I am inclined to respond to Farida Farouk’s article ‘Lower Thy Gaze?‘ as it appeared on 7iber on March 2, 2010. In her piece, Farouk uses ample Qur’anic sources to differentiate between concepts such as hijab, khimar and jilbab to show that “hijab” as we know it today is somehow misunderstood to have become a “purely political issue, promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood movement” and a reminder of “the Muslim resistance to what the West might stand for such things as modernity, secularism, feminism and globalism.” While I agree that there have been many negative (and positive!) cultural, social and even political dilutions to our understanding of any scriptural source, I am wary that approaching subjects such as these with pure speculation rather than sound knowledge might risk making gravely false claims about Islamic teachings on the matter, and the millions of Muslim women who willingly choose to wear the hijab.
Indeed, Muslim women and men alike do have a choice in all aspects of their religion, not merely what dress they choose to wear. While I’m sure some can appreciate Farouk’s reminder that “Muslim women have a choice”, we actually need not go further than the Qur’an itself to remind us that we are responsible over our own actions: “There shall be no compulsion in religion, the right path has become distinct from the wrong path” (Qur’an 2:256). It is important to add therefore, that part of the Muslim creed is the realization that the choices we make in the everyday facets of our lives will either bring us closer or farther to reward in this life and in the hereafter. So, the fact that we have a choice in Islam does not mean that Muslims are thereby somehow immune from making a “wrong choice.” This is perhaps how Islam is unique to Christianity, for example; Muslims are meant to find happiness by embodying the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah in their everyday life from what they wear, what to eat, how to spend their money…etc. Therefore, the typical scenario for many Muslim women, including myself, shows that covering our bodies (and hair) is in fact a “right choice”, not just “a choice” – a humble fulfillment of God’s clear commandment, and an adherence to recommendation of his beloved Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him:
Then do you believe in a part of the Scripture and reject the rest? Then what is the recompense of those who do so among you, except disgrace in the life of this world, and on the Day of Resurrection they shall be consigned to the most grievous torment. And Allah is not unaware of what you do. (Qur’an 2:85).
While I welcome Farouk’s effort at “researching” the Qur’an for proofs that the hijab is a political fabrication, I would have hoped to see a less simplistic approach in tackling a rich issue such as this, especially when referring the Holy Book. After all, esteemed scholars of Islam have studied the fiqh of the Muslim dress and moral code for centuries, long before the Muslim Brotherhood ever existed, and have come to a legal consensus that covering the hair and body is, in fact, a fard – a religious obligation – for every Muslim woman, no matter how “liberal” or “radical” any given Mufti is on other issues. Farouk single-handedly abrogates centuries of this legal tradition by reading verse 31 of Surat Al-Noor in explaining that the covering that is recommended is that of the bosom only, and not the hair. I will not go into the misinformation of this tafsir for the sake of time, but I ask, is it possible that zeenah only means bosoms thereby making it normal for Muslim women to reveal their breasts to ” their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women”? (Qur’an 24:31) Excuse my crassness, but surely this is a preposterous thought by any measure.
I would like to add that Farouk also makes a hasty and incomplete claim by asking: “why don’t the men just control themselves?” Well, the Qur’an is clear that “modesty codes” are to be followed by women and men both. If Farouk cared to do her research with more care, she would find that the verse she sites is actually preceded by another verse commanding men to lower their gaze too:
“ Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do” (Qur’an 24:30).
From an Islamic standpoint, preserving piety and modesty is a reciprocal relationship incumbent just as much upon men as it on women. I would advise Farouk and anyone else who is interested in understanding the spiritual and social function of what is today commonly known as “hijab” by consulting reliable sources. For a modern interpretation, I would recommend the works of Sheikh Mohammad al-Ghazali al-Sakka, may God rest his soul.
