The veil: Identity or modesty?
The veil: Identity or modesty?
Deoband’s fatwa on the veil may be dismissed. But not the issues the veil has raised, especially in Europe, the U.S. and indeed in South Asia.
BY now Deoband’s fatwas have become predictable for their narrowness of outlook and a theology which has little concern with reason or, at times, even with learning. Its fatwa on the veil may be dismissed. But not the issue the veil has raised; especially in Europe, the United States and indeed in South Asia.
The Economist of October 17, 2009, reported the debate in Egypt, which has been raging for a century: “The veil has been put off and on as fast as hemlines in Paris have gone up and down.” By the 1970s most women had thrown it off. But it has crept back as a wave of religiosity prompted many to embrace a more distinctively Muslim look. Is the veil, then, a symbol of identity or a protection of modesty? Faced with the onslaught, women adopt a variety of the symbolic attire from the black niqab, which covers the face leaving just a bit for the eyes, to “lighter novelties such as a colourful Spanish-style scarf wrapped around hair tied in a bun”.
In October, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Cairo’s 1,000-year-old Islamic University, Sheikh Tantawi, lost his temper when he saw an 11-year-old student at a girl’s school wearing the niqab. He ordered her immediately to remove it and issued a blanket order banning it in all the girls’ schools. The reason he gave is noteworthy: “[T]he full face-covering is an innovation that represents too extreme an interpretation of Islamic modesty.” Islam does not prescribe the niqab. It is an “innovation” by some Muslims who reacted to Western influences in fashion as a “return” to the faith and an assertion of Muslim identity. The Religious Affairs Ministry of Egypt will be printing a leaflet called “Niqab: Custom not Worship”.
This is not enough. The crucial question remains to be answered. Precisely what does the Quran say on this subject? Marnia Lazreg is Professor of Sociology at the Graduate Centre and Hunter College, City University of New York. The sub-title of her work is “Open Letters to Muslim Women”.
She has interviewed women widely and done careful research. “In my previously published work, I have consistently objected to the manner in which Muslim women have been portrayed in books as well as the media”. On the one hand, they have been represented as oppressed by their religion, typically understood as being fundamentally inimical to women’s social progress. From this perspective, the veil has traditionally been discussed as the most tangible sign of women’s oppression. “On the other hand, Muslim women have been described as the weakest link in Muslim societies, which should be targeted for political propaganda aimed at killing two birds with one stone showing that Islam is a backward and misogynous religion, and underscoring the callousness or cruelty of the men who use Islam for political aims. Such a view made it acceptable to hail the war launched against Afghanistan in 2001 as a war of ‘liberation’ of women. Subsequently, the American-sponsored constitutions of both Afghanistan and Iraq were lauded as protecting the ‘rights’ of women in spite of evidence to the contrary. In this context, any Muslim woman who takes cheap shots at Islam and crudely indicts Muslim cultures is perceived as speaking the truth and is elevated to stardom.” Witness the empty-headed but raucous Milsi of the Netherlands and Nagi of Canada. Neither is known for learning.
In India, any Muslim who denounces Islam or Muslims becomes a hero, and not only in the eyes of the Sangh Parivar. The soft-secularist or, if you prefer, the soft Sanghi shares the approach. The author was born to a Muslim family in a predominantly Muslim country, Algieria, and is proud of her heritage.
Relevant to all
She decided to write these letters to women whose religion is Islam and who either have taken up the veil or are thinking or wearing it. However, writing about women necessarily means writing about men. “To many in the Muslim world, well-meaning individuals beleaguered by geopolitical events, these letters may seem pointless. But perhaps such individuals need to resolve the apparently unimportant issue of veiling before they can defend themselves more effectively. These letters are also relevant to all people, women and men, seeking to understand the human experience. I have reached a point in my life when I can no longer keep quiet about an issue, the veil, that has in recent years been so politicised that it threatens to shape and distort the identity of young women and girls throughout the Muslim world as well as in Europe and North America.”
