Lower Thy Gaze?

الثلاثاء 02 آذار 2010

A different kind of freedom?

Picture by Ranoush.

Written by Farida Farouk

In recent times, there is a growing connection that the hijab has become as much a symbol of Islam as the Crescent. The hijab worn by some Muslim women has become an issue between Muslims and non-Muslims and between liberal Muslims and traditional Muslims. The hijab has also become an issue of conflict between contemporary and traditional interpretations of Islam. It is important to state that the hijab is a purely political issue, promoted by the Muslim brotherhood movement. For some, the hijab is a symbol of Islam’s predominance in the world, while for others it is a reminder of the Muslim resistance to what the West might stand for such things as – modernity, secularism, feminism, and globalism.

A complex issue, such as the wearing of the hijab by some Muslim women requires a detailed discussion. I, therefore, wish to comment on what is mentioned in the Quran in regards to the hijab.  However, I must point out that three different words have been used in the Quran to describe how Muslim women have to dress. These words are: “khimar,” “hijab” and “jilbab.

In the following verse, the khimar or the veil that is spoken of is a piece of cloth that is used mostly to cover the breasts. We find the word khimar in Surat Al-Nur verse 24:31

“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigor, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed”

The word hijab appears in Surat Al Ahzab verse 33:53 for the purpose of observing the screen (hijab) between the Prophet’s wives and his male visitors; it is also clear that the instruction was not given to the prophet’s wives but instead, to the men who were responsible for creating the screen (hijab) in front of their eyes when asking them for something. Moreover, the word hijab doesn’t mean “veil” but rather a screen or a barrier that we often use to separate one thing from another. Therefore, the veil that some Muslim women wear has no basis in the Quran.

O ye who believe! Enter not the Prophet’s houses,- until leave is given you,- for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation: but when ye are invited, enter; and when ye have taken your meal, disperse, without seeking familiar talk. Such (behavior) annoys the Prophet: he is ashamed to dismiss you, but Allah is not ashamed (to tell you) the truth. And when ye ask (his ladies) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen: that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs. Nor is it right for you that ye should annoy Allah’s Messenger, or that ye should marry his widows after him at any time. Truly such a thing is in Allah’s sight an enormity”

It is obvious however that the hijab has become the Islamic dress code for women and that it was strangely called hijab, even though it does not represent any kind of barrier between a man and a woman.

The word jilbab appears in Surat Al Ahzab verse 33:59 where Muslim women, including the Prophet’s wives, were asked to cast their outer garments (jilbab) over persons at home and before going out of their homes. In Arabic, the word translated “cloak” means  jilbab. Contemporary Salafis (generally used to refer to the first three generations of Muslims) insist that the jilbab worn today is the same garment mentioned in the Qur’an but this is not accepted by non-Salafis.

“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments {jilbab} over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known so as not to be annoyed . And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful “

Older Muslim women at home are also required to protect their bodies from the eyes of the young men of the house with a piece of cloth, this is evident in Surat Al Nur verse 24:60

“As for women past child-bearing, who have no hope of marriage, it is no sin for them if they discard their (outer) clothing in such a way as not to show adornment. But to refrain is better for them. Allah is Hearer, Knower”

The enforcement of the hijab is usually sought out by men, including fathers, uncles, husbands, brothers and other relatives who for many reasons, are concerned about protecting the sexuality of the female in question, in order, perhaps, to protect their “honor”, or to protect themselves and their honor. Some Muslim men explain that the hijab protects women against the gazing of men; and my answer to that would be why don’t men just control themselves? I find this justification of the hijab rather insulting to the majority of Muslim men who would never consider assaulting a woman.

I am certain that some readers will say that this concern about hijab is petty, or not valid and that there are other major obstacles facing Muslim women such as illiteracy and inadequate healthcare. I do agree that those problems are of the utmost importance and are more critical than the freedom to wear or not wear the hijab. However, Muslim women should know that they have a choice in these matters and that their lives should be their own.

A different kind of freedom?