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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 10 Sept 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Unveiling Of a Veiling Culture


By Tuan M Zameer Careem

09 September 2012

The issues pertaining to the laws of Islam (Shariah) regarding the clothing of Muslim women, has been an intriguing topic for the Western world since recent past. As we look back at the classic Arabian civilization, women who lived before and at the time of prophet went harmoniously and embraced modesty on their own free will, in contrast to the today’s world where ‘burqa’, ‘abaya’, ‘Niqab’ and the head scarf are considered as a symbol of religious obscurantism by the western world which condemns these clothing practices in the Arab world as a symbol of subjugation of women and their servitude in the patriarchal Muslim world.

Though it is certainly untrue, many of the Arab nations considers the hijab and face veil as a sign of fundamentalism against the secular government and a beacon that emphasize on the political Islam. The Tunisian government since 1981 and the government of Turkey since 1997 are amongst the Muslim states that have revolted and later banned women from wearing the hijab in government institutions, public schools and in universities, and as recent as July 2010, the Syrian government officially banned the face veil.

The historic texts and chronicles that speak on the Mediterranean culture and pagan practices and traditions prior to the coming of the medieval renaissance and the age of discovery, helps provide a clear insight to the invention and history of the face veil and head cover. The Arabian region has been an abode to great scholars, philosophers and prophets while it is considered the cradle of all four major religions, like Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and Baha’i faith. As we delve deep into the history of religions practices, the Judaeo-Christian traditions provide the best known evidence that helps corroborate the first known practice of head covering and face veil in the Arabian culture. Considerably both veiling and head covering is closely associated with the cultural paradox of the Arabian society besides their prominence in the religious manuscripts.

Women who lived at the time of the holy prophet were not forcibly made to clad in heavily hooded and veiled clothes, but Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) promoted modesty amongst female believers and created a secure environment where the dignity, chastity, liberty and rights of women were ensured. Many of the ancient laws and ultimatums drawn by the holy prophet, has been wrought by the male chauvinists of today, as a result of political repression and terrorism based atrocities.

The Quran and the Hadiths are emphatic on the subject of modesty and male chauvinists or political leaders of today cannot interpret the words of God according to their whims and fancies. The Islamic philosophy for over many centuries have guided women and stressed on the fact that it is better to be safe than sorry. The accounts of the verbal and physical traditions of holy prophet Mohammed (pbuh), known as “Hadiths”, speaks on the social reforms in areas such as women rights and social security, improved on the status quo of the Arab society. When the prophet began preaching the principles of religion he endured hardships and underwent serious threats and ill treatment and had to deal with ignorance.

Prophet Mohammed condemned polytheism, female infanticide and tribalism, later set men and women free from slavery. He terminated the pagan prelude in the history of the Arab culture and drew the first known set of rules and ethics that stressed on safeguarding the modesty, rights, privacy and morality of both men and women. It is reported that when Asma bin Abu Bakr entered the quarters of prophet Mohammed clad in a diaphanous robe and the prophet turned his head immediately and is quoted as saying, “Oh Asmah, if the woman reaches puberty it is not allowed to be seen from her except this and this,” pointing to his hand and face.

The historic texts and the Hadith claims that the prophet advised his female believers to clad in an opaque garment, so as to conceal the clothes worn under, plain so to screen the women’s beauty and loose fitting so as to conceal the women form. The prophet believed that this practice will inevitably safeguard the chastity, modesty, dignity and respect of women. He also stressed on protecting the devout Muslim women from molestation.

The holy Quran guides the Muslim believers stressing especially on the male believers that “you shall converse with the wives of the holy prophet behind the hijab, which literally means a spatial curtain that provides women the privacy that they deserve. The ‘hijab’ here is not associated with the present modulated term, which has been invariably used to infer the clothing that veils the women. “…And they (women) have rights (over their husbands) similar (to the rights of their husbands) over them­ according to what is equitable. But men have a degree (of responsibility) over them…” (Quran 2:228)

God Almighty, the Exalted says in Surat an-Noor, ayah 31: 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; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof… 24:30-31

And the most merciful and beneficent says in Surat al-Ahzab, ayah 59: Oh Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their outer garments close around them. That will be better, that they may be known and so not be bothered. And God is oft-forgiving, most merciful.

