Hijab has been the subject of much controversy and debate, especially since the French government decided to ban hijab and other religious “symbols” from public schools. Everyone wants to know what’s hijab all about? Is hijab a matter of choice or not? Do Muslim women get forced to wear the hijab? How do the non-Muslims view the Muslim women? Why does the West see The Veil as symbol of oppression of women, making them invisible, anonymous and voiceless? Is the Headscarf symbol of Islam only, or does it have any roots in Judaism and Christianity? What’s the origin of The Veil?
A lot of question, I know. Most if not all were answered over many debates and on many occasions, however, since many of the visitors here are from western background, it is important for me to try to answer some of these questions again, and I’m sure many others will have a different opinions.
But before we talk about hijab, it has to be made clear first that Muslim women in the Muslim world today do not receive the noble treatment described by Islam! (This is a shocking statement, someone might say. I mean you don’t expect a person to defend some Islamic symbol, yet criticize his Muslim society. But one has to be fair!).
Anyway, the vast differences among Muslim societies make most generalizations too simplistic. There is a wide spectrum of attitudes towards women in the Muslim world today. These attitudes differ from one society to another and within each individual society. Nevertheless, certain general trends are discernible. Almost all Muslim societies have, to one degree or another, deviated from the ideals of Islam with respect to the status of women. These deviations have, for the most part, been in one of two opposite directions. The first direction is more conservative, restrictive, and traditions-oriented, while the second is more liberal and Western-oriented.
The societies that have digressed in the first direction treat women according to the customs and traditions inherited from their forebears. These traditions usually deprive women of many rights granted to them by Islam. Besides, women are treated according to standards far different from those applied to men. This discrimination pervades the life of any female: she is received with less joy at birth than a boy; she is less likely to go to school; she might be deprived any share of her family’s inheritance; she is under continuous surveillance in order not to behave immodestly while her brother’s immodest acts are tolerated; she might even be killed for committing what her male family members usually boast of doing; she has very little say in family affairs or community interests; she might not have full control over her property and her marriage gifts; and finally as a mother she herself would prefer to produce boys so that she can attain a higher status in her community.
Back to Hijab. Let us shed some light on what is considered in the west as the greatest symbol of women’s oppression and servitude, Hijab, the veil or the head cover. Hijab is derived from the Arabic word hajaba, which means to conceal or to prevent from being seen. The garb must be loose and opaque and must be worn, whenever the women either leaves the house, or whenever male visitors not belonging to the family are received. Only the hands and face may, according to the prophet Mohammed, be visible, but this point is rather controversial. Some also choose to cover these parts of the body, but more often than not this is the result of the personal choice of the individual woman.
Ok then. But, is it true that there is no such thing as the veil in the Judaeo-Christian tradition? Let’s set the record straight.
According to Rabbi Dr. Menachem M. Brayer (Professor of Biblical Literature at Yeshiva University) in his book ‘The Jewish woman in Rabbinic literature’, it was the custom of Jewish women to go out in public with a head covering which, sometimes, even covered the whole face leaving one eye free. He quotes some famous ancient Rabbis saying,”It is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with heads uncovered” and “Cursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen….a woman who exposes her hair for self-adornment brings poverty.”
Rabbinic law forbids the recitation of blessings or prayers in the presence of a bareheaded married woman since uncovering the woman’s hair is considered “nudity”.
Dr. Brayer also mentions that “During the Tannaitic period the Jewish woman’s failure to cover her head was considered an affront to her modesty. When her head was uncovered she might be fined four hundred zuzim for this offense.” Dr. Brayer also explains that veil of the Jewish woman was not always considered a sign of modesty. Sometimes, the veil symbolized a state of distinction and luxury rather than modesty. The veil personified the dignity and superiority of noble women. It also represented a woman’s inaccessibility as a sanctified possession of her husband. It is clear in the Old Testament that uncovering a woman’s head was a great disgrace and that’s why the priest had to uncover the suspected adulteress in her trial by ordeal (Numbers 5:16-18).
The veil signified a woman’s self-respect and social status. Women of lower classes would often wear the veil to give the impression of a higher standing. The fact that the veil was the sign of nobility was the reason why prostitutes were not permitted to cover their hair in the old Jewish society. However, prostitutes often wore a special headscarf in order to look respectable. Jewish women in Europe continued to wear veils until the nineteenth century when their lives became more intermingled with the surrounding secular culture. The external pressures of the European life in the nineteenth century forced many of them to go out bare-headed. Some Jewish women found it more convenient to replace their traditional veil with a wig as another form of hair covering. Today, most pious Jewish women do not cover their hair except in the synagogue. Some of them, such as the Hasidic sects, still use the wig.
What about the Christian tradition? It is well known that Catholic Nuns have been covering their heads for hundreds of years, but that is not all. St. Paul in the New Testament made some very interesting statements about the veil:
“Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head” (I Corinthians 11:3-10).
St. Paul’s rationale for veiling women is that the veil represents a sign of the authority of the man, who is the image and glory of God, over the woman who was created from and for man.
