Understanding the Muslim veil

Nada Zaim Faruqi  

A couple of days ago, I ran into a discussion on hijab (the Muslim veil) on Facebook, with a non-Muslim who had certain understandable queries on the subject. The topic of veil has extensively been discussed, albeit in exclusively Muslim circles, or sometimes in Western media owing to the increasing number of people that are “curious” instead of “indifferent” about Islam. Closer home, I feel, we have largely played the ostrich on both sides and have not opened a dialogue on this. The topic, however, is so central to the Islamic discourse today that it has led to hatecrimes, verbal abuse, even deaths. I strongly feel that it needs to be addressed on a bigger platform.

Veil, for Muslim women, is a symbol of modesty. But, for most of the society that settles for media-fed conjectures as the “truth”, the veil is a mobile prison. It’s a tool of oppression. It’s a manifestation of “stone-age” mentality. It’s regressive. It objectifies a woman. It’s an eraser of a woman’s identity.

It actually amuses me that a piece of clothing supposedly does all of that.

I do not buy into that oft-cited binary of a wrapped toffee vs. an unwrapped one, by some defenders of hijab. This is objectification, too, though they may not realise it. Some argue that covered women are less likely to get raped (which is a very simplistic argument), following which the question comes up, as to what of those perverts who rape children, elderly women and burqa-clad ones? Rape is an act of domination and oppression and has hardly to do with a woman’s attractiveness. Coming to the factual point, the Qur’an prescribes the “lowering of gaze” and “guarding of one’s modesty” as an obligation on both men and women, so as to maintain decorum in society. As for women, Allah (SWT) goes a step further and commands them “to extend their headcoverings (khimars) to cover their bosoms (jaybs)” [24:31] and “to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, that so they may be recognised and not annoyed” [33:59].

Hence, the moot question: why extra clothing for women? Considering men’s psychology, there is no denying the fact that a woman’s body casts a greater impact on a man than anything else. It is a reality across ages, generations, cultures, geographical locations, etc. and one does not need a psychological expert to testify to this. The Qur’an, in fact, acknowledges it in the following verse: “Fair in the eyes of men is the love of things they covet: Women and sons; Heaped-up hoards of gold and silver; horses branded (for blood and excellence); and (wealth of) cattle and well-tilled land.” Is it, therefore, any wonder as to why the fashion industry spends millions each year, telling women to comply with the “modern” beauty standards? The fact that the multi-billion advertisement industry uses scantily dressed women to sell products that a man is likely to consume is well known. From automobiles to alcohol to clothing to eatables, to shaving tools. A limousine ad once contained an image of a bikini-clad woman standing in front of the car the slogawith the slogan “TEST DRIVE HER NOW!” written on it. Is that what the Western, secular, liberal values call “liberation” of women? If that is not objectification of women, then I do not know what is.

Muslims believe that the One who has created us knows us better than we do, and also loves us unconditionally. It is, therefore, only in our best interests that we comply with the Divine Law. Also, Islam is a religion devoid of surmises and conjectures. It privatises sexuality and disciplines desire. A veiled woman, therefore, is a fellow human-being making a statement that she would like to be judged based on her intellect and personality and not on how she looks. This piece of clothing empowers, because: a) We proudly participate in the society as human beings and not as objects of desire. b) We refuse to be seen as objects of male satisfaction. c) We reject crass consumerism. d) We send the message across that we are not interested in hanky-panky. Above all, we are human beings and deserve to be treated respectfully. e) It liberates us from the false standards of beauty. f) We don it as an act of worship to the Creator, and also an act of obedience to our conscience. g) It is a part of our identity.

It actually surprises me that a piece of clothing along with the right reasons and attitude, actually does all of that.   

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 August 2016 on page no. 2

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