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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 4 May 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Time to Question Shame: Tracing the Origins of the Muslim Veil

By Hamza Rao

May 02, 2016

In the recent past, many progressive Muslims and those 'surfeited' with shame and shallow religiosity of Muslim religious thought, have dared to contest the authenticity and logic of many Islamic concepts that have been held sacred and 'divine' throughout the centuries. This spell of prejudice and obscurantist thinking precludes any logical and rational understanding and interpretation of the Quranic message, which in itself – as argued by liberal Muslims – is anti-cultural, intellectual torpidity and stagnation in its very nature.

It is this that keeps the man squelching and suppressing his own mind and coerces him to embrace the shallow institutions based on political biases and prejudices rather than intellectual efforts or evolution. Islam is no exception to this. Today's prevalent Muslim thought is also a by-product of this process. Islam, like most other religions and philosophies, too remained confined to its contemporary space-time circumstances. Its legal and political institutions were largely derived from the civilizations that surrounded and preceded it. Ira M. Lapidus calls this phase the ‘Arab-Islamic renaissance’:

"A period of assimilation, adaptation, and creative transformation of previous, late antique Middle Eastern cultures into an Arabic-Islamic form."

Islam has been relative to cultures and is also understood through particular cultural prejudiced standards which themselves varied from place to place; those fitted most to the elites, endured and proclaimed to be sacred and divine. Thus, it is very important to broaden our historical outlook to understand the prevailing 'institutions' and religious thought, rather confining it to one particular place or period.

One such case is of veil or Hijab. Veiling of women, like many other things in Islamic societies, predates Islam and contrary to general notion, was not particular to Arabs only. It originated from ancient Indo-European cultures, such as the Hittites, Greeks, Romans and Persians. It was also practiced by the Assyrians. The veiling then was closely associated with class hierarchy and also had gender implications; the ancient Assyrian law required it of upper class women while stipulated punishment for commoners who wear it. According to Max Dashu, the strong association of veiling with class rank persisted historically up until the last century. Then more privileged women began rejecting the veil, while poor women increasingly adopted it as a ticket to upward mobility.

Byzantine and the Sasanian empires were the two major powers in the area at the time of the rise of Islam and much of cultural exchange occurred with these two empires. Converts brought traditions of thought and custom with them. Many stories and sayings were mixed with the prophetic sayings and were implemented as a tool to interpret Quran. For example, Quran has given no indication of the order in which Adam and Eve were created; however, in Islamic traditionalist literature (which was inscribed following the conquests and long after the death of the Prophet) there are stories according to which Eve was created from the rib. 

The adoption of the veil by Muslim women occurred by a similar process of assimilation. Cultural background played a major role in interpreting Quran in this way. Many Hadiths and scholarly works that were written following the cultural assimilation reflected the cultural prejudices and well established institutions. Huge collection of Hadiths were recorded, many of the reporters of Hadiths were not even qualified for the task.

A significant part of Hadith literature belongs to the era of sectarian wars, tribulations and political upheavals. Many companions themselves were confused regarding the meaning and context of Hadiths and had disagreements with each other. This is also the one major reason why during the Battle of Camel a sort of dubiety had arisen among the Muslims regarding the matters of leadership and civil duties. All the ideas and opinions of groups and individuals that were involved in such events of wars and differences were relative to their cultural prejudices and history. This was the period when for the first time Muslims had started reporting Hadiths merely for the political aspirations and aims.

One such example is of a companion Abu Bakra, an ex slave freed by the Prophet himself. He is said to have narrated a Hadith which prohibited Muslims from appointing women as their leaders. He narrated this Hadith after the Battle of Camel as a reason for not having supported Ayesha against Ali. Such Hadiths were contested by Ayesha herself. Abu Bakra was once even penalized for falsely accusing someone of adultery. Such were the companions, according to Imam Malik, who were not qualified for the task of Hadith narration. Imam Malik had explicitly said it once that not all the companions were qualified for this task. Imam Malik was one of the few persons who had personally met many companions alive at his time.