In France, the state passed a law (referred to as laicite) on March 17, 2004, denying young French Muslim women the right to attend the public schools if they wear headscarves. Turkey reinforced a long-standing prohibition against veiling in public educational institutions and compels faculty members to report and expel from their classes female students wearing headscarves. The Recep Tayyip Erdogan government’s attempt to remove the ban on headscarves in the spring of 2008 threw Turkey into turmoil. The attempt was overturned by the Turkish High Court as unconstitutional. The veil has become politicised.
The author holds that “the religious texts lack clarity and determinacy in the matter”. Shunning extremist positions, her letters are an invitation to reflection based on the Quranic texts: “Quranic words referring to women’s proper attire have been interpreted and translated in various ways that add to the instability of meaning. Nevertheless, at present, four words are commonly used to refer to major styles of veiling: hijab, jilbab, niqab, and khimar. The hijab has emerged as the standardised form of veiling across the Muslim world, coexisting with local styles. It comprises a headscarf wrapped in more or less intricate ways covering the neck but not the face, atop a long skirt, long baggy pants, or combination of both. Often the hijab is reduced to a headscarf draped around head and neck, worn over any modern style of dress. The jilbab consists of a long garment covering the body, a headscarf, thick socks worn with flat shoes (usually sandals), and gloves. Frequently, a black face cover (niqab) is added to the jilbab, primarily by women affiliated with a specific Islamist movement such as the Salafi (or adherents to a conservative interpretation of Islam). Khimar today refers to a specific way of executing a head cover that usually hugs the head tightly and cascades over neck and shoulders in a cape-like fashion.”
What the Quran says
What the Quran says deserves quotation in full: “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigour, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed.”
The references Prof. Marnia Lazreg cites are important: Sura 24.31. The Glorious Quran, text and explanatory trans, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (Islamic Call Society: Socialist People’s Ar ab Jamahiriya, n.d.). “I am using this old translation because it denotes the translator’s desire to be ‘modest’ in translating the word furuj, or pudents, and represents a standard rendition of the original. Contemporary male advocates of veiling also use ‘modesty’ in the translation of this sura. See Muhammad Sharif Chaudhry, Women’s Rights in Islam (New Delhi; Adam 2008), Ahmed Ali translatesfuruj as ‘private parts’. See Al-Quran: A Contemporary Translation by Ahmed Ali (Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1993).”
Interestingly men too are exhorted in the Quran to protect their pudenda (also translated as “modesty”). “However, this exhortation has not given rise to multiple interpretations, nor has it been used to conflate dress with moral character, as has been the case with women.” Sura 24-30 enjoins the believing men to lower their gaze and “be modest”.
Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, a 19th century reformer, defined modesty as an individual’s restraint from evil deeds. The author poses questions few dare to ask and demands answers. “If a woman conceals her breasts and legs but leaves her face bare, is she less desirable to a man? What if a man is attracted to a woman’s eyes or lips more than to her breasts or legs? If one agrees that men’s desire floats from one part of a woman’s body to another, there is no way a woman can be ‘protected’ from it. Men’s desire is the root cause of veils that cover the body and face, such as the Afghan burqa-veils that obliterate a woman’s physical self. She must bear the body she was born with, just as a convict must bear the ball and chain. Concealment of the body is thus a form of punishment as well as an apology for having been born female, when it is not a means of redemption.”
She points out that while “it is commonly understood that an ‘older’ woman may discard her veil rather than wear it, the text of the sura shows otherwise: ‘As for women past the age of child bearing, who have no hope of marriage, there is no harm if they take off their (outer) garment, but in such a way as that they do not display their charms. But if they avoid this, it would be better for them. God is all hearing and all knowing.’” (Sura 24.60). But commentators do not quite agree on its precise meaning.
Al Azhar University acknowledged that poor women are not under the obligation to wear the veil or refrain from work outside the home. Many a woman took to the veil to escape sexual harassment, which is the subject of an entire chapter. Often, advocates of veiling ground their view that it protects women in the following sura: “Oh Prophet, tell your wives and daughters, and the women of the faithful to draw their wraps a little over them. They will thus be recognised and no harm will come to them. God is forgiving and kind.” The veil in Muslim society is clearly not a symbol of identity; nor is there a clear injunction in its support.
