Activewear and Niqab

by Zarifah Anuar

The bus stop isn’t very crowded, but the number of bodies in the space is enough to make the humid air even more annoying to bear. I find a relatively spacious spot next to a woman wearing a niqab, and start fanning myself with my shirt. I give it no thought at first, but soon I begin to hear repeated tsks coming from my left.

The Realisation hits me — the one where I’m suddenly hyper aware of what I’m wearing, from the tips of my dyed hair, to the bra straps peeking out of the collar of my oversized t-shirt, to the tight yoga pants that show the shape of my calves and ankles. It is a stark contrast to her modest floor-length jubah and niqab that cover her all over, save for her eyes and hands.

She tsks again, and I can see that she’s not looking at her phone, or into the distance, but at me. She’s definitely clicking her tongue in disapproval of my revealing outfit.

But is she, really? We’ve been waiting for the bus for a good five minutes, in this humid, windless weather. This situation alone is bound to make anyone, niqab-wearing or not, Muslim or not, tsk repeatedly.

But then again, The Realisation was not formed from nothing. It was sown from the seeds of Sunday madrasah and intrusive questions from relatives during puberty like “so big already, why not wearing tudung?”; germinated with the warmth of comments such as “you look so much prettier in a tudung” during religious events and funerals; watered with teguran from my grandmother that a tudung would complete my metamorphosis into an adult Muslimah; and finally, nourished by rants from a boss about how she doesn’t get why women don’t wear a tudung when it is clearly compulsory in the Quran.

I carry this with me, the belief that I am not right for not covering, that my left shoulder is marked with sins from exposing my skin. That not only is God disgusted with me, but other Muslims are too.

Mass media doesn’t help much either, as it fills itself with images of women in tudung: telling us that this the only way a Malay/Muslim woman is supposed to exist. Social media is rampant with posts policing womens’ dress: in some cases, simply wearing a tudung is not enough. A woman must also wear long sleeves, loose pants, and/or a long top or dress that in no way shows the shape of her body.

And, at the same time, she should also not wear too much black, or cover her face, because that may give the impression that she is too extreme in her practice of Islam, that she perhaps may be separatist, a radical conservative, or even worse, a terrorist sympathiser.

So, how exactly is a Malay/Muslim woman supposed to dress? With these parameters I will be judged for not covering, but the woman in niqab at the bus stop will be judged for covering too much.

We obsess with Malay/Muslim women’s’ skin under the guise of religion, that we forget that the Prophet told his companion to lower his gaze instead of correcting a woman’s dress:

“Al-Fadl bin ‘Abbas rode behind the Prophet as his companion rider on the back portion of his she camel on the Day of Nahr (slaughtering of sacrifice, 10th Dhul-Hijja) and Al-Fadl was a handsome man. The Prophet stopped to give the people verdicts. In the meantime, a beautiful woman From the tribe of Khath’am came, asking the verdict of Allah’s Apostle. Al-Fadl started looking at her as her beauty attracted him. The Prophet looked behind while Al-Fadl was looking at her; so the Prophet held out his hand backwards and caught the chin of Al-Fadl and turned his face (to the owner sides in order that he should not gaze at her).” [Sahih Bukhari, Volume 8 / Book 74 / Hadith Number 247]

and God said in the Quran:

O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful. [49:12, trans. Sahih International]

Faith is an extremely personal thing. It is a woman’s choice to cover, to not cover, and also how much she wishes to cover. To judge and attempt to correct that, no matter how pure or well-meaning the intentions are, would be to disregard the fact that a woman has full autonomy over her own body and her own actions.

My decision not to wear the tudung is a fully conscious one, and one that will not be changed by comments family, friends, and complete strangers. Should I ever decide to don the tudung in the future, it too will be an extremely personal choice. And it will also be no-one’s business but mine.


When she is not busy being angry at injustice Zarifah spends her time writing, volunteering at a feminist organisation, eating too much sugar, petting cats, and playing various Pokemon games.

Illustration by Wan Xiang Lee