St. Tertullian in his famous treatise ‘On The Veiling Of Virgins’ wrote, “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…”
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Among the Canon laws of the Catholic church today, there is a law that require women to cover their heads in church. Some Christian denominations, such as the Amish and the Mennonites for example, keep their women veiled to the present day. The reason for the veil, as offered by their Church leaders, is “The head covering is a symbol of woman’s subjection to the man and to God” : The same logic introduced by St. Paul in the New Testament.
From all the above evidence, it is obvious that Islam didn’t invent the head cover, but Islam endorsed it. The Quran urges the believing men and women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty and then urges the believing women to extend their head covers to cover the neck and the bosom “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty……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 ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms….” (24:30,31).
The Quran is quite clear that the veil is essential for modesty, but why is modesty important? The Quran is still clear:
“O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies (when abroad) so that they should be known and not molested” (33:59).
This is the whole point, modesty is prescribed to protect women from molestation or simply, modesty is protection.
Thus, the only purpose of the veil in Islam is protection. The Islamic veil, unlike the veil of the Christian tradition, is not a sign of man’s authority over woman nor is it a sign of woman’s subjection to man. The Islamic veil, unlike the veil in the Jewish tradition, is not a sign of luxury and distinction of some noble married women. The Islamic veil is only a sign of modesty with the sole purpose of protecting women, all women. The Islamic philosophy is that it is always better safe than sorry.
In fact, the Quran is so concerned with protecting women’s bodies and women’s reputation that a man who dares to falsely accuse a woman of unchastity will be severely punished, “And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses (to support their allegations)- Flog them with eighty stripes; and reject their evidence ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors”(24:4).
Compare this strict Quranic attitude with the extremely lax punishment for rape in the Bible
“If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives” (Deut. 22:28-30).
One must ask a simple question here, who is really punished? The man who only paid a fine for rape, or the girl who is forced to marry the man who raped her and live with him until he dies? Another question that also should be asked is this: which is more protective of women, the Quranic strict attitude or the Biblical lax attitude?
Some people, especially in the West, would tend to ridicule the whole argument of modesty for protection. Their argument is that the best protection is the spread of education, civilised behaviour, and self restraint. We would say: Fine but not enough.
- If ‘civilization’ is enough protection, then why is it that women in North America, dare not walk alone in a dark street – or even across an empty parking lot?
- If Education is the solution, then why is it that a respected university like University of Essex has a ‘walk home service’ for female students on campus?
- If self restraint is the answer, then why are cases of sexual harassment in the workplace on the news media every day?
A sample of those accused of sexual harassment, in the last few years, includes: Navy officers, Managers, University professors, Senators, Supreme Court Justices, and the President of the United States!
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the following statistics, written in a pamphlet issued by the Dean of Women’s office at Queen’s University:
Something is fundamentally wrong in this society. A radical change in the society’s life style and culture is absolutely necessary. A culture of modesty is badly needed, modesty in dress, in speech, and in manners of both men and women. Otherwise, the grim statistics will grow even worse day after day and, unfortunately, women alone will be paying the price. Therefore, a society like France which expels young women from schools because of their modest dress is, in the end, simply harming itself.
It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same headscarf revered as a sign of ‘holiness’ when worn for the purpose of showing the authority of man by Catholic Nuns, is reviled as a sign of ‘oppression’ when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim women. (Friday khutbah by Sherif Muhammad. Kingston, February, 1995)
The orthodox Muslim woman does not perceive the veil as inhibiting or oppresive. On the contrary. The veil guarantees her the full respect of the surroundings, and thus must be considered a privilege rather than a burden.
The dignity of the wife or the daughters, or the dignity of any Muslim woman, for that matter, must be respected and protected. The western entertain the erroneous notion that the veil represents a compulsion from the husband and the religion. But women wearing veils, on the other hand, normally radiate devotion towards their religion. They have chosen the veil as a clear demonstration of their Muslim identity.
Forcing anyone to do something against their own will is against Islam. There is no demand of compulsion in the Koran. On the other hand, every human being should see it as a religious duty to act out of a clean heart.
Of course there may be families where the woman is forced, for instance to stay at home. But that does not imply that doing so is Islam.
Last but not least, across the Muslim world, from high-end fashion stores in Dubai to more economic ones in working-class Cairo, women shop for a range of Islamic garb from stark black abayas in feather-light chiffon or heavy cotton, to exquisitely embroidered gallabeyas – or long flowing gowns – and ornately beaded and sequined hijabs.
The diversity ranges from the gallabeyas and abayas with scarves of the Arab world to the chador or manteau (coat) and russari (scarf) of the Persian world to the chuni or wispy fabric accompanying the shalwar kameez in the Indian subcontinent to an assortment of veils and burqas worn in Muslim Southeast Asia and Africa.
They all fall under the rubric of the hijab, a term loosely, if not always accurately, employed to denote loose clothing topped by a headscarf.
But within Islam, the issue of veiling is a subject for considerable debate. Some Islamic experts say the text is open to interpretations, which has accounted for the diversity of veiling traditions across the Islamic world.
“Although the Koran does call upon women to cover their heads, the measures change from tradition to tradition. The burqa in particular, is part of local traditions in different parts of the world. While the Koran does not obliterate the need for hijab, Muslim women have a choice based on their circumstances. But Koranic injunctions definitely call for modesty in dressing.”
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