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Article 434

Jilbab- A Critical Study

By Oleh: Nong Darol Mahmada


What is Liberal Islam Network’s (JIL) interest in publishing a book on hijâb (recognized as jilbab in Indonesia)? Actually this question is a personal one because the answer must necessarily be subjective. I’m very conscious of the fact that my thoughts on this issue are derived from my personal experience.

I remember that when I was a child my grandmother was very strict about wearing a veil though then it was merely a piece of cloth for covering the head. She was a pious Muslim up to her death (âllâhummâghfirlâhâ). To her, the hair of an adult (baligh) woman should not be exposed since it is aurat (part of the body which may not be visible). If anyone breaks this rule, her hair would be burnt in hell. Surely, the idea of burning in hell haunts me and worse still as a statement coming from someone I adore. Hence, when I grew up and became an adult, I faithfully wore the veil due to the fear of the consequences for not wearing it.

Nevertheless, my decision to wear the veil did not stop my criticism and my search for the answer to the question of why it is that a woman’s head and hair happen to be aurat and thus have to be covered. Why is it that women are deemed aurat so that they must be covered while a man’s aurat is limited only from the knee up to his navel? That curiosity triggered me to study more about the veil.

Apparently, the matter is not as simple as I had been led to believe. It is not merely about definitions of aurat and burning in hell. It is far more complicated than that. For example, in every case of the implementation of Islamic Shariah, the first step is to always make women wear veils. Similarly, for example, in several regions in our country, the first consequence of implementing Islamic Shariah in the region would be the obligation upon women to wear veils. Thus the regulation of wearing the veil is singled out as it is the most physical evidence or indicator of the success of the implementation of Islamic Shariah law. It is almost as if wearing the veil is synonymous with Islam itself. The question is this: Is it true that wearing the veil is an essential aspect of Islamic Shariah?

The answer is certainly lengthy and not a black or white one. Even though the veil is merely a part of a woman’s outfit, this concept has a long history. The word Jilbab is derived from the word jalaba meaning to gather and to carry. In the period of the prophet Muhammad SAW the Jilbab was an outfit covering the whole of an adult woman’s body. In contrast, the head covering outfit in Indonesia was initially recognized as a veil, but by the ‘eighties the word jilbab became more popular.

Jilbab in the sense of being merely a head cover is acknowledged only in Indonesia. In several Muslim countries it is a full body cover. The jilbab-like costume known variously as the chador in Iran, the pardeh in India and Pakistan, the milayat in Libya, the abaya in Irak, the charshaf in Turki, and lastly, the hijâb in a number of Arab-African countries like Egypt, Sudan and Yemen.

Actually the concept of hijâb is not exclusive to Islam. For instance in the Old Testament, the Jews Holy Book, the hijâb was referred to as tif’eret. Similarly in the Bible, the Holy Book of the Christians, the terms of zammah, re’alah, zaif and mitpahat all refer to the veil. Even according to Eipstein, as quoted by Nasa-ruddin Umar in his article contained in Journal of Ulumul Quran, the concept of hijâb (in the sense of a head cover) predated the samawi (sky revealed) religions (Jew and Christian). According to Mr Nasar, this sort of wear became established in the Code of Bilalama (3.000 SM) and continued in the Code of Hammurabi (2.000 SM) and the Code of Asyiria (1.500 SM). The regulation of wearing the veil was practiced in several ancient cities like Mesopotamia, Babilonia, and Asyiria. (Kompas, 25/11/02)

The tradition of wearing the veil was an aspect of family law amongst the Assyrians. This law stipulated that wives, daughters and widows should wear the veil whenever they go out into public space. In analyzing this concept further, when Adam and Eve were evicted from the garden of Eden, covering their genitals was the first thing they had to do (aurat) (QS. Thaha/20: 121). In this regard, the Jewish literature mentions that the use of hijâb began with the original sin: the sin of eve tempting her husband, Adam, to eat the forbidden fruit. The consequence is that Eve and her clan (women) were cursed not only to wear the hijâb but also to menstruate and to be restricted by menstrual regulations. The difference between the concept of hijâb in the Jewish and Christian traditions and in Islam, is that hijâb has no relation at all with original sin or with menstruation. In the Islamic concept, hijâb and menstruation have their own contexts. The accentuation of the Hijâb is much more closely related to ethic and aesthetic issues.
The hijâb institutionalization in Islam is based on two verses of Qur’an QS. Al-Ahzab/ 33: 59 dan QS. An-Nur/24: 31. These verses affirm the regulations in regard to dress for Muslim woman. In surah An-Nur, the word khumur is a plural form of khimar, meaning veil. While the word juyub is the plural form of jaib, means ash-shadru (chest). Hence the sentence and to draw their veils over their bosoms, is a reaction to the dressing traditions of the women of Arab Jahiliya. In the era of ignorance, the Jahiliya period, women used to go out in public with naked breasts and would reveal their necks in order to show off their adornments as illustrated by Al-Allamah Ibnu. For instance, Imam Zarkasyi wrote that in this period the women wore dresses that revealed their necks and chests as well as other parts of their bodies. They also drew their veils backwards while leaving the front parts wide open. Consequently, they were commanded to draw their veils forward in order to cover their chest.” Moreover, dress codes even incited the war between the unbelievers (kafir) of Mecca with the Muslims at the battle of Uhud

