Feminism Under Veil
Dec 3, 2007
“To veil or
not to veil?” is the question that is as perplexing if not more so than
Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be?” for modern Muslim women-- especially those
born and brought up in the west.
Why should a Muslim woman be subjugated to the compulsion of a dress code? Isn’t
this restraining her human rights and her freedom of choice? Does the rule of
‘Hijab’ (a scarf covering the head) suppress or liberate women’s individuality?
Can a Muslim lady observing ‘Perdah’ be a women’s rights activist? What does
feminism have to do with a tyrannical, patriarchal religion like Islam?
This effort is to answer these and many similar questions -- to enlighten and to
strip away the veil of ignorance, prejudice and baseless suppositions that
non-Muslims around the globe have against Islam. Though there are many
reservations and misconceptions regarding Islam, this essay targets only one
issue: ‘Perdah’ or ‘Hijab’.
The word “hijab” comes from the Arabic word “hajaba” literally meaning to hide
from view or conceal. The holy book of Muslims ‘The Quran’ at many places
instructs modesty and chastity for men and women both. The Quran says: “And say
to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their
modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what
must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their
bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands…”(Quran 24:30-31)
At another place in Quran Allah says: “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters
and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go
out or among men). That is better in order that they must be known (to be
Muslims) and not annoyed…” (Quran 33:59).
So Muslim ladies follow the words of Allah and practice Hijab as simple as that.
But is this rule actually a repression of women’s freedom or is it a rightful
need of society?
Among all the prevailing religions Islam is the only religion which addresses
not only individuals but society as well. ‘Quran’ gives the infrastructure on
which a Muslim state should formulate its family, civil and constitutional laws
so that society functions normally and peacefully. And that includes the law of
‘Hijab.’ Does this mean that practicing ‘Hijab’ will enable societies to
function peacefully? To some extent yes! Following are some statistics
indicating proportional relationship of women’s clothing and incidence of sexual
crimes against women.
• Research conducted by U.S. Department of Justice and published by the Office
of Justice Programs indicates that “violence against women has exploded in the
past 20 years. Violence is more widespread and injurious to women’s and men’s
health than previously thought. An estimated 1.9 million women and 3.2 million
men are physically assaulted annually in the United States.”
• Another report from the web site of the [Department of Justice] indicates: On
a given day in 1994 there were approximately 234,000 offenders convicted of rape
or sexual assault. Of the 9,691 male sex offenders released from prisons in 15
States in 1994, 5.3 percent were re-arrested for a new sex crime within 3 years
• According to RAINN’s (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network), calculation
based on 2003 National Crime Victimization Survey: “Every two and a half minute,
somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted.”
The study is aimed to investigate the sexual signal value of female clothing by
examining female clothing choice, relationship status, hormonal status and
reported sexual motivation in actual courtship context. The highlights of the
• Males have a lower threshold for sexual excitation (Rubin 1970).
• Tend to perceive people and relationships in a more sexualized manner
• Men are more likely to interpret a variety of stimuli as signals of sexual
intent (see Gross 1978; Kanin 1969)
• In Santin’s study female targets that were wearing tight clothing and
displaying more skin were rated by males as sexier than females wearing less
• Co- relational research by Barber (1999) also suggests that clothing and skin
display serve as particular reproductive signals.
• A hypothesis was made that women who wear tighter or more revealing clothing
will report greater sexual motivation than females wearing looser less revealing
clothing. And the results were amazingly positive.
• An article by David J. Stewart dated April 25, 2005; “Lasciviousness causes
sexual crimes” from the website “Jesus-is-savior” says and I quote: “There are
still few Christians remaining that believe it is wrong for a woman to expose
her body in public. I realize that there are some women of non- Christian faiths
such as the Islamic Moslems who maintain a high level of virtue and keep their
So the above mentioned studies and quotes proves the valid need of ‘Quranic’ law
On the one hand ‘Hijab’ hides a woman’s sexuality from prying eyes of men thus
lowering the chances of being victimized; and on the other hand releases her
mind from constant strain and focus on beautification of her external image.
