Rooshanie Ejaz, HRS
Thus said Aisha Bint Talha, niece of the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, Aisha Bint Abu Bakr, in defiance of her husband Musab, who wanted her to cover her face with a veil. Her reason: she believed that God had created, in her, something far too beautiful to hide. She was a member of the Arabic aristocracy of her time and stands out as a young Muslim woman who belonged to an Arabic culture which seems lost in the mists of time.
According to some accounts, women in the Arabic culture of her day were considered strong, and were even respected, when they dared to defy their male counterparts. Another notable woman of the era was Sakina Bint Al Hussein, granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, who was known for protesting not only the veil, but also polygamy. She also categorically refused to allow her third husband to take another wife, and divorced him when she discovered that he was having an affair with one of his slaves. Both women are known for having been great beauties. More important, they are known for having stood up for their own conceptions of their limits of modesty. And here’s the surprising part: they weren’t punished for any of it!
When one looks at the veil, one must see it for what it is and where it came from, as the evolution of this garment is crucial to its identification with Islam. The requirement that women wear the veil can be traced back to the Assyrian kings of the Mesopotamian Empire, who made it an obligatory item of clothing for wives, daughters, and widows, principally in order to maintain the interests of husbands and fathers. Under the patriarchal social systems that were then in place, a female’s prosperity was entirely defined by the fact that she was the daughter, wife, or widow of some man. To wear a veil was to display with pride one’s attachment to a man. Prostitutes and slaves, by contrast, were forbidden from wearing the veil. Thus the veil came to be regarded by both men and women as a status symbol: if you were wearing a veil, it meant that your family or your husband was wealthy enough to be able to keep you secluded inside the home, to protect you from a life of toil, to shield you from public view, and to afford not to have to sell you into slavery. This patriarchal mentality held such powerful sway that people came to view the very honor of a family as being founded upon the conduct of its women, whose behavior could bring shame to their male relatives and could even result in their being ostracized from society. As the widespread use of the veil spread to the nomads of the desert, the garment came to be viewed by them, as well, as a symbol of status, even as it was appreciated as a means of protecting women from sand and sun.
In the years after the introduction of Islam in Saudi Arabia, there was far more tolerance for the public display of unveiled women’s faces than there is in Muslim countries today. As more and more territory fell under Muslim control and Muslims began to amass wealth – and, more important, as they encountered peoples from neighboring regions where the veil was already an established tradition – the wives of wealthy Muslim men, who had once participated, unveiled, in public social events and even in battle, went into seclusion, spending the bulk of their time in their homes and wearing veils when they went out in public. The transition was slow yet steady; wearing the veil in public became the fashionable thing to do. And as this change took place, the determination of social norms and practices became increasingly the province of the “breadwinners” – the men of the house. Looking back at these historical shifts, one can easily see the seeds of female oppression taking root. This development was encouraged by the increasing emphasis on patriarchal interpretations of the Quranic verses regarding the covering and seclusion of women. One such verse, which was often cited in support of the requirement that women cover themselves head to toe, was the following:
“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.” (Quran 33:59)
This verse in particular continues to be quoted as evidence that the forcing of the burqa on women is divinely ordained. After considerable conversation with a number of Quran scholars, including some who belong to the Wahhabi school, one discovers that the translation and transliteration of the words in the Quran that are widely understood to mean “cloak” and “body” are in fact highly contested. One woman who is highly conversant in scripture, for example, explained to me that in her view the Quranic word that is generally translated as “cloak” is actually intended to refer to a mere cloth sheet, also known as a chadar or dupatta, and that “aurah” or “body” is meant to refer only to the area around a woman’s shoulders and chest.
Then there is the matter of historical context. As it was explained to me, this verse was revealed to the Prophet Muhammed at a time when he resided in Medina and was frequently receiving visits from tribal leaders and their entourages who came to swear allegiance to him. In these circumstances, the “cloak” served more as a marker of identity, distinguishing Muslim women from non-Muslim women, than a garment intended to hide her face and body when she was outside the home. Yet if you ask a Wahhabi scholar about this matter of translation, he will give you a detailed list of everything that the “aurah” encompasses, including hands, feet, breasts, neck, head, face, and hair. There is, then, no unanimity in regard to exactly which square centimeters of a woman’s body are or are not permitted under Islam to be exposed to public view!
