Can modesty and feminism coexist? With recent news of model Halima Aden landing the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit in a hijab and burkini — there’s been a lot of buzz, particularly in the “modest community,” about the return of more conservative clothing to the fore in a post-MeToo society.
Even before MeToo inspired some women to examine the way female bodies are oversexualized by Western culture, fashion critics have been pointing to sleeves and hemlines getting longer for a while. Vanessa Friedman, fashion critic for the New York Times, wrote that trends of the 2010’s would be defined by modesty. It is, she declared, “the end of the naked look. The beginning of a new age of female pluri-empowerment’…as expressed through the kind of dress that prioritizes the individual and her needs over the clichés of female role play…The New York Times began chronicling young women on the streets of Brooklyn layering clothes in creative ways that shielded or swaddled their bodies back in 2015. But it is only now reaching critical mass, thanks to a convergence of social, political and cultural factors as reflected in clothing.”
This is, in fact, how many religious women interpret their choices of modest clothing, too — a sort of shielding of the body. This style has the power to, according to Lucie Greene, worldwide director of the innovation group at J. Walter Thompson, “reject the strictures of the male gaze. They are not about what men want anymore, but about what women want.”
As an Orthodox Jewish woman who thinks a lot about the meaning of the uniforms we choose, I was curious about how “covered women” of other religions define modesty. So I reached out to Arshiya Kherani, the founder of Sukoon Active, a company that designs activewear for Muslim women, and invited her for a chat.
Avital: Arshiya, your life these days is literally defined by modest clothing. How did you decide to start Sukoon Active?
Arshiya: I’ve been wearing hijab for ten years. And when I started running, I would wear bandanas or beanies in lieu of a hijab because there weren’t many sport hijabs widely available. During my first half marathon, I was wearing a bandana as usual and a hoodie on top. It was raining super hard, and at one point I reached under my hood to adjust my bandana and realized it had fallen off. I was so stressed out, wondering what would happen if I got too hot or if I had to take my hoodie off for some reason. I couldn’t enjoy that race because I didn’t have the right clothing….it felt like running without shoelaces. And I started to wonder, does it have to be like this?
Avital: That is so stressful. That’s my worst nightmare: My wig flying off!
Arshiya: Yea! It felt like a Janet Jackson moment. So I started to work with my mom on our first prototypes. Though, at the time I didn’t know it was prototyping! I was just like, “Hey Mom, can you help me make a running hijab that works for me?”
Avital: Do you think your products encourage religious women to be active?
Arshiya: Absolutely! Since starting Sukoon, I’ve really come to appreciate the way my parents raised me. It turns out that a lot of girls from first generation American backgrounds are discouraged from working out once they hit their teens.
Avital: Because of modesty?
Arshiya: Yeah — though I think it’s cultural. Nothing in Islam says, “Don’t work out after the age of 13.”
Avital: God, I know what that is like! So often, religious law gets conflated with social customs. And that can get murky.
Arshiya: Right?! The lines between cultural social norms and religion are sometimes very blurry in communities like ours. When it comes to being active, I think it becomes taboo for women in their teens because in faiths like ours — in both Judaism and Islam — girls start learning how to dress more modestly at this time in their lives. And this becomes complicated because, in mainstream Western culture, women’s bodies start to become sexualized in their adolescent years. So all of a sudden, girls lose access to the clothing they need to be 1) modest and 2) active. They aren’t actually related…but they become related because parents can’t find a solution to help keep their children both active and help them learn how to observe Islamic dress guidelines. But…why does that have to exist? I don’t think it does, which is where Sukoon comes in.
Avital: I see that in my community too… you have something that is not law that over time becomes so widely adopted as a social construct that it might as well be law. It becomes the new normal. In the Jewish community, there’s a relatively new social phenomenon of omitting women’s images from publications, no matter how modestly she is dressed. It’s a norm that our generation of women is fighting against because it is not based in religious law, but rather in a rising cultural convention…I don’t know — is there an issue in Islam, with a woman being active publicly, even if dressed modestly? Are there conservative groups that say it’s not modest, it’s not what a good girl does? In many religious Jewish communities, women are taught not to run or exercise in public, because it is not deemed modest. Communities have set up women’s only gyms or separate gym hours for these reasons.
Arshiya: People definitely say a lot of things. I grew up in a practicing Muslim family, and as we got older, we subbed track pants in for our shorts and T-shirts in for our tank tops. It was challenging, but my parents never presented the option of quitting sports teams. That said, I love the idea of a women’s gym! I’d love to grow Sukoon into an access point across women’s health in every possible way…including the facilities and support that women might need. Sometimes you just want to do your downward dogs in a same-gender room!
