THE HIJAB: Thoughts of an American Muslim Woman
**Note: This guest post was submitted to Dr. Sanity by an author who had read some of my posts on Women and Islam (see below the article for links); and who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous. She is an active Muslim woman, born and raised in the U.S. These are her thoughts on what it means to wear the Hijab. Writing her thoughts down and having them published anywhere takes a great deal of courage. It is not something that is generally encouraged or applauded by many in Islamic society; even here in the U.S.
I have written many times that I believe the key to changing Islam lies in the "awakening" of its female members...their empowerment and recognition would bring about a significant and needed cultural revolution that would positively transform Islam and bring it into the modern world. So, I am pleased to offer a forum for this article; and I applaud and encourage these first, tentative steps that begin to question and discuss the role and status of women in Islam.
Every once in a while I come across published material that makes an attempt to defend the state and standard of women in Islam. Such material compares the clothed and cloaked women of the Islamic world to the undressed vixen-like women of the West, exposing all the ills of the Western views on women, their exploitation of women and the miserable state of such women. The material then goes on and states how Muslim women are not oppressed, but liberated; that they are dressed in liberation of not conforming to the degradation of the Western world’s sexual standards and lack of values and lack of modesty. The rhetoric shouts out in the voice of all Muslim women, that the veil is the choice of the modest, the choice of moral beauty and the standard of chaise and respected women.
But somehow all the rhetoric out there written in defense of the veil and defense of the cloaked women of Islam and of Arabia, strike an odd chord of wounded faith in me. I cannot seem to find such usual irate tirade against the sinful, immodest and unchaste women of the West, to be appealing let alone material to be accepted and treated with respected discourse. Somehow demonizing one party just to prove that the other side is better doesn’t bode too well for logical reasoning and discourse. Instead, it is quite distasteful and demeaning to not only the non-Muslims but to Muslims as well.
In defending the veil or in declaring that Muslim women are not in a state of oppression be it because of the veil or because of some other factor; the entailed rhetoric almost always reminds the audience of the state of women in the pre-Islamic era, thousands of years ago, emphasizing on their poor state of bigoted injustice; denied property rights, inheritance rights, basic humanity…. Islam came and liberated the women of that era.” A beauty and a merit well established. Be it that all the material out there hails the change in women’s status in that era; there is not much if any material that discusses the present state of Muslim women. It is always a discussion about the empowered woman but never about the empowerment of women. Somehow, being defined by our foremothers’ epochs, a thousand four hundred years removed; being set at the same standard and terms doesn’t resonate with the spirit of Islam for me.
If Islam came and liberated women 1400 years ago taking them from a level of no dignity to a level where at least they achieved somewhere around half of their male counterpart, proves that the core spirit of Islam is to attain progressive equity and equality in incremental progress.
Today’s Islam talks about liberating women based on the standards and the state of those early Muslim women. Muslim women today are still defined by the standards of 1400 years ago--yet, even though our society is far different and the societal standards have changed dramatically, Islam’s standards have not.
I assume the women of the pre-Islamic era were grateful to find a religion that came and liberated them from their desolate situations, giving them liberties that they never had before; i.e., giving them halves and fractions of rights that their male counterparts had. It was, in fact, a blessing to these women, who perhaps felt that ‘beggars can’t be choosers’, so the increased amount of dignity allotted to the women was readily appreciated.
Today, though, we are informed that we have been 'liberated' by being given half of the inheritance of what a man is allotted; told that our witness is equal to half of a man’s; told that our sex must not elicit desires in men, and that because men are weak, we must be punished for their weakness and crimes by being told to cover our heads from the young age of 9 or 10--completely destroying our youth, our childhood. We are constantly being reminded of our sinful nature.
Deep down inside I want to believe that as a human race we have progressed beyond such backward beliefs that encourage belittlement of women and misogyny. I want to believe that the playing field has been somewhat leveled. I believe if Islam, or the message of Islam, was introduced today, it would take us from the 'half level' of rights, to a full and equal level with men.
Conditions, and times, have changed, yet people linger on the literal path of Islam and refuse to elaborate on its spiritual aspect.
While the original advent of Islam was inspirational and uplifting, I feel the Islam of today is degrading, stagnant and stifling.
