Fashioning lies, veiling the truth
BY FARIDA MAJID
As the hijab issue heats up in France and Germany and
the psychological pressure and the brainwashing of women intensifies
all over the Muslim world, the feverish cry of "an attack on hijab is
an assault on Islam" should be given a closer examination. Hijab,
especially this modern form of the headgear that is causing
controversy in Europe, is not, and should never be allowed to be, a
valid symbol of Islam. Showing how irreligious it is to claim that it
is an integral part of Islam best exposes the insidious misogynistic
politics of worldwide "hijabisation".
Of course, the hijab is not mandated by the Koran nor
is it sanctioned anywhere in the Hadith (the sayings of Prophet
Muhammad). I would like to turn to the Koran and discuss some of its
verses, focusing on their semiotic value and rhetorical tone, hoping
thereby to prove why the hierarchical enforcement of hijab on women is
not only not required by the Koran but insisting that it is so
constitutes a grievously sinful lie according to the Koran.
There are three verses in the Koran that deal with the
women’s dress issue. All of them use mild-toned language,
understandably suitable for gentle suggestion or kindly advice. No
amount of conflation of the language used in these verses can possibly
be construed as the Koranic mandate of hijab. The word "hijab" itself
means "curtain" and it occurs seven times in the Koran in a variety of
nuances of meaning. Its most notable use in surah Maryam in the sense
of a "screen" occurs in the context of Mary’s immaculate conception of
Jesus and the word metaphorically captures the moment of that miracle:
"Commemorate Mary in the Book. When she withdrew from
her family she went to an eastern place. And she took a screen [a
curtain, or a cover] from them, And we sent our spirit to her"
References to seclusion and modest dressing of women
are made in surah Ahzab (33: 32-33, 53) but they are very specifically
addressed to the prophet’s younger wives and Muslim scholars all over
the world acknowledge that these advices, still mildly spoken, are not
binding on the general mass of mumina, the believing women.
Only one controversial so-called "scholar" from the Indian
subcontinent, the infamous father of modern Islamic fundamentalism,
Abul Ala Maududi, insists that the advices in surah Ahzab be treated
as dicta for all Muslim women. He does not care that the verses in
surah Ahzab begin very clearly with the apostrophe: "Ya Nisa un
Nabi [O women of the Nabi (Prophet)], you are not like other
women". Maududi wrote a series of essays in Urdu on women and purdah
and published them in 1939. In a passionate defence of veiling of
women, Maududi says: "Though the veil has not been specified in the
Koran, it is Koranic in spirit." Really!
Maududi’s haunted house of hijab’s "Koranic spirit" is
so spooky that a precondition of entering it is a flat denial of what
is actually there in the Koran. Such doublespeak is designed to
mislead, to distort reality and to corrupt thought and it is no wonder
that Muslim religious scholars of the Indian subcontinent at the time
vehemently shunned his brand of Islamism. Commenting on the
manipulation of the sacred text, Rafiq Abdullah, a Muslim lawyer in
London, notes: "Incapable of envisaging the Koran as a linguistic
space which contains a multiplicity of discourses (including the
prophetic, legislative, eschatological, narrative, metaphysical,
spiritual), Islamists choose to ignore the fact that they are
interpreting a mythical past and carrying out a partial, generally
decontextualised reading of the words of god."
The loud claims made by Muslim patriarchy and their
army of well-mobilised women followers that there is a thing called
the "Islamic dress code for women" has very feeble basis in the
Koranic text. Religious traditions are vast and in Islam’s case,
globally spread out. Traditionally, Islamic legal-moral rules or mores
were carefully attuned to the way the Koranic language communicated on
the matter at hand. Hermeneutics, or the art of interpretation,
requires mastering a variety of skills and knowledge in the fields of
history, philosophy, law, dialectics and linguistics besides theology.
Trained religious scholars or Arabic jurists would comb the Koran in
order to establish a graded scheme of classifying behaviour – wajib
(mandatory), mandub (recommended), mubah (permitted),
makruh (disapproved), haram (forbidden) and so on.
The fact that Abul Ala Maududi had no formal training
as a religious scholar is evidenced by his blithe exclusion of
consideration of Koranic texts in his pronouncements on veiling and
seclusion of women. Completely insensitive to some of the beautiful
sentiments expressed in the Koran about women, Maududi’s writings
exhibit brute assertions, borrowing more from the old Judaeo-Christian
theologies that brand woman as the original sinner and the cause of
the fall of man than from the Islamic principles of gender equality.
The most egregious falsification occurs, ironically,
in the case of the most frequently quoted verse from surah Nur by the
proponents of hijab: "Tell the believing women to lower their eyes,
Guard their private parts, and not display their charms, Except what
is apparent outwardly, And cover their bosoms with their veils, And
not to show their finery" (24:31).
