OP-ED: Unveiling the truth —Farida Majid
If the insistence on hijab as a paradigmatic self-definition of Islam is based on the mendacious presumption that the Qur’an mandates it, then Muslims all over the world should stand up and resist this irreligious propaganda
The debate on hijab is intensifying in France and Germany. Muslim women have stood up and demanded the right to wear hijab. Attitudes are hardening on both sides and Muslims have come to consider the ‘attack on hijab as an attack on Islam’. Is that correct? The claim deserves closer examination.
Hijab is a controversial issue and has been interpreted differently by Islamic scholars. In the present context, it generally refers to the modern headscarf. So the sticking point is the headscarf. Is it a valid symbol of Islam? No. Indeed, such a claim flows from the insidious and misogynistic politics ‘hijabisation’.
The Quran does not mandate hijab; nor is hijab sanctioned by the Hadith. There are three verses in the Quran that deal with the women’s dress issue. All of them use mild language by way of gentle suggestion or kindly advice. The word hijab itself means curtain and it occurs seven times in the Quran in a variety of nuances of meaning. Its most notable use is in Sura Maryam. It occurs in the sense of a screen in the context of Mary’s immaculate conception of Jesus, and the word metaphorically captures the moment of that miracle.
References to women’s seclusion and modest dressing are made in Sura Ahzab (33: 32, 33, 53), but they are very specifically addressed to the Prophet’s younger wives. Muslim scholars all over the world acknowledge that this advice, still mildly worded, is not binding on the general mass of m’umina, the believing women. Only Abu ‘Ala Moududi insists that the advice in Sura Ahzab be treated as dicta for all Muslim women, although the verses begin with: Ya Nisa un Nabi, O women of the Nabi, you are not like other women.
The loud claims made by the Muslim patriarchy and their army of well-mobilised women-followers that there such a thing called the Islamic dress code for women has very feeble basis in the Quranic text. Religious traditions are vast, and in Islam’s case, globally spread out. Traditionally, Islamic legal-moral rules or mores were carefully attuned to the way the Quranic language communicated on the matter at hand. Trained religious scholars or Arabic jurists would comb the Qur’an in order to establish a graded scheme of classifying behaviour, like wajib (mandatory), mandub (recommended), mubah (permitted), makruh (disapproved), haram (forbidden), and so on.
The most egregious falsification by the proponents of hijab occurs, ironically, in the case of the most frequently quoted verse from Sura Nur (24:31): “Tell the believing women to lower their eyes, guard their private parts, and not display their charms except what is apparent outwardly, and cover their bosoms with their veils and not to show their finery”. Mark again the even-toned language of the advice and the generality of what is being advised.
Discounting the fast-disappearing tribal groups of Africa, South America and some other parts of the world where women remain topless, women of all religions around the world dress by covering their bosoms. Not to show their finery is an additional cautionary measure towards checking an individual’s desire to show off superficial adornments to outsiders. But the Quran is not as draconian in its opinion on a woman’s natural desire to adorn herself as the Muslim fundamentalists interpret from this verse. In the rest of the ayat we get the idea that a sweet, youthful m’umina can wear her fineries in front of her family members and householders.
The key to understanding the true import of this verse is the first utterance: Tell the believing women to lower their eyes. These words are rhetorically repeated here from the preceding verse 30: “Tell the believing men to lower their eyes.” Bar none, both sexes are asked to cast down the gaze or glance. Modesty, then, resides in the mind. All other external accoutrements suggested by the Quran are subservient to this inner, mental activity.
This is further reinforced by the adverbial clause: min absari. The verbal, absar comes from basira meaning the power of mental perception, discernment, clear thinking, etc. Therefore, the clause, min absari, appended to the lowering gaze action should mean that both men and women are asked by the Quran to divert our gaze from what is before their eyes and turn inward to inner discernment.
As in Sura Nur: 30 and 31, all the advice for modesty to women can be shown as replicated for men elsewhere in the Quran. The tone of the language, however, when it is addressing men, is definitely more strident. In Sura Luqman (31:18-19), for instance: “Do not hold men in contempt, And do not walk with hauteur on the earth. Verily God does not like the proud and boastful. Be moderate in your bearing, and keep your voice low. Surely the most repulsive voice is that of the donkey”.
The Quranic language is clear and unambiguous about its admonitions. The genuinely pious and spiritually well-formed men were, and are, mindful of such Quranic moral guidance.
It is the modern fundamentalists who are either ignoring the sacred words of the Qur’an, or superimposing ideologically driven meanings upon them in order to suppress Muslim women. If the insistence on hijab as a paradigmatic self-definition of Islam is based on the mendacious presumption that the Qur’an mandates it, then Muslims all over the world should stand up and resist this irreligious propaganda.
Farida Majid is a poet, scholar and literary translator living and teaching in New York City