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Veiling and Hijab as understood by Muslim feminists

By Rachel Woodlock

(Excerpted from "Muslim Feminists and the Veil- To Veil or not to veil- is that the question)

This brings us to the heart of the research paper. How have Muslim feminists, with a background of advocating equality of men and women through re-interpretation of Islamic source texts, dealt with the issue of women's veiling?

At a first glance, Muslim feminists appear to be sharply divided, foisting a variety of seemingly disparate interpretations and meanings on the veil; however a close inspection will reveal that actually there is not one veil, but many. In my definition of terms, I described the veil as "the practice of extra-ordinary covering of a woman's body". This, I feel, is the most basic and inclusive description I could give it. However as El Guindi points out, in order to properly understand the phenomenon of veiling (and thus Muslim feminists responses to the practice), we must go beyond examining what the veil is, who practiced veiling, and whether or not it is 'authentic' to Islam. Instead we must ask what is the meaning behind the different types of veils?

Is it the same veil that is being documented throughout the millennia? Does the practice have the same meaning when situated in contexts of different cultural ideologies, different societies, different times? The issue becomes, then, not whether it was a passing custom or whether we can consider veiling an institution or not, but rather what is the meaning of the veil in the various historical and cultural contexts and what does the phenomenon reveal about the culture within which it is embedded at any time in history.[40]

In the context of women's rights then, the question becomes, what do these various veils have to say about women and their state of equality or inequality in society?

For Mernissi, the hijab (which is conflated to mean the veiling and seclusion of the Prophet's wives as well as the veiling and later seclusion of the generality of Muslim women) is a dramatic example of the failure of the Prophet's egalitarian dream[41]. In defining hijab, and thus reacting against it, Mernissi relies heavily on the rather uncharitable definitions given in the Encyclopedia of Islam[42] in which the hijab is defined in four ways: the traditional head-cover of Muslim women, worn at the on-set of puberty; the Ummayyad-introduced curtain behind which the caliph hid himself (and presumably his excesses) from the purview of his subjects; the mystical veil which divided the sacred and the mundane and which the mystic seeker attempted to destroy[43]; and finally as an amulet or talisman[44]. Consequently, Mernissi spends a great deal of time attempting to present the hijab as inauthentic to the truer message of the Prophet's Islam. She has the Prophet in a period of great stress and turmoil 'giving in' to the advice of the sterner 'Umar who urged for the adoption of veils by the wives of the Prophet[45].

Likewise, Ahmed attempts to demonstrate that the practice of veiling was assimilated from surrounding cultures, and not indigenous to Islam (although this is not necessarily contested - it was the Prophet's practice to take previously pagan rituals and reinvest them with a new Islamic meaning[46], a point Ahmed does not address). In particular she makes reference to the phrase 'taking the veil' as being understood to refer to a woman's marriage to the Prophet[47]. Neither Ahmed, nor Mernissi assess the strength of those ahadith which appear to imply that ordinary Muslim women of the Prophet's community took up the veil toward the end of the Prophet's Madinan period[48].

Ahmed is also concerned that the late twentieth-century adoption of 'Islamic dress' has had a deleterious effect on the women's rights movement by unconsciously affirming traditional patriarchy and buying into the colonialist discourse[49]. Having developed as a resistance narrative against western colonialism, Ahmed argues, the Islamist adoption of the new veil simply entrenches the debate over veiling and cultural identification. In short, she maintains Islamists say if to be 'Western' is to be unveiled; then to be veiled is to be Muslim.

There is an element of truth in Ahmed's perspective: Islamist discourse is heavily interested in negating western colonialism but it identifies this influence as jahiliyyan. Ahmed misses the correlative adoption of a new moral code[50] by those who have taken on Islamic dress, which mandates not only the hijab for women, but for men also[51].

Nevertheless for El Guindi, arguments of Islamic authenticity of veiling are moot. El Guindi presents a comprehensive analysis of (mainly) Arab veiling[52]. For her, it is important to point out that Arab culture carries connotations of sacredness in the private domain[53]. Just as Muslims convert ordinary mundane space into temporarily sacred space through the ritual cleansing and performing of prayer wherever they may happen to find themselves - so too, El Guindi argues, Muslim women carry their sacred private space into public by use of the veil. El Guindi's weakness is that she does not attempt to place any value judgement on the various forms of veiling and seclusion she describes, and thus does not present her views on women's equality.

Freedom of choice

As for what Muslim feminists argue women should wear to conform to Islamic ideals: unlike Islamists, who maintain that the hijab stands as the very symbol of Muslim piety; the most important element for Muslim feminists appears to be the element of freedom of choice in interpreting the Islamic dress code.[54] Mai Yamani writes: "The relevant question for Muslim feminists today is the element of choice attached to the garment, and whether it is a woman's right to choose whether to veil or not."[54]

Likewise, Amina Wadud emphasizes the idea that the Qur'an teaches the importance of modesty but that specific injunctions as to type of dress depend on culture and context[56]. This is similar again to the opinions of reformists Muhammad Shahrur and 'Abdul-Halim Abu Shaqqa. For Shahrur, the Qur'anic injunctions about dress for both men and women are read in the context of maximum and minimum limits of respectability. Both a naked woman and a totally covered woman have brought themselves outside the bounds of Qur'anic respectability, according to Shahrur[57]. 'Abdul-Halim Abu Shaqqa on the other hand argues, a cultural relativism in regard to dress[58]. However it should be pointed out that both Shahrur and Abu Shaqqa nevertheless are still male scholars defining women's dress for women; albeit in a modern-friendly fashion.