Mark again the even-toned rhetoric of the language of
the advice and the generality of what is being advised. Not counting
the fast disappearing tribal groups of Africa, South America and
elsewhere where women remain topless, women of all religions all over
the world dress by covering their bosoms. "Not to show their finery"
is an additional cautionary measure towards checking an individual’s
desire to show off superficial adornments to outsiders. But the Koran
is not as draconian in its opinion on a woman’s natural desire to
adorn herself: as the Muslim fundamentalists interpret this verse. In
the rest of the ayat (verses), we get the idea that a sweet,
youthful mumina can wear her finery in front of her family
members and householders. Just don’t stamp your feet too hard and
create a jangle of noise that would make outsiders aware of all the
baubles you wear. Pretty fair advice to impetuous youthful females
given almost with a touch of grandmotherly affection.
The key to understanding the true import of this verse
is the first utterance: "Qul li-muminati yaghdhudhuna min absari
hinna (Tell the believing women to lower their eyes)". These words
are rhetorically repeated here from the preceding verse 30: "Tell the
believing men to lower their eyes..."
Bar none, both sexes are asked to ghadhadha, or
cast down the gaze or glance. It is not hard to recognise this
gesture, universal and utterly human, as the outwardly visible
physical manifestation of a mental activity. Modesty, then, resides in
the mind. All other external accoutrements suggested by the Koran are
subservient to this inner, mental activity that is further reinforced
by the adverbial clause min absari. The verb absar comes
from basira, meaning "the ability of having the power of mental
perception, discernment, clear thinking", etc. Therefore the clause
min absari appended to the "lowering gaze" action should mean that
we are asked by the Koran to divert our gaze from what is before our
eyes and turn inward to our inner discernment and fine-tune our moral
judgements about what is decent and what is not. To construct a
stricture of enforced superficial outward garb (the burkha or the
hijab) out of this mild language of the Koran is a travesty and an
insult to the deep moral and intellectual message of the Koran on
developing our inner sense of humility.
As in surah Nur (30 and 31), all the advice on modesty
to women can be shown to have counterpart advice to men elsewhere in
the Koran. Further illustrating the difference in meaning that the
rhetorical thrust of the language in the Koran can make, I would like
to cite a verse from surah Luqman that is meant exclusively for men to
observe modesty in their conduct and demeanour. The tone of the
language here is definitely more strident than the one that addressed
women in either surah Nur or surah Ahzab about modest dressing: "Do
not hold men in contempt, And do not walk with hauteur on the earth.
Verily God does not like the proud and boastful. Be moderate in your
bearing, and keep your voice low, Surely the most repulsive voice is
that of the donkey" (31:18-19).
Imagine if it were required for all Muslim men to walk
around for all their waking hours with a device fitted around their
necks to measure the decibel of their voices and setting off an
ear-piercing alarm alerting family members, co-workers and neighbours
every time their voices reached the level of a braying donkey! How
about men wearing a "macho prevention meter" around their waists? Or a
shackle around their ankles to curb their "proud and boastful"
bearing? The Koranic language is clear and unambiguous about its
admonitions. The genuinely pious and spiritually well-formed men of
old were mindful of such Koranic moral guidance.
In the guise of leading us back to an imagined and
presupposed "purer" Islam, modern fundamentalists like Maududi invent
concepts that actually divert unsuspecting believers from the path of
true devotion and traditional piety. Even though they appear to
renounce the modern world’s secular culture, they inhabit its material
and technical realms and exploit them to the hilt. Maududi’s writings
are translated into 40 different languages and vigorously disseminated
through the Internet. We must grapple with this odd quality of
modernity of their movement and not regard them as "old-fashioned"
conservatives or simply "backward"-looking in their religious views.
They do not blink at the idea of brazenly misinterpreting the holy
Koran and manipulating the sacred scripture to fit those ideologically
driven concepts about religion. Insisting on hijab as a paradigmatic
self-definition of Islam is one such concept. Saying the Koran
mandates it is a lie. Saying Allah will punish a Muslim woman who
commits the sin of not wearing a hijab is an outrageous lie.
I leave you to ponder the words and their rhetorical
thrust in the following verse from surah Hud: "Who is more wicked than
the one who fashions lies about God? Such men shall be arraigned
before their Lord, And the witnesses [angels] will testify: ‘These are
those who imputed lies to God.’ Beware! The scourge of God will fall
on the unjust" (11:18).
(Farida Majid is a poet, scholar and literary
translator based in New York city. Though this article was first
published in The Daily Star, Bangladesh, on May 13, 2004, we
are reproducing it here in the context of the continuing attempts of
Islamic fundamentalists and traditionalists who claim that veiling is
an Islamic obligation.)
Courtesy: The Daily Star;