The issue of hijab, its various implications and the
politics sur-rounding it, has become a globally polarising
issue. Whether in France or in Turkey, between Muslims and others and
between liberal Muslims and traditional Muslims, the hijab has become a
site for the cultural struggle between Islam and modernity and between
contemporary and traditional interpretations of Islam.
The hijab is to some a symbol of Islam’s ascendance in the
world while for others it is a reminder of the intransigent Muslim
resistance to things that first emerge in the West – modernity,
secularism, feminism, liberalism and globalism. For some Muslims in France
it is a symbol of their resistance to French cultural occupation over
Arabs and Muslims in France. For Islamists in Turkey it is an important
means to preserving the Islamic heritage of Turkey from secular
fundamentalism. For non-Muslim observers it is often an introduction to an
Islam that has misogynistic proclivities.
No matter what the perspective one employs, the fact
remains that the hijab is an instrument of segregation and containment.
The hijab in its philosophical sense marks the Muslim
woman for separation and for "different" treatment in all aspects of life;
the most egregious being the moral differentiation it engenders. Muslims
who claim that the hijab is an instrument that compels society to treat
women in a special, even exalted way (in terms of security and respect) do
not work to ensure that the society has special affirmative laws in place
that will guarantee equal outcomes for women, since the hijab ultimately
undermines equal opportunity.
But the sartorial hijab and its attendant social practices
of segregation, disenfranchisement and marginalisation of women is but a
symptom of a more profound and civilisationally debilitating form of hijab
that is practised by contemporary Muslim society. What is significant and
must be confronted with vigour is the ‘epistemological hijab’ that "good"
Muslims insist on imposing on "good" Muslim women. The epistemological
hijab is the traditional barrier that exists between women and Islamic
sources. Women have played a marginal role in the interpretation of Islam
and articulation of the laws and rules that are forced upon them. The
epistemological hijab – the barrier between women and Islamic
sources – has fundamentally rendered the articulation and
enforcement of Islamic laws undemocratic. This undemocratic tradition
privileges men and exploits women. Its reconstitution is important and
more so now than before.
In the post-colonial era, a strange paradox has captivated
the global Muslim community. The nearly 100-year-old Islamic revivalist
movement that is singularly responsible for the global significance of
Islam has been driven by lay intellectuals. Consider the following key
figures of Islamic revival, Jamaluddin Afghani, Hassan Al Banna, Syed Qutb,
Ali Shariata, Muhammad Iqbal, Abul A’la Maududi, Khurshid Ahmed, Malik Bin
Nabi, Rachid Ghannouchi, were all lay intellectuals, many educated in the
West. Many of them were of course exposed to traditional Islamic sciences
but none of them was an Islamic jurist.
But for some inexplicable reason, the ascendant Islam
today is highly legalistic and Shariah-obsessed. Islam in the mind of many
Muslims is nothing but Shariah – what it really means in
operational terms is that the beauty, the virtues and the meaning of Islam
is confined to the rather mundane domain of medieval Islamic legalist
discourse – fiqh – which lacks the intellectual depth of
falsafa (Islamic philosophy), the aesthetics and the mystery of
kalam (Islamic theology) and the spirituality and charisma of
tasawwuf (Islamic mysticism).
We live today in an era of Islamic banking –
Shariah-compliant transactions – and halal hamburgers; we ponder
over the legality of eating marshmallows and deliberate over the propriety
of women shaking hands with men. Mind you, all serious legal matters such
as, for example, state-military relations, international transactions,
have very little input from Islam or Muslim jurists since the Muslim world
merely follows the conventions of western/international laws. Islamic
legalism is itself confined primarily to issues of personal matters only.
This peculiar legalism, which has colonised Islam and the
Muslim conscience, is a product of the vulnerabilities of the Muslim man
who has tried to cope with his own insecurities in a world dominated by
other men. Muslim men today are not sovereign beings. Other men dominate
their world. The only area where they exercise absolute sovereignty is
over the tiny domain called Islamic law. Here they realise their manhood.
They glorify themselves, grant themselves exotic privileges and assure
themselves of their power by exercising it on their women. This exercise
of power is realised by complete exclusion of women from participating in
the process of deriving and interpreting Islamic rulings from the sources.
There is perhaps no other legal tradition extant today
where one has no say in the articulation of laws that govern one’s entire
life. Muslim women have very little if no role in the process of
developing Islamic fiqh. Even historically, men and men alone have
developed all the madhahib – schools of jurisprudence, and legal
principles, even those that deal with the most private aspects of female
existence. Thus Islamic legalism has descended as a shroud on the Muslim
woman, covering her very essence from the world, disconnecting her from
her own reality, depriving her of the right to understand and interpret
her own being and disabling her from being able to navigate her own life.
Islamic legalism fundamentally veils the Muslim woman’s consciousness.
Frankly, it dehumanises women.
Muslims scholars and philosophers of every tradition
maintain that the essence of humanity is either our moral compass or our
reason or both. By preventing Muslim women from exercising their reason to
derive the moral laws by which they live, Islamic legalism denies them the
most human of all exercises, using our reason to become capable of making
moral judgements. In a way, Islamic legalism steals women’s god given
humanity from them.
Islamists are fond of repeating that in Islam god is
sovereign since he and he alone has the right to make laws. Unfortunately,
this is a very superficial understanding of Islam and fails to recognise
the distinction between revealed principles (wahy) and human
product (fiqh). They obfuscate the distinctions between the two and
call it law (Shariah). By insisting that the opinions and arguments of
long dead medieval jurists are actually divine law, Islamists make jurists
the god of Muslim women and introduce a new and oppressive partition/veil
between the women and their real god. In some cultures this divine status
of men over women is recognised since men are sometimes referred to as the
"majazi khuda" (manifest god) of women.
If Muslim women wish to regain their humanity and gain an
equal moral status with men, which is not denied to them in principle but
only in practice (within Islamic society), they must tear the partition
that separates them from their right to understand and interpret Islamic
sources and act upon their own understanding.
They must tear asunder this epistemological hijab imposed
by Islamic legalism that stands between them and their god. Until then all
discussions about the cultural and physical will remain superficial and
contained within the context of the masculine logic that currently
exercises such supreme sovereignty over Islamic principles and its