Nuances in Modest Fashion in the Holy Land

By: Kawther Berhanu

April 27, 2018

During spring break, I took a trip to Jerusalem. It was as bittersweet of an experience as I could have anticipated. It is a place where you can spend a week and feel like you’ve lived a lifetime. Every corner has a piece of religious history. The Holy Sepulchre, Western Wall, and Dome of the Rock are all within walking distance of one another, and seeing worshippers of different faiths within blocks of one another was incredible. It was amazing to see three religious traditions in such close proximity. But I found it impossible to separate from the experience of seeing dozens of soldiers at every corner, being profiled and having to go through extra security measures, and seeing the illegal wall in Bethlehem. These were experiences I anticipated to be difficult in theory, but of course, seeing them in person had a level of magnitude I couldn’t have expected.

People tend to think of Jerusalem as being a place that exists in a binary: East and West, Muslim and Jewish, Arab and Israeli. Perhaps it is because we often are coming from an American context where that is the case. This makes sense especially as someone coming from a country which quite literally operates on a black-white binary. In the United States, factors like my complexion or my head covering can quickly set me apart as being parts of certain communities and at times dealing with the challenges that are attached to them. While there are also substantial inequalities here, because of the similarities in physical characteristics, the lines between the communities can be a little less clear. Unlike ethnic discrimination in the United States where one can obviously discern between races, one will often find that it is common to mistake a Palestinian for an Israeli (and vice versa) at face value. Of course differences in names, languages, accents, etc., can more obviously label people, but at first glance, it is not always easy to tell. 

In addition, both Israelis and Palestinians have internal diversity within their communities. There are fair, blond Palestinians like Ahed Tamimi, and there is a community of black Palestinians as well—people who can easily be mistaken for the thousands of Ethiopian citizens of Israel. But despite the proximity, there can be a lifetime indifference when it comes to obstacles in education, barriers to development, and challenges at checkpoints. So what happens in a place with such diversity on both sides, when the social order is trying to segregate them? 

I did not expect how much of the answer comes from modest fashion. One day, when I was in Jerusalem, I wore my hijab up/turban-styled. I did not think much of it because it is something I do pretty often. And I was caught off guard when I was mistaken as being an Ethiopian Jew. A similar thing happened when I was wearing my hijab draped more loosely, because as I learned, in this space a loosely draped hijab was “for the Christians.” This happened a few more times, and I quickly understood that because members of all three faith traditions cover their hair, the nuances to the style of wearing the scarf are so profoundly impactful in perception and consequently social capital. 

In a place where identity has such a distinct impact on daily life, the immense detail in the “modest fashion” here is so interesting. Here there is more attention to detail. “She has brown skin but are her facial features Ethiopian? She has a head covering on but how exactly is it wrapped? She looks too young to have kids, so she’s probably Muslim if she’s wearing it.” People go through mental thought processes like this, as a Jewish girl on the bus explained to me, in order to determine the sides of the line people fall on. So by entering the social system of Jerusalem, even for a short period, recognizing how not just complexion or religious markers play a role, not just in the wearing of a head wrap, but that the specific details of its styling can radically change status.

As the hijab becomes increasingly mainstream and is getting more media representation, the “iconization" of hijab has included the diversity of styles that people wear it. It could have been by chance of course, but I did not see a single Palestinian woman covering her hair in a turban style. I spoke to a few Palestinian girls who told me that they know that other styles of hijab are popular because they see it on the social media accounts or famous hijabi bloggers. However, they don’t know anyone who wears it like a turban because that is the style for the Jewish women in Palestine. 

After speaking to several women of different backgrounds there, I found this to be pretty much the same case across the board. A case can be made that it's out of respect for other faith traditions but perhaps in such a politically charged environment, the refrain is out of resisting to blend, assimilate, or “pass.” Perhaps it could be solely for the reason of increased modesty or desire to remain close to their religious tradition. The reality is most likely in the middle. I have not found much research on the topic and hope to continue learning about it whether in formal or informal settings. As I continue to do so, I will be reflecting on all of this while taking into account the sociopolitical landscape of Jerusalem.

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Nuances in Modest Fashion in the Holy Land