Prof. Lazrag’s assertion cannot be refuted. In Islam the hijab is not a pillar of faith. “Nowhere in the Quran is there an indication that the veil is a condition of a woman’s acceptance of her faith.” She constantly draws on her interview with Muslim women to make her point and to demonstrate the havoc religious bigotry and ignorance have caused in the lives of Muslim women. The last chapter on “Why women should not wear the veil” sums up the author’s views. They are based on Islamic teachings, as well as the history of Muslims. “The history of Muslim societies is fraught with instances when women wore no veil without there being much ado. The veil rose and fell depending on local political circumstances. Its evolution mirrored women’s changed perceptions of themselves…. The current revival of the veil, often in a style imported from Egypt (a headscarf and long overcoat) coincided with a failed development policy, a civil war that pitted the government against a radical and splintered Islamist movement, and the emergence of an intraregional movement of cultural identity inflicted by geopolitical events. What goes on in Baghdad and Cairo, Washington, D.C., and Paris has resonance in Algiers, Rabat or Amman. In the history of domination, resistance, and protest in Middle Eastern societies, the veil has been an enduring symbol and fertile ground for dramatising political ideologies.”
In the Shah’s Iran the veil was used by women as a form of protest. In Khomeni’s Iran it became an oppressive mandate from men to women.
“Unlike religious prescriptions pertaining to dogma, the veil is a historical, if not the most historical, exhortation and therefore amenable to change. It carried no heretical connotation or penalty. Going out without it is not a prohibition, as usury or drinking alcohol is. This explains why nineteenth century Muslim reformists called for improvements in women’s social lives – largely held back by veiling. However, even the most liberal among them fell short of declaring the veil a non-religious practice in its essence. In 1879 Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani warned his contemporaries ‘that you should not ignore that it is impossible for us to emerge from stupidity, from the prison of humiliation and distress, and the depths of weakness and ignominy as long as women are deprived of rights and ignorant of their duties, for they are the moths from whom will come elementary education and primary morality.”
The veil should not be glorified. It retards women’s progress in society especially at the work place and in public offices. Advocates as well as opponents of the veil cite the West in support of these views, albeit for opposing reasons.
Freedom to choose
The author’s conclusions, based on case studies, are sound. “Modesty is neither secured nor enhanced by the veil. If chastity is the flip side of modesty, the veil is no guarantee for it either, it lies instead with a woman’s conscious decision to manage her sexuality according to her conception of herself in awareness of the social forces (whether religious or mundane) that seek to wrest from her the moral autonomy necessary for her to make that decision. Similarly, the veil is no protection from sexual harassment. In reality, it may even stimulate more harassment as a number of men are not sure that a woman is not wearing a veil because she is seeking greater freedom from her family rather than out of religious conviction. Besides, men themselves may be ambivalent about the religious status of the veil; they may not see it as an impediment to making sexual advance to a woman or even committing rape. For example, a veiled Saudi woman was raped as she was sitting in a car with a former boyfriend. Nevertheless, the reveiling trend acutely poses the question of a woman’s agency, her freedom to choose.”
The West’s repression will be counterproductive. “A woman veiling herself in Paris is making a statement about her place in French society that has refused to treat her as a full-fledged citizen; it perceives her as ‘allogenic’ and permanently marked as an ‘immigrant’ no matter the depth of her French roots. The veil for this woman signifies the appropriation of a sign that has been so politicised as to mean the rejection of French society. To the use of French culture as a weapon with which she was bludgeoned, this woman uses an equally powerful cultural weapon to defend herself. By the same token, she finds comfort in acknowledging and assuming her Islamic heritage, which she may have repressed for the sake of assimilation into the dominant value system of her society. She revels in her new visibility as a wearer of a reviled custom. A woman veiling herself in New York also makes a statement about the positivity of her culture in a social climate strained by the Iraq and Afghan wars.”
The veil’s revival is part of the revivalist fervour of the last three decades. Women face a political as well as intellectual challenge. They have to fight the recent trends as well as the perversions of centuries past. “Ultimately there is no compelling justification for veiling, not even faith. For it, too, needs to confront the power nexus that sustains the repetition of the history of the veil. No one is entitled to turn the veil into a political flag, and no one should derive satisfaction from its removal except women themselves.”