Interestingly, Grosdidier de Matons describes Byzantine lifestyles and attitudes toward women that are commonly associated with Muslim rather than Christian societies. Some authors have cited Michael Psellos (an eleventh-century Byzantine author and political figure), according to whom the birth of a boy was greeted with cries of joy, but not that of a girl. Daughters could be betrothed in infancy, and girls were generally married off by the age of twelve or thirteen. Proper conduct for girls entailed that they be neither heard nor seen outside their home. Women were not supposed to be seen in public and were kept as "cloistered as prisoners" as Leila Ahmed suggests. Women were always supposed to be veiled, the veil or its absence marking the distinction between the “honest” woman and the prostitute.

And similar cultural exchanges have occurred throughout the history in different parts of world. For example, in some cultures, wild, uncontrolled hair is associated with unconventional women and is considered condemnable. Witches are often portrayed with untamed hair. In Japan, a proper woman wore a highly controlled hairstyle. In India, widows’ heads were shaved to desexualize them and curb their appeal.

All these facts emphasize the importance of considering the Islamic formulations of gender and submitting them to critical evaluation and reviewing them in a 'sociological' framework, understanding them with reference to their relative cultural and social origins and backgrounds. The reasons presented for the demand or favouring for the veil has, more or less, varied from culture to culture but it has always been rooted in misogynistic and patriarchal aspirations of male elite. Even in the Islamic world, those who support veiling obstinately keep presenting varying and different shallow reasons for veiling.

Times have changed, tribal societies are no more, many civilized nations have realized the fact that it is men's 'recalcitrant' attitude that needs to be trained and tamed instead of forcing women to hide their bodies; those nations no longer entertain such absurdity. No civilized and sane person can justify the veiling, when in conservative countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan it is young boys that are the main victims of sexual harassment. No sane person can blame a 7-year-old girl who has been raped. Hijab has rather become oppression and impediment for women advancement. It is violation of human rights.

The reason for pointing out this very sensitive matter is that the ‘mores’ and ethical values transmitted to us from that period of extreme tumult and disorder, are not worth any consideration anymore. Mainly for three reasons:

1: Sectarianism had appeared very early in Islam and different sects offered varying Hadiths and opposed and denounced each other’s Hadiths. Each Hadith had either been misquoted for political reasons or fabricated wholly.

2: Islam had derived much of its culture from the civilizations that surrounded and predated it. In many matters Islam took into consideration the customs and habits of the nation in which it was born and intentionally remained confined to the structure of society.

3: Cultural assimilation followed the conquests. Ancient misogynistic traditions and myths entered Islam and were largely adopted by the Muslims.

Indeed, Islamic thought needs to be reformed and it is very important for the Muslims to understand that the need to reform Islamic thought is what will serve them in the long term. Islam should adopt modern values and adapt with the contemporary times just like it adapted with misogynistic and patriarchal traditions at the time of its rise. This is a historical lesson, not a theological one. This is an understanding of Islam as a work of men and not the ‘divine’.

Religious thought must be able to adapt and 'befriend' the world it is addressing. Religion addresses societies and societies are based on some ostensibly logical and rational orders. Society and culture are the products of meaningful evolution and hence are rooted and present in individuals’ minds. For this very reason, Islam needs to synchronise itself with the time it is in.

It is a ‘secular’ process. Societies and cultures are created by humans and will forever be reformed by humans. Islam as a ‘religion of primordial nature’ is very compatible with this creative act of humans. Cultural and social reforms and evolution kept occurring throughout the history by the efforts of human themselves, but religion must not hammer your independent intellectual growth – it has a different purpose.

Hamza Rao is a college student, interested in History, Political Science and Philosophy. He wants to write about the lesser discussed topics in our society and fight against obscurantism and religious extremism