If you are a revert or a returnee of ‘a certain age’, you will recognise this scenario: you were just starting to practise the deen and your life was going through some major changes: you had stopped clubbing, you had started to pray, you were wearing hijab … and you had just thrown away all your ‘designer garms’ in a big, black bag. And in place of all those beautiful clothes you spent hundreds if not thousands of pounds on, your new Muslimah wardrobe was suddenly longer, wider, frumpier than you could ever have imagined – and that was underneath your abayah!
Ah, the symptoms of what I call ‘New Muslim Tramp syndrome’. Almost every sister I know who came to Islam in my generation has been there – or seen someone else go there: it is a part of our collective history. So here it is: a reminder of the way we were and a warning to future generations!
The New Muslim Tramp was characterised by a devastating lack of style beneath her outer garments (hijab, abayah, jilbab, etc.), often in direct contrast to the way she used to dress before Islam. At any time, this could have included un-ironed, mismatched clothes, husband’s tracksuit bottoms or clothes that didn’t fit properly. Braids were left untended, new hair growth unseen-to, dark brown roots left to flourish. The jilbab and hijab were flung on to cover all manner of atrocities.
But why this descent into trampishness? Why did we who were new to the deen throw away our clothes and, with them, our personal style? I think there are at least three answers to these questions.
We often embarked on our Islamic journey with a new (mis)understanding of what a Muslim woman should look like. There was this feeling that, now that you were Muslim, you had to forgo ‘the worldly life’. But this abstaining from the dunyah was applied in the context of no longer wearing nice clothes, doing your hair, wearing make-up, and anything else that could be considered ‘worldly adornment’.
Experience soon taught us that this attitude was a Western Muslim complex. We soon came to realize that, in the majority of Muslim societies and Muslim countries, from Pakistan to Somalia, from Malaysia to Saudi Arabia, women had perfected the art of looking good, albeit under their Islamic covering: they wore the embroidered saris, the gold-trimmed shalwar kameez, the bejewelled lenghas, the hand-dyed tobes, the waxed boubous, the silky dira’ and gogorat. They decorated their hands and feet with the dye of the henna powder, they lined their eyes with kohl, they perfumed their clothes with bukhoor and decorated their limbs with gold and silver. But the New Muslim Tramp knew nothing of these mysterious arts – all we knew was that we were on the deen now and the religious woman had no business wasting her time with such frivolities.
Could it be that, possibly, deep inside, there was that little voice that said, ‘Why bother? No-one can see you anyway!’ After all, this was no longer jahiliyyah, the time before Islam, where every garment had to be chosen with care because there were men out there with appreciative eyes and women, ready with a swift put-down, if the outfit didn’t ‘work’! And that attention and affirmation was all part of that game – it made all the time and money spent worth it. So, before Islam, we gladly suffered the heat and scalds of the hair relaxer and blow-dryer, the sting of the leg wax, the discomfort of the clay mask, the tug of the tweezers, the pinch of the pointy-toed shoes, the cold of the mini skirt on a winter night – because it was all ‘worth it’. But what was the point of all that if no-one, no man, was going to see it???
Another factor could be that, for the most part, most practicing Muslims that we knew were very down-to-earth; there was no posing, no preening, no showing off your latest acquisition – this would not have scored any popularity points. So there was no image to keep up – no-one was watching to see whether you wore that trouser suit to the last wedding or whether your accessories matched your outfit. To be sure, many of us were relieved to be spared from all that stress. However, that down-to-earth, laid-back approach could also have impacted ‘negatively’ on those of us who were used to the cut and thrust of the high street catwalk fashion show. For us, it was a case of no image, no effort!
Yes, the NMT did commit some terrible crimes of negligence. But, having said all that, I think there were positive elements to the NMTs of the days of old. For a start, our hijab was a covering, not an adornment. We didn’t have all the fancy glitter abaayahs, hijab pins and ‘fashion- able hijab’. We covered ourselves with humility and didn’t care whether people thought us plain or pretty. Maybe this is a lesson we can pass on to the present generation of Muslimahs?
But if you are still displaying the symptoms of NMT, it’s time to take control of the situation. We are women and we are beautiful, every one of us, in our own unique way. Appreciate what you have been blessed with, look after it, don’t apologise for it. As the hadith says, ‘Allah (SWT) is Beautiful and He loves beauty.’ So take the time to iron your shirt, choose your accessories with care and have a hair treatment once a month so that, when you go out in your Islamic covering, you feel like a million dollars under your jilbab. Because, as the ad goes, you’re worth it. You’re worth it. You really are. Alhamdulillah.
The benefits of being well-dressed and groomed are explored in Keziah Ridgeway’s article.