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Avital: How do you think growing up in that kind of household shaped your ideals?
Arshiya: I think the post-90s term for Asian parents is “tiger parents” — right? Our parents demanded that we get straight A’s, and also excel at piano, Kumon and team sports. None of it was negotiable. Over time, my Muslim girlfriends slowly stopped playing sports. On the contrary, I used to leave Saturday religious school a little early for soccer games, much to the disapproving looks of my teachers.
Now that I’m older, I think part of it was because my mom has chronic back problems. She has very real physical limitations, and she always wanted her daughters to be able to do everything she couldn’t. That meant running, jumping and playing. That shaped me much more deeply than I realized at the time. She wanted us to take care of ourselves, but she also wanted us to enjoy the world in a way she couldn’t. I think that’s why Sukoon is so important to me…it hurts my heart to think that religious women have to choose between being active and being spiritual. None of it is negotiable for me…and that’s what drives me.
Avital: How did you decide to start wearing hijab? Was it a big deal?
Arshiya: It wasn’t outlandish but it also wasn’t entirely normal. I was studying abroad — and I wasn’t praying very consistently. One day, my roommate called me out on that! It was unintentional, but she was like, “Hey, there’s another Muslim guy in this program and he seems to be praying more than you do!”
Avital: Wow. The haram police!
Arshiya: YES! My God, yes!
Avital: In our community, it’s the frum police.
Arshiya: Yes! It was the first time I was faaaaar away from home, and I had to start thinking more critically about who I wanted to be. What kind of Muslim was I? I started wearing hijab a few months later. Everyone was shocked, my parents, my friends. And keep in mind, this is post-9/11 America…
Avital: Were people asking you, “Why are you choosing to publicly identify yourself?”
Arshiya: Yes, my dad was like, “Arsh, you have a nose piercing, you wear hijab, you are literally unemployable.” It was a hard choice and I wonder sometimes if I knew what I was getting into. One of the bizarre things about starting to wear hijab is one day you aren’t wearing hijab, and then the next day you are. The second you put the actual head covering on, it’s a big statement. Did you ever feel that way with your wig?
Avital: For me, it was the morning after my wedding. I will never forget standing looking in the hotel mirror, putting a wig on and thinking, “Well, my hair will never really see the sun again.”
Arshiya: Totally! I’ll admit, sometimes I miss small things like that, like feeling the wind blowing in my hair! There are some things you don’t even realize that you’re giving up at the time. But it’s all for a greater purpose, right? That same semester that I was studying abroad, when I was traveling, I didn’t want to be unable to pray because I was wearing short sleeves. So I started carrying more layers with me. And I realized, if I am Muslim, and I believe that I should pray five times a day, then I should always be dressed in a position to be able to pray. . And once I started looking at modesty and coverage — and hijab — through that lens, it immediately started to make sense.
Avital: So a classic ‘progressive feminist’ response to that might be: “Well why don’t you question the original rules, the ones that specify modest dress for prayer? Why can’t you just pray naked?” How do you answer that?
Arshiya: That’s a tough question. The intention behind this practice, from my interpretation, is that by dressing more modestly, we can stay focused on spirituality. I guess you could pray naked if you want to! But if you believe in the building blocks of Islam and what it provides for you, you might find yourself taking some of these things at face value and finding comfort within them in an inexplicable way.
Avital: Do you believe that dress can be an entry point to religious practice?
Arshiya: Absolutely. I love wearing hijab because it provides a daily opportunity for me to do something for God instead of myself. It reminds me every day that the world is bigger than me.
Avital: I think we often forget what modesty is about — it’s not an inch here or there, it’s about the humility that this practice is supposed to inspire in you. I’ve written about this before. It gets complicated because of all the baggage for thousands of years that comes with this topic, and also because the conversation around it has been owned by male voices for so long. In Judaism, men wear yarmulkes as a reminder of God above them, and why shouldn’t my head covering be the same thing, the same reminder? I mean, what kind of a message are we sending to young women when we endlessly talk about their bodies in such a sexualized way? Shouldn’t we be instead interpreting our traditions back to the source of all of this — worship of God, leading a holy life — regardless of gender? Modesty ought to be taught as a vehicle towards humility, a reminder that, as you said, the world “is bigger than me.”