I was born in the U.S. in a fairly conservative family. I have worn the hijab since the age of 10 and all through my young adulthood I never questioned its logic or reason. As an adult today I wear hijab, but I question it. I wonder if it is a cultural ritual established in an ancient society of the past where men drew lines in identifying the righteous, untouched women from the unrighteous, sullied ones.
In having conversations with myself about the subject, I sometimes tell myself that the hijab IS oppressive. I have discussions with Muslim women and hear them say “my hijab liberates me; it frees me from the confines of society.” This is a line that I think was said somewhere on television a long time ago and everyone picked up on it because it seemed like such a profound statement; and it seemed to make sense to us all at the time. In fact, it almost had us all believing it.
But to be honest; if one wants to be free from the confines of society, then one just has to be free. Freedom does not need to be practiced through symbolism. That is not freeing oneself from the confines of society; it is just actually separating oneself from one society and confining oneself to another.
In looking past at my life, growing up as a child wearing hijab, then a teenager, and then an adult, I can honestly say that in my view, hijab actually is oppressive, yet at the same time I will not deny its obvious benefits, (and what I mean by “benefits” is that it is beneficial through the perspective of the Muslim Male). Such “benefits” are how it caused and still causes me not to be outspoken; how it constantly reminds me and others of what separates me from Western society; or from male circles. It curbs my involvement in social circles as it makes people cautious around me, makes them watch what they say around me, or worry that they may offend me with improper speech.
So you see, I know that it serves its purpose. The hijab's exact definition literally means "a veil, a barrier" between you and society, or primarily the ills of society. Perhaps it prevents you from having a male look at you in desire; and it doesn’t invite any sexual elicitation. So I see its purpose and have lived its “benefits”-- if that is what to call them.
But somehow, I do not associate all this with the awesomeness of our Creator. I do not attribute this to religion. It just seems so clearly man-made; something that parents do to control their daughters so as not to bring upon dishonor or shame to their names.
There are two sides to society, men and women; and in having one of them cover up and abstain from running amok and about in the society, half the battle is won. So I guess I just don’t see that a cloth wrapped around female heads—mothers, daughters, sisters--to cover themselves all up so as to create a barrier between her and the ills of society is in any way related to a statement or command by the Divinity of our Creator! This method does not constitute Divine Speech!!!
The way I see it is if our struggle on earth is to be a righteous and upright people free of sin, then that is our struggle, and that is our command. Those who live such lives and believe that moral and virtuous behaviors are important, need not use physical or material props to assist in the struggle.
On the contrary those who need a physical barrier or a veil or a hijab are perhaps cheating; since the veil itself is an automatic repellent of sinful behavior; and there is no internal decision- making or struggle from within the individual. There is no choice involved; so how is the soul cultivated and honed to choose morality over sin?
You see, any argument can be spun and be applied. All I am saying is that I really do not believe that the hijab is a mandate of the Islamic religion; nor does GOD commands his female creatures to take on such a role. If that is the case, then it just defeats the message of Islam: that men and women are equal and that GOD does not favor one over the other; or that it is their deeds and actions that places them His favor.
So when a Muslim woman covers herself up, I believe she is agreeing to the statement that she is nothing but a “piece of meat”; and that every part of her is illicit and sinful. Hence she submits herself to a subservient role, where she is automatically treated with less respect and less dignity than a woman who does not define herself as a sexual object.
Do you see? The woman who displays herself as a sexual object by flaunting her body and the women who covers herself in complete drapery both scream the same message; they are two polars of the same plain. There must be middle ground and the middle ground is just simple modesty without the extreme of either pole.
But yet, that is what Arabs do best: extreme exaggeration and fanaticism. They do not understand the middle path or ground which the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) always preached and urged his followers to take.
I just wish Muslims would stop lying to themselves, their children, their daughters. I wish Arabs and Muslims would stop living in a culture of shame and honor and just cultivate self-dignity and self-respect. I am an Arab and I always feel that I was born in the wrong culture. I know that all cultures have issues and that misogyny is not just selective to the Arab culture, but I do know that the Arabs really take the cake when it comes to the degradation and humiliation of their women.
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