Men, Women and the Hijab – a never ending debate

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof, that they should draw their veils over their bosoms…..” (24:30-31)

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A few days ago I was asked by someone why I became so sensitive over the issue of the head covering being addressed. Today I’ve been reading about a young Kuwaiti woman being chastised because she publicly chose to stop wearing the headscarf – something that was being seen as an affront to God but also her father, a prominent Islamic scholar

Now I don’t claim to be a scholar nor do a profess to be particularly knowledgeable in relation to Islamic jurisprudenceBut I felt this was one blog I needed to write – for my own sanity and the sanity of other women who are constantly put under pressure, one way or another, in relation to the head scarf.

Most of us know that there are some topics associated with Muslims and Islam that are generally regarded as the proverbial “hot potato”.  Women in Islam is possibly seen as the most controversial, certainly in the eyes of non-Muslims. But the rights of women, particularly around dress and modesty seems to be an area that is much debated (I would add almost relentlessly) not by non-Muslims, or even Muslim women, but by Muslim men.

What is this bizarre obsession, this almost unhealthy fixation, I would say that borders on stalking, that some men have with how Muslim women dress & in particular whether they wear the head scarf, or what has become known as the hijab?

For those unfamiliar with the word, the Arabic word hijab actually means barrier or curtain. It is used on five separate occasions in the Quran. For example 

“Mention in the Quran the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place to the east and secluded herself away. We sent Our Spirit to appear before her in the form of a perfected man.”(19:27-27)

“It is not granted to any mortal that God should speak to him except through revelation or from behind a veil, or by sending a messenger to reveal by His command what He will: He is exalted and wise.”(22:51)

Now it may be a revelation to many that both these verses and subsequent others do not use the term ‘hijab’ to mean a 24 inch square of cloth that covers a womans hair. It does however mean a barrier / curtain and way of seclusion. So what is this fixation about?

I have many good friends who wear the head covering for a variety of reasons, all very different. In fact, I wore the headscarf for three years as well in the 1990’s. Some wear it because they believe it is a religious instruction from God, who instructs them to cover up not just the bosom area but also the hair. Some don the head covering because it brings them closer to God, it becomes a form of worship in the same way that prayer and fasting are. Others use the head covering as an outward expression of their religiosity – literally wearing their faith on their head. Some wear it as it supports them in observing modesty, an instruction for men and women, in the Quran.  There are more and more women, particularly younger women who have adopted the hijab by way of protest – to make a political statement – ‘I am a Muslim and I have no issue with you or anyone else knowing’. And there are political movements were wearing of the head scarf is synonymous with political affiliations and groups. There are those women who have been ‘shamed’ into wearing the hijab because all the other women in the family wear it. Some wear it because it has become ‘habit’ and to remove it would mean they are no longer accepted as ‘authentic’ Muslims, would lose their credibility within certain circles and might possibly have to forfeit positions of authority within the community. And unfortunately, there are those women who wear it because they are forced to do so by their families, fathers in particular. And there are those who wear it because their husbands have told them they would divorce them if they didn’t.

It’s worth pointing out that women who choose not to wear the head scarf do so for equally valid and diverse reasons. Some believe you can be just as pious and modest without covering the hair. Others believe the Quranic verse does not extend to the hair as it specifically mentions the bosom area. And others are of the opinion that you can still appear immodest whilst wearing the headscarf.

Just as there are contrasting reasons behind why women choose to wear the head covering or not, we must acknowledge that there are diverse scholarly opinions  associated with whether or not the head covering is compulsory.

Eminent, outstanding scholars appear to have adopted various positions around whether the head covering is or is not compulsory.  Abdullah bin Bayyah and Abdullah al Judai, for example, are of the opinion that the view mentioned by scholars, in  their commentaries,  like Ibn Ashur (he says some opined it wasn’t necessary) and Muhammad Asad (he said it was all changeable by custom, as what is ordinarily shown changes from one society to the next)  are valid positions. They also opine that in societies where women who wear the head covering, are attacked , they are permitted to remove it. In fact, it may even be necessary to remove it. Hamza Yusuf said the same both in his books and speeches and has stated that

“The laws are there to serve human beings; we are not there to serve the law. We are there to serve Allah, and that is why whenever the law does not serve you, you are permitted to abandon it, and that is actually following the law. … The law is for our benefit, not for our harm. Therefore, if the law harms us, we no longer have to abide by it.”

Abul Fadl also gave the same edict saying it may not be obligatory.  Others are of the opinion that the head covering is not obligatory on the basis that hair does not form part of the ‘awrah’ (intimate areas). In 2005 after the 7th July London bombings, the Egyptian scholar Dr Zaki Badawi issued a fatwa saying that women did not have to wear the head covering as it was unnecessarily putting them at risk in the current climate. An article by Sheikh Usama Hasan presents a very detailed piece on the issue of dress within the Islamic context,  and can be accessed here . What is clear is that there is no consensus and the topic of how women should or should not dress has been blown out of all proportion.  So, are men just incapable of looking at women whose hair is showing without lust? Can they not ‘lower their gaze’ as instructed? Why have they positioned themselves as custodians of Islamic ethics and integrity? Why do they feel they have a right to judge total strangers and compare 50% of God’s creation to inanimate objects whether they be lollipops or iPhone covers? Do they feel they have a God given superiority that allows them to dehumanise their fellow companions in the world?

I do not wear the head covering. Many of my friends and relations do not wear the head covering. Many of them do. But I will not be bullied into interpreting my religion from the eyes of anyone else. We are all more than capable of making our own decisions based on what we have read, taking into account the views of eminent scholars and teachers and our own understanding of the issue. If that does not comply with someone else’s interpretation, that’s fine. ‘To me my religion and to you your religion’. For me, the head covering is not the crux of my faith. On the day of judgement, I believe that I will be judged for all my actions – what did I do to help the poor, the destitute, the elderly, the orphan and the infirm. Did I lie, cheat, steal? Did I go to bed with an overfilled belly whilst my neighbours went to sleep hungry? Did I leave the world a better place for future generations or did I contribute to its destruction? Did I give water to the thirsty and food to the hungry? Did I bring up my children well? And yes maybe, just maybe, God will ask me why I didn’t I cover up my hair. But in the bigger scheme of things, I suspect that will come pretty low down on the list.

But ultimately these are my views – and God knows best!

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If a friend among your friends errs, make seventy excuses for them. If your hearts are unable to do this, then know that the shortcoming is in your own selves “

(Hamdun al-QassarFrom Tafsir ibn Kathir)

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