, way back in the heyday of 2005, I was walking down the corridor of my office and caught a glimpse of my silhouette in a glass pane – and for the first time (and with a bit of horror), I noticed my disappearing waistline. Aye, I’m one of those blessed women who bloat immediately upon the double line of the pregnancy test – and things tend to expand outwards from there on. I realised that I would soon need new clothes to honour the nine months of pregnancy.

 

Excitement quickly turned into disappointment when the inventory of every maternity department of every store played host to frills, ribbons, pinks, peaches and everything else that was just as gaudy, and many items were not even tailored to fit properly. Many times I found myself shoehorning all my necessary “parts” that had to be covered into the fabric, very much feeling like a peg that just didn’t fit.

 

I quickly turned to the option of ‘abayahs and jilbabs, seeing most apparel didn’t cover to my liking anyway, only to find very few Muslim shops pedalling what I needed: comfortable, yet fashionable all-black outfits that could not only accommodate a growing bump, but also be practical and comfortable enough to allow a mother to be mobile with a little baby and breastfeed as well. I searched online, day in and day out, and nearly hurt my vision having spent so much time staring into the great white screen.

 

I aimed to be a practical shopper, hoping to find a maternity ‘abayah that doubled as a nursing ‘abayah. That didn’t happen. Not only that, I began to realise that there was a grand shortage of hijabs that covered well. Pun intended. The hijab industry was booming in my country (Malaysia). I had no idea that there were so many accessories to get the infamous camel hump perfected down pat – but for those of us seeking full coverage, so many designs and materials were either short, sheer, uncomfortable or all of the above. Honestly, I felt coming to motherhood was a bit of a nightmare as the fashion that was laid out for the modest Muslim mama paved a very unwelcoming path. I’m nowhere near diva-status, nor do I intend to become one – but with fluctuating body dimensions (and I seriously feel for sisters who are on the gorgeously voluptuous size), finding a decent wardrobe for those nine special months was a real pain, and a pain in the wallet when a presentable looking ‘abayah did come along.

 
The daughter who caused me to bloat at 10 weeks gestation back in the heyday turned nine years old recently, and with baby number six on the way, after four boisterous boys, I’m still at my wit’s end when it comes to dressing during pregnancy.

 

Sure, I’ve found some stores that carry the ‘abayah with the zip (to accommodate nursing), but only one or two pieces will pop up in their search function of their store, and even so, quality and comfort is often compromised. Sunnah Style was one store where I gleefully bought two ‘abayahs, very much loving their demure but sophisticated colours, comfortable zip facility and pockets to boot. That was until I put them into the washing machine and the crinkles just emphasised the exhaustion I experience on a daily basis with so many children running around me. It helped that I wore my babies so they at least covered a bit of ‘abayah, but there’s only so much you can hide, especially when it’s a one piece from shoulder to heel. Aye, what happened to the merits of removing the hardship of a sister? Honestly, if there was one thing that designers could do for mothers would be to create and design wearables that did not need to be ironed. It would save us a lot of heartache and coffee. However, I love Sunnah Style and will still be shopping there, and possibly getting around to using the iron that my mum recently bought me as a gift.

 
Gleefully, the hijab industry has expanded a bit and there are larger hijabs that cover better, a real gem of relief for nursing mothers.

 

Why is clothing for mothers such a big deal?
Clothing simply is a big deal. But for mothers – and those who are constantly expecting and nursing, like yours truly, dressing up is a three-fold-deal.

 

Firstly, the Qur’an tells us that clothes are a blessing from Allah (SWT) – while the Shaytan runs laps around us. Understanding the ayahs in Surah Al-A’raf which narrate the plight of Adam and Hawa, when they were made naked, leading to their descent to this dunya – gives us appreciation for beautifying ourselves in presentable apparel. While Allah (SWT) forgave their sins and sent them down to earth, He I immediately sent clothes to protect and beautify them, as they were clothed in Jannah. Clothes need not be expensive or extravagant, but dressing up in a beautified manner is part of ‘ibadah for every believing Muslim.

 

Secondly, the Qur’an lays down beautiful guidelines for how a believing Muslim woman should dress, and it involves material and designs that are loose and long that cover all, save our hands and faces (according to the majority of scholars). It’s our duty to honour that.

 

Thirdly let us consider this part about mothers. Motherhood is so terrifyingly honoured in Islam that there are numerous injunctions of how children need to pay the best command to their mothers, husbands need to pay heed to the needs of their expecting and nursing wives, how the womb is absolutely sacred and how breastfeeding is an obligation upon the parents of a baby until the age of two.

 

Why aren’t there enough clothes to honour all of the above? As I watch the Muslimah fashion industry grow, it flourishes with colours, hues, materials, different cuts and styles – but very few pieces suit the likes of the more conservative Muslim mother with many children. It saddens me seeing apparel being modelled by young Muslimahs only, most of them who are decked with makeup, whitening cream, (dyed) blonde hair skimming the edges of their hijab, contact lenses even and always terribly, depressingly petite. What about the rest of us, living the Muslimah reality? Let’s keep it real, alright? We are not all that tiny, I say, as I stare at the slimmer cuts of ‘abayahs, especially those that cling to the waistline. Maybe some women don’t bloat at all, I don’t know. But not everyone wants to look like a blossoming flower or tightly wrapped lollipop, and honestly, online stores need to carry the option to alter the length of the ‘abayah as well, as not everyone is as tall as the model next door.

 

This is probably my last pregnancy, insha Allah, hopefully marking the end of the nearly a decade of fluctuating body dimensions, but I know that there is a sea of Muslimahs who don’t want to indulge in ironing alongside the bajillion other things they do, and those who struggle with the squeeze as the bump expands and the bosom lactates; so it would be really nice to see this niche become one that is appropriately fulfilled. In fact, this is such a great opportunity for smaller-scaled entrepreneurs to cater for such a market. It would certainly relieve so many sisters from this dilemma of simply dressing up, and fulfilling so many dimensions of honouring the Muslim mother.

 

Maria Zain was a prolific contributor to SISTERS magazine, writing extensively about issues including parenting, inter-cultural relationships, homeschooling and homebirthing, and even Muslim fashion. In December 2014 Maria Zain died, insha Allah a shaheedah, related to birthing her sixth child, who survived. SISTERS magazine will always be indebted to Maria for the immense work she did for the magazine as well as for the SISTERS family as a whole. We ask that readers consider donating to a fund for her six children in hopes to help their father continue to raise them in the loving and deen-centered style the parents worked so hard to foster.

Donations can be made at www.gofundme.com/mariazain