So in conclusion, I propose that the fundamental reason why women's veiling is important to the question of women's rights according to Muslim feminists, is because power over the veil represents freedom of choice. In particular, the ability to choose whether to veil or not, in accordance with the Muslim feminist's own personal interpretation of Islamic faith and morality, is at the very heart of what Islam represents to Muslim feminists: the basic Qur'anic ethic of the sovereign right of both women and men as human beings who have the freedom of self-determination.


40]El Guindi, Veil, 12.

[41]Mernissi, Women and Islam, 178-179.

[42]B. Lewis, V.L. Menage, Ch. Pellat and J. Schacht, ed. "Hidjab" in Encyclopedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 3, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1971), 359-361.

[43]This seems to be a reductionist reading of Sufi literature on the topic that Mernissi repeats (Mernissi, Women and Islam, 95). At the very least it is worthy pointing out that God is veiled from his creation does not imply inferiority on his part, but quite the reverse. Also, there exist positive examples of veiling in Sufi literature, such as descriptions of the female mystic-ascetic Rabi'a of Basra: "That one set apart in the seclusion of holiness, that woman veiled with the veil of religious sincerity..." See: Margaret Smith, Rabi'a the Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam: Being the Life and Teachings of Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya Al-Qaysiyya of Basra together with some account of the place of the women saints in Islam, reissued edition, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 3.

[44]A comparison with the more recent entry authored by El Guindi in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, ed. John L. Esposito, vol. 2, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 108-111 demonstrates a shift in appreciation of the hijab by western scholars.

[45]Mernissi, Women and Islam, 106-114; 185.

[46]For example, the rites associated with the pilgrimage to Makka were derived from pre-Islamic rituals.

[47]Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, 55.

[48]For example: "Narrated Um 'Atiya: We were ordered to bring out our menstruating women and veiled women in the religious gatherings and invocation of Muslims on the two 'Id festivals. These menstruating women were to keep away from their musalla. A woman asked, 'O Allah's Apostle! What about one who does not have a veil?' He said, 'Let her share the veil of her companion.'" 1:8:347 in M. Muhsin Khan, trans., "Translation of Sahih Bukhari", and: "Narrated 'A'isha, Ummul Mu'minin: Safiyyah, daughter of Shaybah, said that 'A'isha mentioned the women of Ansar, praised them and said good words about them. She then said: When Surat an-Nur came down, they took the curtains, tore them and made head covers (veils) of them." 32:4089 in ibid. etc.

[49]Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam, 166-167.

[50]El Guindi, Veil, 161-2.

[51]In this case, the male hijab is considered to be loose, opaque, non-distinctive clothing that at the very minimum covers the area between the navel to the knees, but usually includes a male shirtdress, beard and topi or other form of male head-cover.

[52]I feel it is important to point out that literature on Muslim veiling focuses almost exclusively on non-western Muslims - the exceptions being apologetic literature aimed at western audiences and brief references to veiling by western Muslim women in works such as Laleh Bakhtiar's Sufi Women of America: Angels in the Making, (Chicago: The Institute of Traditional Psychoethics and Guidance, 1996). That is, 'Muslim' has become synonymous with 'Arab' and / or 'Asian' identity. There are a number of possible reasons for the exclusion of the western Muslim experience of veiling. First, it is true to say that historically and numerically Islam has had its most direct influence on the peoples and cultures of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. While there was an indirect influence of Islam on Europe, which some scholars have argued led to the development of the European renaissance (see John L. Esposito, ed., The Oxford History of Islam, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 602); conversion to Islam and the corresponding development of western-indigenous Muslim communities has been a comparatively recent trend impacted by migration patterns of African, Arab and Asian Muslims into Europe, America and Australia (broadly speaking). More importantly though, up until recently, the overwhelming emphasis in western orientalist attention on Islam was predicated upon a caricature in which 'Islam' and 'the West' served as polar opposites. That there could be such a thing as a western-Muslim identity would have been rejected outright as oxymoronic had it ever been properly considered. Nevertheless the existences of growing numbers of Muslims whose ethnic backgrounds include Celtic, Anglo-Saxon or American (to provide but three examples) belies the assumption that Islam belongs outside of 'the West'. How and why veiling is adopted (or not) by western Muslims is a neglected area of study, which could provide much insight into visions of identity and culture and their place within legitimately alternative Islamic frameworks.

[53]El Guindi, Veil, 94-95.

[54]I think it is noteworthy that neither Mernissi nor Ahmed elaborated in any great detail on freedom of choice in veiling. Writing in an earlier period than authors such as El Guindi, Yamani, Karam, Afkhami, Hassan etc. both Mernissi and Ahmed don't appear to have had the freedom to argue that veiling was essentially a woman's choice. Instead, they both seem to have felt it necessary to de-emphasise and negate the compulsory nature of traditionally accepted opinions about women's dress.

[55]Yamani, Feminism and Islam, 20.

[56]Wadud, Qur'an and Woman, 10.

[57]Munira Fakhro, "Gulf Women and Islamic Law" in Feminism and Islam, 253-254.



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