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September 8, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Hijab: To All Who Wish to Answer

I had a question I was left thinking about after going to an open day at a mosque recently. I had an amazing time, it is a beautiful place and I’m really glad I went. Nevertheless, I was given a pamphlet there that claims to speak for Islam which said some things I’ve been thinking about.

I am really interested to hear what you think about the statements below. I’ve written what I think.

“Both sexes are expected to dress modestly. Women must also cover their hair, as women are ordinarily considered to be the more attractive of the sexes. These restrictions serve to protect women’s honour in public.” “Muslim men do not stand out from the crowd as Muslim women might, mainly due to a severe slide in standards of modesty of women’s dress in western societies.”

I want to start by saying that I absolutely respect women wearing the hijab. But the above explanation of why they should, seems very male-centric, especially the idea that women are the more attractive of the sexes. It begs the question; more attractive to whom? To men. Men are the more attractive sex to heterosexual women. This pamphlet disregards the relevance of the hijab to women, and see it only as a piece of clothing that protects men from women’s sexuality.

I also think that what they wrote makes a caricature of ‘Western’ dress. Women throughout the West dress very differently, although it is fair to say that their clothing is generally more revealing. However, this again doesn’t necessarily stem from wanting to attract men. Women dress the way other people they know dress – their mothers and friends. They dress in a way that is culturally appropriate. Women in films or advertisements aren’t representative of most women in Western culture. Again, it seems to consider only what Western dress means for men i.e. it’s more revealing, and not what it means for women, which is more about identity, culture and comfort.

The pamphlet goes on to make claims about Islam’s attitude toward married women that worry me. “Islam supports the traditional division of labour whereby women assume the main responsibility for home while men are responsible for their financial support … however in Islam these are considered to be of equal worth.”

“Muslims consider it unfair to burden women with the demands of motherhood and the demands of the workplace, which end up exhausting so many women and destroying family life in the West, often merely for the sake of financial gain. Muslims often express sympathy for women of the West, many of whom suffer from sexual exploitation and abuse at home and in the workplace, while being unappreciated in their traditional roles.”

I had two thoughts on these statements

1) It compares the Western reality with the Islamic ideal, so the conclusion is somewhat meaningless. Many Muslim women (like their Western counterparts) don’t have the choice to work; it is a product of necessity. For all women, having money allows you to provide opportunities for yourself and family – things like education, travel and flexibility. These benefits compete with those you can give your children by spending time with them. It’s impossible to ignore either part of that equation when deciding what is best for your family.

2) My worry with a statement like that is, in a situation where both partners have to work, the husband feels he can call on some sort of defined mandate not to do housework. This puts inordinate stress on the woman. It seems better to stress principles of compassion and fairness, and leave couples to work out their own arrangements based on those principles.

The final issue is the statement that “Muslims often express sympathy for women of the West, many of whom suffer from sexual exploitation and abuse at home and in the workplace, while being unappreciated in their traditional roles.” This makes no sense to me. Sexual abuse and exploitation affect women regardless of religion, and I don’t know what ‘traditional role appreciation’ does to change that. Some women in Islamic states can call on little protection from sexual abuse in legal systems where police don’t pursue claims of domestic violence, and where rape within marriage isn’t illegal. I think there is a very valid argument (in a Western and Eastern context) that work in the home should be valued and treated with respect. But the above argument goes way beyond this, drawing links to sexual harassment and domestic abuse that I don’t buy.

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  1. Husain says:

    Dear writer,

    I think pamphlets are handed out at mosque open days without much thought going into reading them unfortunately. Some of them are really misrepresentative of the religion, and are written with a person’s mere opinion rather than providing proof from the Quran and Sunnah of the prophet peace be upon him – as we can see in your pamphlet which makes no reference to the Quran or the Sunnah :)

    For the first point regarding Hijab, I agree with you in its value for women, and in the bias opinion of the pamphlet writer. However, the order of hijab is an order from Allah and his prophet, which means there must be reasoning for:

    1. The woman (who has to wear it)
    2. The benefit of the society (which the pamphlet hints at)

    The reasoning for women goes beyond identity and comfort, these are the materialistic reasons that one can feel and see. There are the spiritual gains as well, hijab is done as a fulfilment of an order by the creator, which means wearing it attains the person closeness to the creator for obeying the creator’s command. The benefits of the society go beyond the narrow reasoning of the pamphlet as well and has a spiritual side to it, which is encouraging other Muslim women to wear it for the general Muslim society to achieve closeness to Allah.

    For your second point about splitting the work – the pamphlet has taken a very traditional approach and tried to exploit it to show the west in bad light. Unfortunately as part of human nature, humans feel better when they compare themselves to others because it means they don’t have to be too critical of themselves.

    The reality is, a lot of Muslim households have working couples, and if work is not split accordingly, the calmness of the household turns to custard – and the calmness of the house is something which is stressed very much in Islam, there must be a sense of calmness and cooperation in a household otherwise people in the household would not enjoy returning home.

    If one can attain the traditional approach and the wife is happy with that, then that’s great, whatever works for the couple. If the wife wants to work from home or wants to pursue a self employeed job of some kind she should be free to do so with the support of her husband. If the wife wants to work in a job, she is again free to do so. Basically, what every couple must remember is their priorities as Allah and the prophet has put forward to them, how they go about achieving these priorities is up to them to manage. They must maintain their relationship as a couple, the woman must provide the man with comfort for his soul and the man must also show affection for that and provide her with comfort for her soul, it works both ways. They must also be reponsible for bringing up their kids in accordance to the Quran and Sunnah, which again means that they must fulfill these things and that these things come before their work – this is for both of them.

    I know I’m being ideal, but I’m not saying that the man and wife have to both leave work at the same time to come home and assume their responsibilties – it’s a hard balancing act. But I’m saying that they should never neglect their social responsibilities to their household because of their careers. The household comes first, and in that is great benefit for ourselves and our society. A lot of non-muslims also share this view, they do not do it for the sake of Allah as Muslims do, but that still goes to show that the principle is correct – family life comes before your career.

    Thank you for posting about this – it was a good read :)

    Husain

  2. KLE says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for your posting! It is nice to have some sensible dialogue about this. I find your points about the spiritual value of hijab really compelling, and not something I had paid much attention to when writing the article. So thank you. Your response really made me think. I had subsumed the idea of the spiritual meaning of hijab under the broader heading of identity, although I disagree this is a materialistic consideration. It isn’t only about what you personally feel and see, but also what you see yourself as part of, what you aim to be etc.

    On a tangental note, the thing I have found most disturbing in the response to my article is the connections people draw between not wearing hijab and rape. I have had several people come up with the same hypothetical scenario: two twin sisters are walking down the street, one in a miniskirt, one in hijab. A group of boys are waiting to tease/assault a girl around the corner. Which one do they go for? You are then invited to conclude that the mini skirted girl will be chosen. This really frustrates me! Firstly, it is a train of logic with no end point. Lets say two girls, one in hijab and one in a burqa are walking down that same street. In the paradigm of the first scenario, the burqad girl will be the lucky one. Ultimately, there is only one woman who escapes from that train of logic – the one who never goes outside. More fundamentally, I object to the inference that womens actions should be held hostage to the impulses of rapists, because of the disproportionate blame this gives to the victims of assault and harassment.

    So anyway, thanks for your response, feel free to respond to my rant : )

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