By observing the rule of ‘Hijab’, Muslim women make a statement about their
identity and their equality as human beings. An Iranian schoolgirl is quoted in
The Institute of Islamic Information and Education as saying, “We want to stop
men from treating us like sex objects, as they have always done. We want them to
ignore our appearance and be attentive to our personalities and mind. We want
them to take us seriously and treat us as equals and not just chase us around
for our bodies and physical looks.”
Feminists of the 18th century actually paved the way for today’s Muslim women to
practice their faith and be modern, independent, articulate and aware women of
the 21st century. Though Islam had already given all the achievable, reasonable
and practical rights to women; the patriarchal Arab culture kept that all
theoretical and unattainable until the emergence of Feminism in the Atlantic
world in late 18th century.
Thus Muslim women have an obligation to the feminist movement, but in Islamic
culture it cannot be received in totality. Today’s Muslim women oppose radical
and extreme liberal facets of feminism which advocates competing with men,
incessant debates on gender superiority, unreasonable emphasis on ‘unisex’
society and its more militant approaches. Extremism in any arena of life is
unwelcome in Islam--so moderate contemporary Muslims rejects radical feminism,
extreme fundamentalism and the Taliban’s philosophy concomitantly.
Therefore within the Quranic parameters and cultural boundaries Muslim women
practice ‘Perdah’ and ‘Feminism’. Hijab/ Perdah/Burqa/Veil or whatever you wish
to call it, liberates rather than oppresses women because the focus will be on
woman’s skills, intelligence and character instead of her cuts and curves.
So Muslim sisters! Arm yourselves with a crystal clear understanding of the
rights given by Allah in the ‘Quran’ and stand up for your fellow sisters who
are still devoid of their lawful and natural basic human rights in other parts
of world. Now it is the time to make a shift: stop being victims preyed in the
cobweb of capt, start hiding your bodies and showing your abilities; be a
collaborator of society rather than a mere commodity. Let’s practice ‘Feminism
within Faith’ and enjoy womanhood, motherhood and individuality with pride.
Following is the exemplary story of a Canadian Muslim woman who started wearing
the traditional hijab scarf. (Website III& E)
A side bar story: My Body Is My Own Business
People see me as a radical, fundamentalist Muslim terrorist packing an AK-47
assault rifle inside my jean jacket or as the poster girl for oppressed
womanhood everywhere. I'm not sure which it is.
I get the whole gamut of strange looks, stares, and covert glances. I wear the
hijab, a scarf that covers my head, neck, and throat. I do this because I am a
Muslim woman who believes her body is her own private concern and--
Because it gives me freedom.
WOMEN are taught from early childhood that their worth is proportional to their
attractiveness, compelled to pursue abstract notions of beauty, half realizing
that such a pursuit is futile.
When women reject this form of oppression, they face ridicule and contempt.
Whether its women who refuse to wear makeup or to shave their legs, or to expose
their bodies, society, both men and women, have trouble dealing with them.
In the Western world, the hijab has come to symbolize either forced silence or
radical, unconscionable militancy. But it is simply a woman's assertion that
judgment of her physical person has no role whatsoever in social interaction.
Hijab has given me freedom from constant attention to my physical self, from
public scrutiny of my beauty, or lack of it. No one knows whether my hair looks
as if I just stepped out of a salon, I can pinch an inch, or even have unsightly
stretch marks. And because no one knows, no one cares.
Feeling that one has to meet the impossible male standards of beauty is tiring
and often humiliating. I spent my entire teenage years trying to do it. It was a
borderline bulimic and spent a lot of money on potions and lotions in hopes of
becoming the next Cindy Crawford.
The definition of beauty is ever-changing; waifish is good, waifish is bad,
athletic is good -- sorry, athletic is bad. Narrow hips, great, narrow hips, too
True equality will be had only when women don't need to display themselves to
get attention and won't need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to
Naheed Mustafa graduated from the University of Toronto last year with an honors
degree in political and history. She is currently studying journalism at Ryerson