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The Hijab
Religion, History or Political Statement? (Part 4)
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
California, USA

Violence against women and children is endemic in the modern world and a great majority of those who have suffered are Muslim. There are conflicts galore in Asia, Africa and Europe, fueled by national, ethnic, religious animosities and external aggression. As we scan the last hundred years, the two World Wars, the partition of India-Pakistan, the Japanese invasion of China, the Indo-China conflicts and the tribal wars in Africa stand out in their cruelty.
In each of these conflicts, as the men killed and maimed each other, it was the women and children who were left behind to endure inhuman atrocities. Notwithstanding universal human rights declarations and the pious protestations of individual governments, violence and abuse of women continue.
The issue may be looked upon from a different perspective, namely, a dialectic between the state and the individual. The ability of the state to inflict injury on the individual has increased enormously in modern times. One reads of tyrants in history, of their dismal dungeons and their gallows, but the misdeeds of these tyrants would pale in comparison to what modern organized states inflict on the individual today.
Technology has endowed the state with a power that not even the cruelest of the despots of yesteryear could dream of. Worse yet, a whole new language has been invented to confuse and deny outright the violence inflicted by the state. We no longer speak of death and injury to civilians who are caught up in military conflicts. We call it “collateral damage”. Dead bodies, broken limbs and shattered lives get lost in numbers and statistics. Pain and suffering are mathematically reduced to cost and benefit analyses.
The threat of violence has an influence on the practice of hijab. A large proportion of women who have been the subject of violence in recent conflicts have been Muslim. Rape has been used as a weapon to demoralize and destroy opponents and enemies. Thousands of Bosnian Muslim women were raped in the early years of the Yugoslav civil war. Thousands of Muslim boys and men were murdered even as United Nations troops stood by. Reports of rape camps in Bosnia and Serbia circulated for years before NATO intervened and brought an end to the misery of these hapless women. Similar reports have circulated about the Darfur region of the Sudan, the Congo in Africa and Gujarat in India. The abuse of women in Chechnya goes unreported. Each of these is a human tragedy but the fact that the sufferers were predominantly Muslim women is relevant to the discussion at hand.
Such widespread abuses, spread over Asia and Europe have fostered a siege mentality among Muslims. Asked to justify why they wear a hijab or a veil, many respond that this is way of protecting themselves. The inability or unwillingness of the state to defend and protect the individual, and in some cases the outright connivance of the state in the atrocities inflicted on a helpless population has fostered this siege mentality among many people. Helplessness has hoisted a minimalist agenda of survival and family dignity. It manifests itself in increased isolation, and attire that completely shields the woman from the public eye. At the communal level, it encourages the formation of ghettos.
The Europeans have shown a natural knack for abusing minorities. For centuries, it was the Jews who were at the receiving end of European intolerance. Today it is the Muslims and the Africans. And there is manifest hypocrisy in how they justify their intolerance. Insults to the Qur’an and the person of the Prophet, such as the recent cartoon affair, are justified in the name of freedom of speech by the same people who dare not touch the subject of the Nazi holocaust.
The situation is somewhat different in the United States. America is the melting pot of nations. It is a caldron of ideas. This is where all the sons and daughters of Adam meet in search of a common destiny. But America is not a homogeneous society. It is a microcosm of the world. The spectrum of people in this continental size nation ranges from the most tolerant to the most bigoted. Sustained propaganda from sections of the right wing media has generated Islamophobia that shows itself in occasional outbursts of hate crimes.
From a doctrinal perspective, there is a difference of opinion among scholars about the application of hijab in a specific context. The Qur’an declares: “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 (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms……..” (24:31).
The emphasis is on modesty, which is prescribed for both men and women. The injunction is to draw the veil over the women’s bosoms. It is directed at the practice of pre-Islamic Arab women who used to walk around with bare bosoms, a practice that may still be observed in parts of the world. Some scholars interpret this injunction in the minimalist way, namely, that it is specific only to the covering of the bosom, and does not apply to the covering of the head or the face. Others interpret it in its maximum application, namely, that it covers all parts of the body.
The thrust of the Qur’anic injunction is the safety and protection of women and the dignity of womanhood. Even the most conservative of the ulema would agree that its application is specific to its context in time and space. For instance, it is not applicable in times of conflict. It is narrated by Ar-Rubayyi ‘bint Mu’auwidh: “We were in the company of the Prophet providing the wounded with water and treating them…” (Sahih Muslim, volume 4, book 52, number 133). In later centuries, Muslim women served as sultans and commanders in chief as happened with Razia Sultana of Delhi and Shajarat of Cairo. The strict seclusion of women is a later historical development.
Culture plays an important part in the observance of the hijab. It is most strict among the people of Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. It is more relaxed among the farmers of India and the working middle classes all over the world. A culture evolves over centuries. It is not altered overnight by government dictates or the rhetoric of reformers. Each culture has its specific social context and each is valid in its own space. And each culture exerts a powerful downdraft to conform. One does not expect a surgeon in Cairo to come to the operating table with a chador nor does one expect a Pushtun lady to walk around without a headscarf in a bazaar in Kabul.
In Europe and America, an increasingly visible immigrant presence raises anxiety and fear in societies that are concerned about the dilution of their own cultures. There is genuine fear of the threat of terrorism. The aggressive behavior of some Muslims exacerbates these fears. Is it reasonable to expect that the Department of Motor Vehicles will issue you a driver’s license when you pose for a photograph wearing a full veil? How do you know who is behind that veil? Is it not a provocation if you insist on walking into a classroom with a full veil at a time when the safety of children is paramount in the minds of parents? If you are a safety expert, would you permit a worker wearing a loose jalaba to work on a lathe in a machine shop?
Extreme behavior elicits extreme reactions. Men and women who hoist an extremist agenda do a disservice to Islam. They must be repudiated. The hijab is a non-issue for Muslims in Western societies. It is hoisted, as other minutia, to detract from the more important issues facing the Muslims in Europe and America such as quality education, representation, safety, jobs, immigration and discrimination. It is used to isolate, corner and marginalize the nascent but vulnerable Islamic communities.
The beauty of womanhood is not just in her hair. It is a divine gift that radiates from the soul and blossoms in its fullness in motherhood. The gist of religion is moderation. This applies to hijab as well. It should be observed keeping in mind the context of space and time. As Islam takes root in Europe and America, it must evolve a visible presence that meets its internal requirements of modesty but is also sensitive to the culture of its environment. There is an opportunity for creativity in this space which extends across attire, art, music, literature, culture and business.


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