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Hijab and Molestation

Ali Eteraz


Posted in Uncategorized by eteraz on September 30th, 2007


Are people familiar with ‘illa? It is an idea devised by traditional scholars which is translated as rationication or “operative cause.”

The operative cause is the element that triggers a law into action. For example, the prohibition of alcohol has the operative cause of intoxication; as such, even though the Quran says nothing about cocaine, you can’t snort.

Let’s apply ‘illa to hijab. Shall we? Verse 33:59:

O Prophet, tell your wives, daughters and the women of the believers to lower (or possibly, draw upon themselves) their garments. This is better so that they will not be known molested. And, God is forgiving and merciful.

This is the Khaled Abu el Fadl translation of the verse. Here is Muhamad Asad (with explanation).

(59) O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters, as well as all [other] believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments [when in public]: this will be more con­ducive to their being recognized [as decent women] and not annoyed. [Cf. the first two sentences of 24: 31 and the corresponding notes.] But [withal,] God is indeed much- forgiving, a dispenser of grace!

[The specific, time-bound formulation of the above verse (evident in the reference to the wives and daughters of the Prophet), as well as the deliberate vagueness of the recommendation that women “should draw upon themselves some of their outer garments min jalabibihinna)” when in public, makes it clear that this verse was not meant to be an injunction (hukm) in the general, timeless sense of this term but, rather, a moral guideline to be observed against the ever-changing background of time and social environment. This finding is reinforced by the concluding reference to God’s forgiveness and grace.]

From the two translations it can be gleaned that avoiding molestation and avoiding annoyance is the ‘illa of the hijab.

We know this because according to Fadel, “nearly all the commentators agreed that this verse was revealed to protect women from molestation.”

Apparently there was a group of young and corrupt men in Medina who harassed and sometimes molested women at night. However, they targetted only slaves and not free women. The way the young men of that time who molested women distinguished a slave from a free woman was by the cloth that a free woman wore. These verses were thus revealed extolling women to cover themselves so that they would not be molested.

In other words, the ‘illa of this verse — which Asad states is not a timeless injunction — is the prevention of molestation of women.

This obviously means that if without the cloth a woman is not going to be molested, she can do without the hijab just as you can drink non-alcoholic beer because it won’t leave you intoxicated.

In the US and most Western countries a woman without a hijab won’t be molested or annoyed. As such, there is really no need to wear hijab.

(Funnily enough, in Egypt and Pakistan she will be annoyed or molested irrespective of a hijab so I suppose it doesn’t matter whether she wears it or not there too).

I think deep down the tradition recognize this ‘illa. In 2001 when there were incidents of hijabi women being annoyed or harrassed in the US, Hamza Yusuf allowed women to discard the hijab. Why did he do that? Because the tradition recognizes that continued wearing of it would lead to a result that violated the ‘illa behind 33:59.

Anyway, I’m neither a scholar, nor do I want to be, nor am I a woman. I just thought some people would find it useful; especially the point that this position exists within the tradition, especially Fadel’s point about “nearly all commentators.”

I think if you want to oppose the argument I have just laid out you have to argue that there is no such thing as qiyas (analogical reasoning) (because that is where ‘illa comes from). As far as I know, Hanbalis are the only ones who reject qiyas.

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