Reclaiming Hijab or Declining Freedom?
By Lopa Hassan
From head-to-toe Burqa to long cloak-Chador to black silky Hijab- each of these attires has become one of the most visible instruments and ideological symbols of political Islam for the last few decades. A number of great articles have already been written in this website on the background and history of veils and on how Islam justified them to be the strict dress code for women. In this article I would like to focus on the ongoing controversies over the justification of wearing hijab in a modern perspective and also see how some western-educated young Muslim women are internalizing the antiquated view of their own status imposed by an inherently misogynistic religion.
“Today young Muslim women are reclaiming the hijab, reinterpreting it in light of its original purpose - to give back to women the ultimate control of their own bodies…...I wear hijab because it gives me freedom. I do this because I am a Muslim woman who believes her body is her own private concern.”
This is an excerpt from an essay written by a Canadian-born college-educated Muslim woman who suddenly decided to reclaim hijab at age twenty one. While being totally respectful of all the notions of civil liberties and a woman’s freedom of choice to wear anything she wants in a democratic society, I can’t help wondering what could drive a college-educated woman, of a North American upbringing, to throw away her freedom of clothing and embrace the veil or hijab and thus deluding herself that she is now liberated.
Just by wearing hijab she thinks she has full control of her body. What an illusive idea of liberation! We need to go to the origin of such notion and examine how veiling is anyway related to women’s freedom. Since the whole idea of cladding with veils emanates from the direct instructions of Qur’an, let’s first take a look at a few Ayats from the Holy Scriptures to examine how much control Allah Has allowed for women to have over their own body.
Volume 7, Book 62, Number 81: Narrated 'Uqba:
The Prophet said: “The stipulations most entitled to be abided by are those with which you are given the right to enjoy the (women's) private parts (i.e. the stipulations of the marriage contract).”
m5.4 (Ref: 8, p526):
Husband’s rights: A husband possesses full right to enjoy his wife’s person (A: from the top of her head to the bottoms of her feet, though anal intercourse (dis: p75.20) is absolutely unlawful) in what does not physically harm her.
A woman must keep her sexual organs ready for service at all times. (Ref: 7: vol. I, p235)
(Shahih Muslim) Book 008, Number 3366:
When a woman spends the night away from the bed of her husband, the angels curse her until morning.
(Sunaan Abu Dawud 11.2142)Book 11, Number 2142:
Narrated Umar ibn al-Khattab: The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) said: “A man will not be asked as to why he beat his wife.”
Looks like Allah’s law guaranteed a man every right to go into his wife ‘anyway’ he wants, to discipline her anytime he wishes, and the wife has no say of her own about this. We don’t need to look hard into Muslim societies to find the terrible consequences the millennium-old Shariah law has brought for women. Due to the absence of premarital dating, the customary arranged marriage compels a Muslim woman to surrender herself to a complete strange man giving him the full ownership of her body. My question, what veil comes to her defense when she ends up being raped at her wedding night? What protection her hijab gives her when she must hasten to fulfill her husband’s desire even if she herself doesn’t feel compel to? Why can’t she take over and claim the so-called ‘ultimate control over her own body’ to protect herself when the husband exercises his Hadith-sanctioned right to discipline her?
The Canadian young woman made some interesting points in her essay, “Wearing the hijab has given me freedom from constant attention to my physical self. Because my appearance is not subjected to public scrutiny, my beauty, or perhaps lack of it, has been removed from the realm of what can legitimately be discussed. No one knows whether my hair looks as if I just stepped out of a salon, whether or not I can pinch an inch, or even if I have unsightly stretch marks. And because no one knows, no one cares.” This apparently logical assertion of ‘not being displayed to public scrutiny’ might give the impression that Muslim women are probably free from being subjected to meet the impossible male standards of female beauty and therefore are actually taken as equal human beings in their society. Sounds more like feminist fantasyland than Islamic paradise! Is there any such Muslim society where the evaluation criteria don’t include a woman’s physical features when searching for a potential bride for a traditional arranged marriage? I’m sorry, my hijab-loving sisters, there are people (like your potential in-laws) who would ‘know’ and ‘care’ if you have an unsightly stretch mark on your forehead or if you have a bad hair day when those people will examine you like a piece of furniture. Yes, judging women’s worth proportional to their attractiveness is indeed a universal male attitude. Perhaps Islam saved Muslim men a little shame on this issue by making it part of the divine decree like the following:
Ibid, p228: The Prophet said: “The best of the women are the beautiful in face and the least in dowry.
In an attempt to defend veiling, Islamic apologists all too often point their fingers to western women accusing them of reducing the definition of liberation to a ‘right of wearing next to nothing’. To these people, a woman can only be either scantily-clad or veil-clad; nothing could exist in between the two extremes! It is true that women in the West are often judged on the basis of their appearance, objectified, and very often suffer sexual harassments. Certainly every society has its flaws. I personally don’t like to see women being objectified everywhere in the media. We need to realize that North American and European women enjoy a whole array of rights and freedom all of which they had to earn through decades of movements and struggles. The freedom of clothing is just one of their numerous civic rights. If we unjustly reduce their achievements and contributions by stereotyping them as mere ‘Baywatch sirens’, we would only do a disservice to women of all backward societies(specially Muslim communities) by crushing their hope of ever marching forward.
So what is the most convincing reason for observing hijab according to Muslim scholars? They endlessly argue ‘wearing headscarves or veils actually stops men from treating women like sex objects. Veils make them (the men) ignore women’s appearance and draw attention to their personalities and mind’. Nice twisted logic! I argue veiling only reinforces the idea that women are nothing but sex objects which is why they have to take the whole responsibility of ‘not exciting men in anyway’ by wrapping themselves up with a shapeless piece of garment. Burqas or hijabs had not been able to raise women’s status to a liberated and independent group of humans in last 1400 years. No matter how much Islamists apologize in defense of veiling, it has been and will continue to be a symbol of subjugation and oppression of Muslim women all over the world. Segregating women from public life, controlling their freedom of movement, and thereby institutionalizing a system of sexual apartheid are just some of the best contributions that veiling has made so far.
Islamic apologists always get the free ride in spreading their propaganda that Islam gave women the ‘true liberation- and a place to actively contribute in society’, simply because no moderate Muslim seems to stand up and pose the obvious question, “Is this because of that ‘true liberation’ we see such a high illiteracy rate among Muslim women in the Middle East?”, or “Is that why the Arab world is being crippled by repression of women and is thus marching toward stagnancy?” Nobody seems to point out the fundamental fallacy of the argument of how veiling protects women from male sexual advances. Why don’t we see any Muslim man being bothered by the idea that implies each and every man of all age would lose every sense of a rational thought at the sight of a girl’s bare arm or her uncovered neck? And what kind of message does it send to a young Muslim girl when she’s preparing to set her foot to the outside world? Doesn’t she need to learn to have respect toward the opposite sex? Strange how we never think about the various psychological traumas a young woman might suffer while going through the process of mandatory veiling.
Muslim women need more than Qur’anic teachings; they need moral guidance showing that they could be modest and virtuous without the help of veils or hijabs. And why is it that women always have to worry about what they should or should not wear? After all, what makes a woman respectable has very little to do with her attire, and a whole lot to do with what is inside her brain and how much she uses it.
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