All of this doesn’t annul the fact that, from a traditional Islamic perspective, wearing the hijab should be a matter of choice, despite the sad reality that it is sometimes done – or not done – for the wrong reasons. The popular political or cultural trends of any given time do not make hijab any less of a religious requirement (except when a woman’s safety is compromised, ex. hijab in America right after 9/11) When Farouk says “hijab is usually sought out by men, who are concerned about protecting the sexuality of the female in question in order to protect their honor” is alarmingly misinformed a claim. If anything, Islam came to eradicate such backwards thinking. Most women I know who choose to wear hijab either do it out of their own free will, and sometimes even against the will of their fathers or brothers. The type of “forced”, “cultural” hijab Farouk is referring to is the exception, not the norm. By assuming that most Muslim women who wear the hijab are oppressed, Farouk contradicts her initial plea that hijab should be a choice: according to her logic, hijab – a political tool of patriarchal oppression – should not be condoned at all! Such rhetoric is reminiscent of biased Orientalists or some Islamophobes in extremist secular societies in laïcité France, that seek to make it illegal for a Muslim woman to exercise her religious freedom of wearing a headscarf in public places.
I am especially wary of Farouk’s equation of hijab with a Muslim resistance to “modernity, secularism, feminism and globalism”: for many professional, educated and bright Muslim women I know, there is no contradiction in wearing the hijab with being liberal or modern, traditionalist or feminist, globalist or authentic. I even find this “clash ofcivilizations”-type claim rather insulting (and I am not easily insulted): it is not my intention to turn this into a personal story, but I am only sharing it because it is a scenario that happens so rampantly, and yet is not told nearly enough. After having had made the conscious choice to wear the headscarf in the US, I do not believe that I was going through an identity crisis, nor was I trying to make a political claim in the West (and I promise you I wasn’t brainwashed by an “Ikwani Imam”, and rest assured my father could care less whether I wore a peacock leaf or a sombrero – let alone a mere scarf – on my head). I consider myself lucky enough to have been awakened to my spiritual capacity as a dignified Muslim woman, true to the teachings of my sophisticated creed. I felt more “modern, global and feminist” in the process – and yes, even more beautiful and feminine knowing that I had control over who could see my God-given attributes, or my zeenah as the Noble Qur’an so aptly calls it. Echoing the great Martin Luther King, I ask, what greater return to the “content of our character” than an act of emancipation from the debasing tendency for men to judge a woman’s worth based on her looks?
Perhaps this is a matter of perspective, but I think high heels, mini-skirts, outrageous hairdos and starving oneself to achieve unrealistic body image are more oppressive pursuits than a headscarf can ever be! Wearing a headscarf, I do not feel militant, oppressed or ignorant; quite the contrary, I feel honored, proud and strong to be resembling the noblest of women in history, from Mary the Mother of Jesus to Fatima, the lady of all the women of the world – may God be pleased with them both. And even if that weren’t my attitude, I don’t believe anybody has the right to assume anything about me, my political views, my family or my educational background just by looking at my appearance. Isn’t that is in itself a form of oppression and disrespect?
It is ironic – and somewhat sad – that an American Jewish journalist could perhaps capture the very essence of hijab better than Farouk, my Arab Muslim sister, when she wrote about the subject last year:
The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I travelled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.
The extremely apologetic rhetoric used by Farouk is in my opinion as dangerous as – if not more than – radical Islamist thought: when one forgoes the richness of the Muslim tradition by thinking they are promoting a “moderate” outlook, one in fact risks abandoning the skeletal structure of Islam altogether and its true potential to create a wholly moral, balanced and healthy society. By making totalitarian claims over what it means to be “modern” and “free”, aren’t we basically just adopting a form of empty inferiority complex towards “the West”? I’m not so sure what is so modern and liberating about domestic abuse and rape – social ailments that are ten times more prevalent in “the West” than they are in Muslim-majority societies.
Thank you, Ms. Farouk, for the reminder that “Muslim women should know that they have a choice in these matters and that their lives should be their own”. And thank you for remembering us, we the poor, sad and oppressed muhajjabas that are not only choking in our headscarves by the Ikhwan and our awful fathers, but also face obstacles such as “illiteracy and inadequate healthcare” too. Thanks, but… no, thanks.