Standing in front of the mirror by my front door, Fatima* slips on a long jacket that nearly reaches her ankles. Before kissing me goodbye, she carefully arranges the folds of her silk headscarf so it drapes elegantly over her neck and shoulders. A snug, cotton bonnet underneath covers every strand of her hair. This is what hijab looks like in the Muslim country where I live.
Hijab is an Arabic word that means cover, barrier, or partition. It’s often used to refer to a headscarf, but in Islamic thought, hijab refers more broadly to the principle of modesty that includes dress and behavior.
In the twelve years I’ve known Fatima, I’ve only seen her hair uncovered in the company of her sisters or female friends. I’ve watched as she graciously served men in her own home while wearing a scarf to cover her head and shoulders despite the sweltering summer heat.
As I watch Fatima turn the corner toward the stairwell, I think of the articles I’ve read during the past few weeks about the controversy surrounding the burkini ban in France.
Burkinis are swimsuits designed to help Muslim women conform to Islamic standards of modesty while enjoying a dip in the ocean or playing competitive sports. It fits almost like a wetsuit so women aren’t constrained by the loose-fitting fabric of hijab. If my friend Fatima ever visits a French beach, she would likely wear one.
During the summer, twenty-six towns in southern France prohibited women from wearing burkinis on beaches in the region—a ban that the country’s highest administrative court recently struck down.
An image flashes through my mind: the photograph of policemen on a beach forcing a Muslim woman to remove her head covering. I think of my friend. I wonder how she would have felt if it had been her on that beach.
I’m pretty sure she would have felt burning shame.
Modesty is a principle that Muslims and Christians both embrace as an aspect of a holy life that honors God.
Modesty matters to women like Fatima because in Islamic society, dressing modestly is one mark of a woman with an honorable character. Surah 24:31 in the Quran directs women to, “guard their modesty; that they . . . should not display their beauty except to their husbands.”
Turning to the New Testament, I’m challenged by Paul’s exhortation that women should, “adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.” (1 Timothy 2:9–10, ESV)
Modesty is a principle that Muslims and Christians both embrace as an aspect of a holy life that honors God. As a Christian woman living in a Muslim culture, I’m mindful that what I wear reflects the character of the Savior I follow.
There are three questions I’ve been asking myself in the wake of the burkini ban to help turn controversy into a gospel opportunity:
1. How can I strike an appropriate balance between freedom in Christ and expressing love for my neighbors by honoring cultural customs related to modest dress?
Sometimes loving others means submitting ourselves to customs that aren’t our own for the sake of the gospel. Many Christian women serving in Muslim cultures and communities wear a head covering as a way to respect the local standards of modesty. These women don’t want their freedom to become a stumbling block to communicating the hope we have in Christ. The balance of freedom, love, and honor in wardrobe-related issues will look different depending on whether we are standing in Paris or Cairo, Dubai or Kuala Lumpur. Prayerfully asking the freedom vs. love question is important when considering what a healthy cross-cultural witness looks like in a particular community.
2. How is the burkini issue related to the Islamic worldview?
In Islam, the principle of modesty is tied to a deeper worldview issue—honor and shame. In The Message, the Messenger and the Community, Roland Muller, a missionary who worked in the Middle East for more than thirty years, suggests that preserving honor and avoiding shame is foundational to the Islamic worldview. Although Muller recognizes that this way of looking at the world is unfamiliar to most Christians in the West, he says understanding honor and shame is essential to communicating the gospel in Eastern contexts in a comprehensible way.
“Today, Western culture has lost most of its understanding of shame and honor,” Muller said, “but the Bible is filled with it. The Bible begins with man’s fall into shame and ends with man being anointed with glory and honor at God’s right hand.”
And that leads us to the final question.
3. Can conversations about modest dress create a bridge to the gospel?
The covering of shame in the Bible often is expressed visually in the act of clothing nakedness. In Genesis 3:21, God covers Adam and Eve’s nakedness—their shame—by clothing them. In Isaiah 61, the prophet Isaiah anticipates a day when God will clothe his people with “garments of salvation” and cover them with “the robe of righteousness.” The New Testament also teaches that our proper clothing is imperishable and eternal, “. . . not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4–5, ESV).
The story of our nakedness and shame began in Genesis, and its resolution came with Christ bearing our shame while hanging naked on the cross.
“However you want to state it theologically,” Muller says, “nakedness and shame go together and can be a useful tool to use when sharing from the Scriptures.”
The gospel reminds us that Christ alone covers our shame, and he alone can restore us to a place of honor.
The New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham famously said, “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” But fashion, including a burkini, is a useless, thin defense against the spiritual reality of shame that separates us from God. The gospel reminds us that Christ alone covers our shame, and he alone can restore us to a place of honor.
Eliza Thomas is a writer for IMB. She lives with her family in Central Asia.