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Feminism Under Veil

Nikhat Rasool

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 of release.

• 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 study are:

• Males have a lower threshold for sexual excitation (Rubin 1970).

• Tend to perceive people and relationships in a more sexualized manner (Abbey1982).

• 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 revealing clothing.

• 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 bodies covered.”

So the above mentioned studies and quotes proves the valid need of ‘Quranic’ law ‘Hijab’

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
Naheed Mustafa

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 bad.

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 themselves.
__________________________________________________________ _______
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 Polytechnic University.

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