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Fatima Mernissi on Theology and Politics of Hijab

By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

15 Jun 2017

For some Muslim feminists (as distinguished from both Islamist feminists and secular feminists who, respectively, seek to ignore modernity and Islam) veiling can’t be associated with Islam that affirms the idea of the individual (including women) as a subject, a free will present in the world, a sovereign consciousness that can’t disappear as long as the person lives. To be veiled is to be crushed and silenced and negated as monstrosity, an untruth.

Muslim feminists are striving hard to “raise the Hijab that covers the mediocrity and servility that is presented to us as tradition.” Thus they see Hijab as a symbol of servility and mediocrity and imprisoning stratagem that derives its legitimacy neither from God nor his Prophet (SAW).

      Feminist author Fatima Mernissi in her Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry has deplored the fact that the “Medina of women would be forever frozen in its violent posture. From then on, women would have to walk the streets of uncaring, unsafe cities, ever watchful, wrapped in their Jilbab. The veil, which was intended to protect them from violence in the street, would accompany them for centuries, whatever the security situation of the city. For them peace would never return. Muslim women were to display their Hijab everywhere, the vestige of a civil war that would never come to an end.”

      Merenesi finds a precedent for modern resistance to Hijab in classical tradition of Islam. Sukyana resisted Hijab and Mernissi portrays her defiant stand in glowing colours. Praising Bay Hijabi (rejection of Hijab) she says that Barza (unveiled) women is one who is also a woman who has, “sound judgment and someone known for their Aql (reasoning), quoting Lisan-al-Arab as an authority.

Mernissi, by her reading of Islamic architecture and Islam’s negotiation with space, tries to problematise the usual legitimating for veil and the traditional symbolism of it. She has political implications of Hijab in mind in her critique of veil (and this is true of many Muslim feminists). I quote her again:  “In conclusion, we can say that the Prophet’s architecture created a space in which the distance between private life and public life was nullified where physical thresholds didn’t constitute obstacles. It was architecture in which the living quarters opened easily onto the mosque, and which thus played a decisive role in the lives of women and their relationship to politics. This spatial osmosis between living quarters and mosque had two consequences that official modern Islam did not see fit to retain or didn’t envisage.

The first is that this equation between public and private facilitated the formulation by women of political demands, especially the challenge of male privileges concerning inheritance and the right to bear arms. The second, which was a consequence of the first, is that the Hijab, which is presented to us as emanating from the Prophet’s will, was insisted upon by Umar Ibn al-Khatab, the spokesperson of male resistance to women’s demands. Muhammad only yielded on this point when the community was in the middle of a military disaster and when economic and political crises were tearing Medina apart.”….

      Mernissi also highlights the essentially negative connotation of veil in the civilization of Islam especially in the context of Islamic mysticism. Discussing the different meaning spaces or contexts of term Hijab in the Quran and Sufism, she concludes: “So it is strange indeed to observe the modern course of this concept, which from the beginning had such a strongly negative connotations in the Koran. The very sign of the person who is damned, excluded from the privileges and spiritual grace, to which the Muslim has access, is claimed in our day as a symbol of Muslim identity, manna for the Muslim women.

      She deplores the perverse evolution/appropriation of the idea of veil in the history of Islam. “The veil that descended from Heaven was going to cover up women, separate them from men, from the Prophet, and so from God.” She argues that the verse of hijab was revealed to demarcate space between men, between the Prophet and the vulgar public. She discusses in detail its Asbabi-Nuzul and concludes: The Hijab-literally “curtain”-“descended”, not to put a barrier between a man and a woman, but between two men …… The verse of the Hijab “descended” in the bedroom of the wedded pair to protect their intimacy and excluded third person—in this case, Anas Ibn Malik, one of the Prophet’s companions. Anas was excluded by the Hijab as a witness and the symbol of a community that had become too invasive and it was this witness himself who reported the event.”15 She reads much subtler nuances of the Hijab: “Protecting women from change by veiling them and shutting them out of the world has echoes of closing the community to protect it from the West. Only by keeping in mind this double perspective-women’s body as symbolic representation of community—can we understand what the hijab signified in year 5 of the Hejira (the year when Hijab descended on Medina) what stakes it represented, and what stakes it brings into play in today’s explosive, passionate and sometimes violent debates.”

