Muslim Women : the Veil Essay
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To study the conditions of Muslim women in various regions and to draw the conclusions related to the topic.
The veil should be considered as an oppression/suppression or it should be left upon the women to decide? Certainly, religious sentiments should never be undermined because in some or the other way it leads to humiliation which further provokes uncertainty among different groups of people.
However, being a non-Muslim, it is somewhere inculcated in my mind that this practice is a landmark of patriarchal society or suppression of women, but through my research, I realized that it is not about my views but it is about those Muslim women and their opinion regarding this practice.
A Muslim woman wears hijab (veil for the simple reason that God has commanded it in the Quran and Sunna. There are two verses which deal with the question of women’s dress.
They are: Surah an-Nur verse 31 and Surah al- Ahzab verse 59
Mainly, many non-Muslims and few Muslims also, fail to examine and analyse this issue and openly condemn this practice. Modernization has lessened the gap between men and women but it fails to understand that though ‘Men and women are equal but not identical’. Many feminists’ approaches have been taken against the suppression of Muslim women. They argue that Islam like any patriarchal religion, subordinates women. They are committed to women’s rights and believe that Islam doesn’t allow women liberation.
If we look at the scenario from broader view, we will find that there is a wide gap between anthropological perspective and the modern perspective. Quran is the command of God and must be followed in all times. In many countries, face covering is abandoned, such as France and in other countries; it is left upon Muslim women to decide about it such as India, U.S. It has been abolished in many countries due to the rise of Terrorism which has become the global issue today and also due to many feminists’ movements.
THE VEIL AND FEMINIST APPROACHES
A perception that the veil is a symbol of oppression of women has different adherents who embody different assumptions ad different levels of sophistication. Many westerners and non- Muslims think that Muslim women are completely and utterly subjugated by men, and the veil is the symbol of that. They are underpinned by an unconscious adherence to liberalism and modernization theory. A more sophisticated view is that of one school of feminists, they argue that Islam, like any other patriarchal religion, subordinates women .
They keep every sort of knowledge about the religion and believe that it undermines the women liberation and their rights. Some of them do not listen to the covered women. There is another school of feminists that listens to the voices of covered women but reaches to different conclusions about covering from those of the liberal feminists. Often anthropologists and historians, this group of feminists has been concerned to understand meaning of a social practice from the inside.
Thus, this group follows a ‘contextual approach’ in understanding the grievances of Muslim women. Many feminists have trouble knowing how to deal with the veil, Islam, and the women who embrace it. Some feminists who in differing ways aim to build on, extrapolate from, or sometimes negate, classical Islamic law, and reinterpret it for modern times. There are also feminists whose benchmark is liberal secular liberalism, who seeks to remove all aspects of Islamic law that do not conform to a secular liberal feminist standard of equality and liberation for women.
The study of women, indeed, Islam in general, has suffered methodological problems. Until recently, the predominant methodological approach to study Muslim women has been Orientalist, or neo-Orientalist. Orientalism has viewed Muslims through the prism of religion, said by Edward said. ‘ISLAM’ has been as a static, monolithic, backward doctrine that both explains and determines Muslim behavior. After World War II, Orientalism was transformed in to modernization theory. This approach analyzed the non-western world to evolve into western style institutions. The mainstream Western media and mass market books still rely on a belief in the inherent superiority of the Western ways to make the case against Islam.
In modern times, Muslim elites accepted the Western version of the meaning of the veil, and they also saw its disappearance as essential to the ‘modernization’ of their countries. Nazira Zain al-Din, the first Arab woman to publish lengthy treaties on the topic of veiling: “I have noticed that the nations that have given up the veil are the nations that have advanced in intellectual and material life. The unveiled nations are the ones that have discovered through research and study the secrets of nature and have brought the physical elements under their control as you see and know. But the veiled nations have not unearthed any secret and have not put any of the physical elements under their control but only sing the songs of the glorious past and ancient tradition.”