Another verse that is routinely employed to support the argument that women should be kept at home is this one:
“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, or their brothers’ sons or their sisters’ sons, or their women or the servants whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex, and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O you Believers turn you all together towards Allah, that you may attain Bliss.” (Quran 24:31).
Once again, in my quest for an explanation of this verse, I sought the opinions of scholars from different schools of thought, and was again supplied with completely opposing answers. According to the modest scholar, this verse does not require that Muslim women cover themselves in public. The scholar in question emphasized the fact that the text makes reference to “what must ordinarily appear thereof.” This is, in her view, a clear indication that the thrust of the verse is that a Muslim woman should refrain from proudly displaying her jewelry or exhibiting other signs of wealth and has nothing whatsoever to do with covering herself head to toe. She further explained that while the verse does indeed reiterate the need to cover one’s breasts and shoulders, it does not call for the concealment of the face, head, hands, feet, etc.
Finally, it was explained to me that one consideration underlying this verse was the concern that women avoid brazenly displaying their sexuality or beauty to men who might represent a threat to them in a time and place when there were, after all, no real laws protecting women from sexual assault. This does not mean in any way, to be sure, that a woman cannot be seen by men from outside her family. The scholar who explained these matters to me also went on to say that this verse, in particular, is always used to spread Wahhabi propaganda, as it is always quoted only in part; the first sentence of it actually reads as follows:
“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. Lo! God is Aware of what they do.”
Hence, it is Muslim men, first and foremost, who are given instructions to be modest.
Yet the Wahhabi scholar explained to me that this verse clearly indicates that a woman must only show her face to the men of her family, that it is she who is responsible if men are tempted by her – a sentiment which has given rise to the ridiculous laws that govern rape in countries that implement Shariah law. The fact is that the cultural norms of Muhammed’s time, in the regions between Baghdad and Afghanistan, were designed to keep women secluded and at home, and as the Muslim Empire grew, the generals in charge of spreading Islam were drawn from such cultures. So it is that this culture has continued to prevail right down to our own times, fortified by exaggerated claims for Quranic support on the part of Wahhabi scholars. One very old Afghan adage reads as follows: “A woman’s place is in the home or in the grave.” This sentiment is still rampant among Afghan men and women, and we should never lose sight of the fact that it has, in fact, been around for much longer than Islam has. The niqab was once used to oppress women in patriarchal social systems; but now, given that it has been in use for some hundreds of years, this instrument of oppression has taken on the dignity of an inviolate cultural phenomenon.
When we turn, then, to the debate about the wearing of the hijab and niqab in Europe, it is important to examine the roots of the laws that pertain to these items of clothing. If the hijab and niqab are in fact cultural phenomena that have been spread by means of clerical propaganda, why is there so much hue and cry when European laws are passed which forbid women to wear them while working at jobs which ordinarily require them to wear a uniform? Or that, for example, prohibit them in situations when women are serving in some public capacity or other in which the visibility of her face would be desirable? I feel that the reason for all this ruckus is that European Muslims, by and large, have not succeeded in breaking out of patriarchal family systems or archaic cultural norms. Europeans, for the most part, have made this break. And that is the point: Muslims need to let their actions be guided by common sense and humanity – not by the oppressive habits of their forefathers. In today’s Europe, the law protects women from abuse; this is not true of the long-dead societies in which the cultures we are speaking of first came into being.
It is also interesting to take into account the standard practice in Islamic states such as Turkey or Pakistan, where women in Army or police uniforms do not wear hijab. I also discovered that female pilots who normally wear hijab are not permitted to wear it while in uniform. If women in those countries can accept such regulations so easily, why can’t those who live in Europe do the same? I think the answer is that culture is stronger than common sense and that emotional ties to one’s historical roots can hold more sway than one’s analytical understanding of present realities. The lamentable fact is that European Muslims are clinging to a misplaced sense of identity – an identity which they believe to be Islamic, but which in reality is just a matter of culture.