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Trying to Keep One's Head in Shifting Sands

Monday, June 16, 2008


Summayyah Meehan’s article for the Khaleej Times starts out like this: “The headscarf, or hijab, is just a small piece of fabric but the controversy that often surrounds it is immeasurable. Muslim women who wear the hijab are often socially stigmatized, in non-Muslim and sometimes even Muslim countries, as being mindless drones who are under the thumbs of their domineering husbands.”


But then Meehan proceeds to educate us why Muslim women really wear the headscarf: “This could not be further from the truth. The reason Muslim women wear the hijab is because Allah commands us to do so.”

Really? All Muslim women who wear the headscarf wear it because of everybody’s favorite sura? Not a single one of wears it for political or traditional reasons? Not a single woman in Saudi Arabia or Iran wears it because the law tells them to?

This kind of generalization leads to outright ignoring of the facts later in the article, but I’ll touch on that later.

Meehan makes a good point that advertisements for movies are full of scantily-dressed women with “bulging bosoms and voluptuous bodies and hair” that “turn thinking and living souls into nothing more than sexual objects.” She contrasts this with the idea that women who are “dressed modestly and her hair is properly covered, she can only be seen for what she truly is, which is an intelligent woman with ideas and a voice of her own. She is not a piece of meat to be drooled over and defamed.” If this were true, and being "properly covered" allows others to see only an "intelligent woman with ideas and a voice of her own", why is it that Meehan had to write an article slamming people for assuming that Muslim women who cover their hair are “mindless drones”? Why is it that a woman who wears a headscarf is just as aware of and subject to sexual harassment?

From here, we travel to Meehan talking about how Islam liberated every single Muslim woman in the world. Don’t get me wrong: I believe Islam and feminism (and humanism) are compatible and even synonymous. Nor am I insinuating that Islam didn’t improve the situation of Arabian women at the time of its inception.

But Meehan wants us to believe that the world holds no more ills because of Islam. When stating the lot of pre-Islamic Arabian women, she tells us,

“She was not entitled to hold property and her husband could divorce her at his whim without compensating her. He could also simply throw her out of the home, not divorcing her, which meant she would spend the rest of her life in limbo unable to remarry. And she had no voice in her society either. Women were not even allowed to seek an education. All of this changed when the Quran [sic] was revealed to the Last Prophet and women were given their rightful voices.” [my emphasis]

So…does that mean that none of this stuff happens in countries with predominantly Muslim populations, then? This article appeared in a Kuwaiti newspaper. Are we to assume that Kuwaiti women (who, by the way, only received the right to vote within the last three years) are never thrown out of their homes by vindictive husbands, are never ignored in societal debates, are never denied educations?

Meehan is writing from an American-in-Kuwaiti perspective. I can’t decide whether she is also writing from a naïve perspective or from willfully ignorant perspective. Because she lives and works in Kuwait, I have a hard time believing that she isn’t aware of the trafficking or domestic abuse issues in Kuwait or the rest of the Gulf. To pretend that there isn’t a problem doesn’t make the problem go away.

“With the advent of Islam, women were able to vote, seek a divorce and receive alimony, get an education and have her own property amongst other things.”

She is correct that Islam allows these things, but she is not correct in assuming that they are a “given.” Most women in the Gulf states were only recently (within the last twenty years) given the right to vote, and in most of Saudi Arabia, women still have no right to vote. Not to mention the social and cultural (not Islamic) restrictions on women’s travel, education, and divorce in not only the Gulf countries, but in other predominately Muslim states.

“Hey, now,” you say. “Stop ragging on a sister. She’s just trying to defend the hejab and Islam.”

The defense of both hejab and Islam are admirable arguments. I’m not disagreeing with the author on her main points. Meehan is correct: Islam isn’t the problem, nor is hejab. The problem is articles like this one, which run a public relations campaign that glosses away problems Muslim women face, while trying to package the beauty of Islam to make it appear that the religion solves everybody's problems. In pretending that everything is shiny and happy, this article ignores real problems and real suffering of women who are Muslim and who may or may not wear the hejab.

The restrictions and hardship these women bear are not because of Islam, but because of governments and patriarchal societal systems that use Islam to further their own control. This argument shouldn’t be about Islam; it should be about who is controlling it.

For reasoned defenses on hejab, see the writings of Mohja Kahf. Or read this article.

Posted by Zeynab at 12:00 AM

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