Historians and Anthropologists in particular, have challenged Orientalism and modernization theory in relation to Muslim women by urging a focus on the specificity of Muslim women in order to understand them better. Indeed, it is useful to point out that women’s frequently deteriorated under European intervention in the Muslim world, challenging the linkage of Modernization and Westernization with liberation for Muslim women. Seclusion increased in the Ottoman Empire during European penetration. Muslim women have had right over their property owned by father or earned by themselves, without the involvement of their husband.
In Aleppo, upper-class women were “ property owners of some importance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries…In 1770, 59 percent of all property sales involved women as either buyers or sellers; in 1800, 67 percent; and in 1840 , 53 percent”. In Egypt, Muhammad Ali’s centralization programme deprived Muslim women of economic independence. Centralization excluded them, as ruler gave away land at his discretion to women’s detriment. In addition, the: New centralized system also introduced new institutions derived from Europe that militated against women. Banks, stock exchanges, insurance companies, etc, in Europe did not recognize the legal existence of women; and so they followed the same strategies in Egypt.
Women were not allowed to open bank accounts in their own names or to play the stock market or to indulge in other activities in their own right. If modernization improved health and education and, after colonialism, ended seclusion, in other areas women’s “social maneuverability” deteriorated. Hence historical study reveals the condition of many women in specific places and shows that Westernization and modernization did no good to Muslim women in their advancement. The veil is seen as quintessential tradition.
Colonialists, missionaries, Orientalists, and secular feminists attacked veiling as a backward tradition, but it is now known that veiling became more widespread in the Middle East after Napoleon’s evasion of Egypt in 1798, and increased during European occupation of the Middle East (1830-1936). So, ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ are unstable categories. Afshar, who admits to not understanding why women embrace the veil , writes: “The twentieth century marked the apex of Muslim women’s intellectual engagement with their religion, first to denounce it and to disengage from its gender-specific prescriptions, and then to return to the texts and reclaim their Islamic rights. Faced with this unexpected volte face researches have tended to take embattled positions to attack or defend the faith, and have all too often failed to engage with the realities and the situations in which women have found themselves” .
Keddie observes that the women and Islam field is ideologically charged and tense: “One group denies that Muslim women..are any more oppressed than non-Muslim women or argue that in key respects they have been less oppressed. A second says that oppression is real but extrinsic to Islam; the Qur’an, they say, intended gender equality, but this was undermined by Arabian patriarchy and foreign importations. An opposing group blames Islam for being irrevocably gender in egalitarian. There are also those who adopt intermediate positions, as well as those who tend to avoid these controversies by sticking to monographic or limited studies that do not confront such issues. Some scholars favor shifting emphasis away from Islam to economic and social forces.”
In this context, we can say that Muslim women are deprived of many rights but for this it is the Quran to blame or the interpretations of Qur’anic verse by many Scholars and jurists. Local customs and predilections are relevant, perhaps most important for an understanding of women’s actual role and involvement in society. Obviously conceptual views of women’s role and position and role in society do not count for something, and one of the burning questions of the contemporary Muslim scene is to what extent early juristic proscriptions and prescriptions for women’s status and role ought to be the guiding norm for Muslims today.
Veiling is liked to an oppressive practice under Taliban regime in Afghanistan of the 1990’s, where women have been denied education, confined to the home, and barred from any role in public life; veiling may be seen as a symbol of women’s oppression in that community. Sonobol, argues that an important methodological problem I the field is with those scholars who accept methodological problem in the field is with those scholars who accept the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sunnah as “representing the actual as opposed to the normative condition of women.”
Her assumption is that the normative position of women can be said to be oppressive, but actual women’s life may not have been, that actual women’s lives may not have been conformed to the description of a constricting official doctrine: “If anything, social discourse seems to point to apposition quite opposite to what the ‘formal’ discourse present us. This means that the actual lives women led caused reactionary clergymen to interpret laws more conservatively. The ‘looser’ the women, the stricter the interpretation”.