From these two ayaat of the Quran it is clear  that the Islamic forms of dress is not a symbol to social oppression or extreme religiosity and it is men and women believers who are vested upon with the right to conceal their body so to defend their privacy and maintain their modesty. Yet it is an indication of their submission to God, their true beliefs and furthermore, although it is permissible to leave the face and the hands uncovered in the presence of strangers, in the case of women it is praiseworthy to cover it, as that was the practice of the wives of the Prophet (saws) according to authentic hadith.

However it is not a strict obligation or a rule put forth by the Quran or the messenger of God. It is quite clear that the liberty enjoyed by the women folk during the golden age of Islam and even during the days of the caliphates stands as clear evidence against the obligation of niqab or Burqa that stands as a main impediment that persecutes women of the patriarchal Arab societies of the present day. Many of us are certainly aware of the political turmoil regarding women who hail from countries of both the Arab gulf and North Africa and many of us would have read of the trauma endured by the women in the land of the Bamiyan Buddha.

Stories of the Jews in the many volumes of the Rabbinic literature helps testify to the fact that women used to go out in public with the head covered and sometimes even covered the whole face leaving only the eyes open. The holy texts of the Rabbis state, “the curse of poverty shall befall upon you all: When the women of yours expose their hair for self adornment. While the Rabbinic law also forbids the recitation of prayers and blessings in the presence of bear heads, as the unveiling of once head delineates nudity. The early Jewish societies of the Tannaitic period considered the veil as a social expression of modesty, status, self respect and as an indication to their aristocratic lineage.

Aside from the Islamic context the veil has been a part of the world religions especially in Catholicism, Methodism, Anglicanism, Judaism, Greek Orthodox and in other denominations of Christianity for over many centuries, but in the religion of Hinduism neither its Vedas or scriptures stress on veiling, but  for over many centuries both the traditional Hindu and Buddhist adherents have maintained modesty, it is praiseworthy to note that women believers  have lowered their gaze and retained their long inherited customs that concern their obedience and self respect.

The historic texts such as the New Testament have interesting commentary about the veil. A veil over the hair has long been associated with obedience to sacred scriptures and their submissiveness to religion and to the God almighty and a woman who wears the veil on her heart accepts the place that God gives to women in the Church, the family and society. The excerpt below helps corroborate the concept of veiling in Catholicism.

“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays with his head covered dishonours his head, but any woman who prays with her head unveiled dishonours her head – it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shone or shaven, let her wear a veil. (1 Corinthians 11:3-10, 16)

 And St. Tertullian (the first man to formulate the Trinity), in his treatise, On the Veiling of Virgins, even obliged the use of veil at home: ‘Young women, you wear your veils out on the streets, so you should wear them in the church; you wear them when you are among strangers, then wear them among your brothers.’

Catholic nuns are epitome of modesty, obedience and benignity and are meritorious but as we analyze and emphasize more on the subject it is clear that the covering of head by the Catholic nuns for hundreds of years is considered implacable and has long been a symbol of modesty and obedience while the crux of this issue is the trauma, social injustice endured by the Muslim women population as a result of their veiling which in contrast is often depicted as a sign of social oppression, servitude to the men folk and as a symbol of religions obscurantism.

If so what hinders the women of the Muslim world is that what hinders almost everyone who traces their religious beliefs and doctrines from the Mediterranean. So what is pertinent to the ancient druidry, customs and long inherited traditions practiced by the Jews and Catholics for example, if considered and respected as a symbol that helps portray their modesty and obedience to God Almighty the same implies to the Muslim women as well. Consequently the burqa, abaya, hijab and any other form of clothing that conceals one’s body in accordance with religion are thus symbols that testify their submissiveness to God Almighty and not an indication to social oppression. Nevertheless the female deprivations and sufferings in the Arab world are highly condemned and are inevitably treacherous crimes which no one can deny nor justify.