By Maria Zain

We live in a world that thrives on appearances. So much so, that the Muslim dress code is often torn apart in all sorts of media, by all sorts of writers. Often enough, a muslimah writer will stand her ground and describe her hijab or her niqab and explain how it was her choice to wear it. A debate will ensue. Some will ask why make a big deal, others will question her declaration of her choice – was she really free to make that decision?

Whichever way you look at it, the clothes a woman wears always comes under fire whether for good reasons or negative ones. But the underlying tide is, dressing up is a personal choice, and we feel most comfortable when we make that personal choice and feel comfortable with it. For believing Muslim women, that choice is the most comfortable when done for the sake of Allah. Yet there will always be those who will try to dictate otherwise and this has been seen in waves of hijab prohibition in certain European countries. We often hear of women being asked to remove their head covering to assimilate with the “others” in the country. A niqab is even more controversial, even if it’s the most comfortable choice for those who have chosen and committed to covering their faces.

But what does this have to do with birth? What does a woman wear during her birth? The typical sight of a birthing woman is in a uniform hospital gown provided by the facility. The moment she arrives at the hospital’s territory, she is instructed to change out of her clothes – including her undergarments in many places - and don a gown that does not necessarily cover well. She is also wheeled in and out of different locations of the hospital in the gown, that doesn’t necessarily cover her body from the sight of others.

It doesn’t matter if this mother is a Muslim or not or whether she chooses to cover her face, her hair, or has yet to start covering either, the fact that she is told to change out of her clothes of her personal choice changes the hormones that are inherent in the birthing realm. When a woman is calm and in control of her birth, she sets her mind in a positive tone and is able to birth with relative ease. When this comfort zone is intruded, things start to get a little hazy. Many times, women are seen bringing in familiar items from home into the hospital. This is – whether they realize it or not – a form of assurance that everything will run smoothly. So by asking a mother to give up her clothes – her personal cover from the world - is an assault upon her right to choose during the most sacred moments of her life.

This may sound extreme to some. Granted, perhaps some women don’t mind wearing the hospital gown, but there could be reasons for that as well. Like most things relating to birth, women are cornered into submission – to listen, to be told, and to follow instructions. This is the same for the hospital gown. After all, many women already accept that the gown is expected of them; the hospital gown is part of protocol; and wearing the hospital gown is something that has to be done, because they are birthing at a hospital.

But do ask a million women personally, if they would like to wear their own outfits for their births – if they were given such a choice - and I bet there would be a million and one different descriptions of outfits, even if some of them have to give it deep thought.

Wearing the hospital gown is part and parcel of submitting to the system, surrendering to the authorities, and giving up something that is quite personal – the clothes that cover your skin. It should not matter what a woman wishes to wear during her birth, her choice should be respected as her entire birth should be respected, including her choice of attendants who get to “see” her in her outfit, and this is particularly true for women who observe modesty when in the presence of others, especially non-mahram(unrelated) men.

Whether it’s a two piece bikini in a water birth, a luxurious birthing gown to birth by candle light or a sporty outfit for the active mama, every mother should have the right to choose their clothes on their birthing day. This little act of choice gives rise to autonomy during birth. When a mother is comfortable and confident – even if it is in a bikini – she births easier. Having an outfit that she is familiar with helps her relax, sending out positive vibes within the birthing realm. She does not have to feel conscious in a piece of clothing that loudly shouts that she is now in a facility and has to obey the rules because she is in uniform. With her own birthing outfit, a mama is reminded that she is that one special person who is bringing a baby into the world and not another file number in the standard birthing gown.

Having said that, the wearing of the hospital gown is just the tip of the birth ice berg. But this article cannot cover everything else that should change in the birthing realm. It just addresses a personal choice that women are denied more often than not when giving birth in a hospital. And who knows, with a little change, it could cause a cascade of changes for better births in the hospital environment.