Arshiya: Agreed! Spiritual practice is meant to make us better people, to ground us and to remind us to focus on creating positive change in this world in the service of God. It’s strange to me that modesty between men and women is discussed in such different contexts, even though it’s coming from the same place.
Avital: When you’re fundraising for your company — how do people react to such a “religious” product that you are trying to take mainstream? I’m particularly curious about your experience with female investors who self-identify as feminists. How do they react to the values and product you represent?
Arshiya: Ha, fundraising! I’ve found that female investors often ask me: “If I’m feminist, how can I support your product? How can it be empowering to cover yourself up?”
And I wonder: “What about me or my product or brand is not feminist? Doesn’t feminist mean inclusive? Doesn’t it mean we can make choices for ourselves, in all the different parts of our lives?” It’s a little awkward that a woman can ask me how Sukoon can be a feminist brand. Isn’t it obvious?! My product is about making choices for yourself and then owning those choices. I always want to ask them: Why are you creating a conflict between feminism and religion?
Avital: Well a lot of people will tell you that you can’t be feminist and dress modestly.
Arshiya: I actually hate the word “modest” when it comes to talking about the way we dress.
Avital: Really?! Why! What terminology do you prefer?
Arshiya: At Sukoon, we tend to gravitate towards “inclusivity”. I have always wondered why “modest” has become so mainstream in our industry…the word “modest” has so many negative implications! It implies traditional, conservative.It implies a lessening of oneself. For example, when we say something like “don’t be modest” — we mean, “don’t hold back.” It implies that you’re shorting yourself. So I think something like “Be more modest” in some ways means to “be less.” The word is so…intense and full of baggage! I am trying to rebrand our industry as inclusive, as in, Sukoon offers inclusive activewear for Muslim women.
Avital: Why only Muslims — why not all women? What about women who don’t want to expose their arms or midriffs when working out?
Arshiya: We are currently focused on Muslim women, but open to all! We make modest workout tees and accessories that women from any background can appreciate and enjoy. As a faith-driven company, we are also focused on ethical and sustainable manufacturing practices, and I think that’s a big draw for anyone, even if they’re not Muslim.
Avital: When you make knee-length tunics, I’ll be there!
Arshiya: I’m on it.
Avital: I used to work out in Equinox, and I’d wear these flowy cotton skirts on top of leggings and long sleeve shirts. It was pretty uncomfortable. I have periodically browsed Muslim websites looking for longer tunics.
Arshiya: Unfortunately, this is such a common story! I wish we could grow faster to meet every woman’s needs; hopefully we will get there. The best part of this work is getting messages from women who share stories about what they have been able to achieve, once they accessed modest activewear: “I ran my first marathon your hijab!” “I went ziplining and didn’t have to worry about my scarf!” These stories motivate me to keep building Sukoon so that more people around the world can benefit. It’s why I started my company: to make living an active lifestyle more accessible for women like me.
Avital: I love that you’re empowering women to take care of their bodies, to exercise. It’s a brilliant flip of the narrative around modesty — which is so often negative associations about our bodies, about negating our physicality — but you’re advocating for caring for the body.
Arshiya: Thanks. I feel lucky to be playing this role in the world! And I’m grateful for this chat with such supportive women like yourself. I hope Sukoon grows into something much greater than a brand for Muslim women — I believe it can be a cornerstone to interfaith community building. I mean look at me, I’m Muslim, you’re Jewish, we’re sitting here, and we have so many common experiences. To be frank, I’ve never had a conversation with a Jewish woman like this. Why is that?
Avital: Some things only another religious woman will get — even if she is of another faith.
Arshiya: I was just thinking that.
Avital: How do you think secular women, female investors perhaps, can be real allies to religious women who are trying to improve their own communities? You are doing a huge service to your community, encouraging Muslim women to discover fitness. How can our secular sisters lend a hand?
Arshiya: I think the easiest way to be an ally is to have a conversation with someone who is different from you, and ask them real questions that you have. It’s the only real way to start understanding experiences that are different from your own.
Avital: Yes, and as the world gets smaller and smaller, it’s simpler than ever to do that. I find it fascinating to see how religious women are using social media to build serious platforms, bypassing the traditional routes of communal leadership (which are largely forbidden to them). So before people start imposing their own versions of secular feminism on women of faith — go follow some religious women. Get to know them a little. Take a moment to listen to their voices, to their experiences.
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the Life/Features editor at the Forward. She was previously a New York-based reporter for Haaretz. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Tablet, among others. Avital teaches journalism at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, and does pastoral work alongside her husband Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt in New York City.