      The great significance of the concept or institution of Hijab is recognized by feminists as well as traditional Ulema, although it is being appropriated for very different ends by them. It isn’t just a scrap of cloth but signifies much more than that and permeates almost every aspect of Islamic civilization. Mernissi rightly says:

So we see that the concept of the Hijab is a key concept in Muslim civilization, just a sin is in the Christian context, or credit is in American capitalist society. Reducing or assimilating this concept to a scrap of cloth that men have imposed on women to veil them when they go into the street is truly to impoverish this term, not to say to drain it of its meaning, especially when one knows that the Hijab, according to the Quranic verse and al-Tabari’s explanation, “descended” from Heaven to separate the space between two men.

      Cognizing the enormous significance of Hijab Orientalists, feminists and modernist Muslim scholars have tried to give account for its persistence throughout the history of Islam. The secularist account of religious history leads logically to very different perception of its symbolic or functional significance. Modernity too has emptied traditional religious symbols and practices of their traditional significance. Modernity’s desacralised perspective that tries to account for everything in horizontal terms severing reference to the sacred—the vertical reference—has precipitated the demythologization movement in recent times and attempts to strip veil of any sacred or transcendent connection may be understood in this context. The perennialist perspective while not incompatible with Muslim feminist position on Hijab in practice, however, sees veil in very different light.

The veil reveals very different symbolic significance from their perspective and most objections of feminists could be easily appropriated. Even postmodern difference feminism and recent discussions on the ‘sacred and the feminine’ converge with the perennialist approach to the problem. I just quote Isa Nuruddin (Frithjof Schuon) to state the key point. “Islam makes a sharp separation between the world of man and that of woman, between the community as a whole and the family which is its kernel, between the street and the home, just as it sharply separates society and the individual or exotericism and esotericism.

The home, and the woman who is its incarnation, are regarded as having an inviolable and so a sacred character. Woman even in a certain manner incarnates esotericism by reason of certain aspects of her nature and function: ‘esoteric truth’, the Haqiqah, is ‘felt’ as a ‘feminine’ reality, and the same true of Baraka. Moreover the veil and the seclusion of women are connected with the final cyclic phase in which we live and they present a certain analogy with the forbidding of wine and the veiling of the mysteries.”

      While Mernissi and others have tried to question the first quoted sentence especially, the point about symbolism remains. Her allusion to Zainab has been criticized on the grounds that we cannot find reference to Muslim feminist unveiling before Tabari (d. 310), she was relatively old at the time of reporting and the story is taking place in extremely tragic and difficult circumstances. What makes Mernissi’s (and Amina Wudood’s and most – but not all – Muslim feminists’) case more problematic is their misgivings regarding the whole corpus of Hadith for its supposedly misogynous elements. Besides, the traditional understanding of scripture or its normative role can’t be wished away by reductive genealogical explanations such as Hazrat Umar’s insistence on veiling. The fact that the Prophet yielded to his demand is enough legitimation for a Muslim.

However, the problem of applying scriptural statements in changing historical situations is not unconnected with deeper hermeneutical issues that Mernissi and other Muslim feminists raise or that Muslim philosophers including Al-Farabi in medieval times and Iqbal, Soroush, Arkoun, Nasr Abu Zayd etc. have raised today. This is however extremely difficult, sensitive and subtle question that I leave for some other occasion to discuss. What is valuable in Mernissi and others is showing what is problematic in the claim that such and such is the Islamic position, exploring nuances and even hitherto little noticed aspects of picture and exposing power games that have been played in the name of the Sacred. It is Muslim novelists and poets who also need to be read to understand better the problem in lived understanding of what is miscalled tradition by fundamentalists.