The tradition is political, discriminative and elitist-natured. Surah Al Ahzab contains the verse about hijâb revealed after the battle of Khandaq (5 Hijriyah), while surah An-Nur was revealed long after that. They are political because the verses are revealed in order to answer the attack by the munafik (unbelievers who pretend to be Muslims, hypocrites), in this case Abdullah bin Ubay and friends. This attack of munafik “used” the Muslim women by slandering the wives of prophet, especially Aisha. The event is known as al-ifk.* In that period, this event was so important so that it was affirmed in five separate verses: QS. An-Nur/23: 11-16. The problems this has created for Muslim women are incessant though the verses were intended to protect Muslim woman from acts of disrespect. Allah has decreed that the reason for wearing jilbab is so that women maybe recognized and not annoyed and so that the free can be distinguished from slaves.

Thus the laws can be understood to be both elitist and discriminative, since this verse distinguishes between free and slave Muslim woman. Here the ambiguity of Islamic law regarding slavery can be observed. On the one hand Islam is opposed to slavery yet on the other hand, it still supports the distinction of dress for different classes. In my opinion, to avoid ambiguous interpretation, the interpretation should stress the ethical issue of the verse, and not be read merely as a code about the regulation of dress. There should be no difference between a free woman and a slave, good manners and modesty should apply equally to both.

In the Muslim world, many books have been written about hijâb which mention that it is a good Muslim woman’s clothing which separates woman and limits contact between women and men who are not family. The verses do not deliver explicit orders rather they provide expectations about woman’s modesty and the regulations applied to the prophet’s wives. Fatima Mernissi in Women in Islam, has written that in the beginning of Islam the Prophet did not set up a dichotomy between the his own private space and his wives’ with that of other Muslims’. QS. Al-Ahzab/33:53 affirms that there was originally no dichotomy between public and private space.
The institutionalization of the veil and the separation of woman from public space crystallized when the Muslim world came into contact with Hellens and Persians in cities. In these contexts, the veil which was formerly used as an occasional costume became institutionalized and women became obligated to wear it. Moreover, the codification of the standard books like hadits, tafseer, fikh, history, including the codification of standard writing (rasm) and reading (qira’at) of Alqur’an, were influenced by Hellenism and Persian culture. For example, the Israiliyat (transmitted from Israel) history is included in the book of Tafseer al-Thabary and it subsequently became the reference of the ulemas in codifying the tafseer.

According to Ruth Rodded in her book Kembang Peradaban, the debate has centered upon the meaning and practical implementation of the verses of hijâb. Her opinion is based on what consists the proper definition regarding certain words (including the terms hijâb), their contexts and whether the regulation set for the prophet’s wives should become norms for every Muslim woman. Nevertheless as it has been argued by Harun Nasution, “the view that says that hijâb is an obligation, could be answered yes to. And those who say it is not an obligation, could be answered yes to as well. But the clear regulation boundary regarding hijâb is not mentioned in the Qur’an and the hadits mutawatir.” (Islam Rasional, p.332).

In short then, this book takes the view that wearing the jilbab is not an obligation. Even Al Asymawy has proclaimed that the hadits taken as the reference regarding jilbab or hijâb obligation is a hadits ahad (transmitted by single person) which cannot be perceived as having a legal foundation. If jilbab was obligatory for women, the impact would certainly be substantial. As he quoted: “the statement that woman’s hair is aurat, is because it is their crown. It follows that her face, which is her throne, is also aurat. Then her voice which is her authority becomes aurat and her body which is her kingdom aurat. Eventually, the entire female being is considered aurat.” The implication is ultimately that woman cannot do anything as Allah’s creature because she is all-aurat.

We are used to reading books or booklets regarding the obligation of wearing jilbab in the verses of Qur’an and Hadits as well as in experiencing threats made to women who do not want to wear it. For us, this book, bluntly and frankly, explains that wearing the jilbab is not an obligation. Even the tradition of wearing the jilbab amongst the sahabat (prophet’s companions) and amongst their followers is more of a cultural obligation than a religious one.
I wish this pocket book could be a positive contribution for everyone who does or does not wear jilbab. I am not entirely for or against wearing the jilbab as long as wearing it is due to someone’s consciousness that it is an option and one potential mode of expression of self-searching for a Muslim woman. When used without coercion it is a legitimate dress code.

-- Utan Kayu, 17th April 2003

* The event of al-ifk occurred when Aisha was left out of the group in a battlefield because she was looking for her lost necklace. When she reached the camp, nobody was there anymore. The entire troop had left the location. During the time when Aisha was alone in the camp, Safwan ibn Mu’attal al-Sulami arrived with his camel and carried her to Medina. This incident became widely known and was utilized by the munafik (hypocrites) coordinated by Abdullah bin Ubay such that the Prophet formed a special team to investigate the case.



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