Across Islamic history, this is sometimes true. Some Islamic discourses may result in an oppressively patriarchal order, but other Islamic discourses do not. Berktay, a Turkish feminist, criticizes the contextual approach, which seeks to understand Muslim women from their own perspective, for its cultural relativism. She argues following Tabari, “cultural relativism becomes a banner under which oppression may be made to appear tolerable” . Berktay refers to veiling as an example of the problems of cultural relativism: “This benevolent cultural relativism on the part of Western feminists sometimes goes far as to extend a rationalization of the segregation of women to accepting and condoning even veiling for the Middle Eastern ‘sisters’: ‘Although universally perceived in the West as an oppressive custom, it [veiling] is not experienced as such by women who habitually wear it’, writes Leila Ahmed.
Leaving aside the strength of the argument about the social construction of experience and feelings, and about how misleading it therefore is to claim a special ‘authenticity’ for (only some among) them, one wonders whether Western feminists, who know perfectly well that these practices spring from a theology of the maintenance of so called female purity, would ever accept veiling for themselves- and not as an ‘alternative’ way of life, but as something compulsory, from which there is no possibility of opting out.
Warne speaks of the “unacknowledged Quarantine” that has existed between feminists and religious studies, and suggests it is time o break down the barriers: “Unfortunately, there is a tendency to consider only [women’s] negative experiences [with religion] as accurate, and all positive ones, by definition as a kind of patriarchally induced false consciousness. Judgments such as these pose serious problems for scholars interested in both women and religion, because work that attempts to be more nuanced is sometimes read as betrayal or as patriarchal co-optation”.
VEIL AND THE WEST
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the topic of Islam, fundamentalism, terrorism, extremism and women’s position in Islam is on many people’s minds. The discourse in the popular mind is one of the backwardness, violence and barbarity of Islam, Arabs and Muslims. This makes challenging the Western stereotype that the veil is the symbol of Muslim women’s oppression an uphill battle, all the more in light certain late twentieth century events in the Muslim world: Iran’s imposition of the chador after khomeini’s revolution in 1979; the Taliban’s imposition of the burqa after their accession to power in 1997; and the violence perpetrated by radical groups in the name of Islam in Egypt, Israel, Algeria and the like.
Does not all this merely confirm that Islam is violent, intolerant and anti-women? The point is that Muslims are not accorded the same degree of care and precision, there is no recognition of special, localized circumstances that intervene between ‘Islam’ and enactment. US Administration and other western powers do not have anything against Islam and Muslims in general; actually the public rhetoric demonizing Islam is part of the Western maintenance of its global hegemony. The discourse in West is tied to western national interests. US policy in the Middle East is to protect its access to Middle Eastern oil fields and give unconditional support to Israel.
Because Islam is perceived as anti-West, the contemporary Islamists movements to install shari’ah law are feared. It is thought that Muslim governments committed to implementing Islamic law will interfere with western interests and may threaten Israel. Hence pro-western, secular governments in the Muslim world are supported, even if they repress their own populace. The veil’s association with the Islamists movement is thus the link between Western power politics and an anti-veil discourse in the west. However, US and Western national interests have dictated foreign policies that are interpreted by most of the Muslim and Arab populace as hypocritical and harmful to their own interests and need: Israel is not bombed for its covert nuclear weapons program; the West remains silent over violations of Muslim’s human rights; and the West supports corrupt governments over democratic movements.
MUSLIMS IN THE WEST
The need to challenge the negative stereotype of the veil as oppressive is urgent for those Muslims who live in the west. Anecdotal evidence demonstrates that Muslims (male and female are hurt by the negative image of veil and Islam. Several examples are there to support it. In 1995 some Muslim school girls were thrown out of the school in Quebec, Canada, for refusing to remove their scarves. The schools ruled that scarves were an “ostentatious symbol” akin to a swastika. A teenage girl in Quebec who wore hijab to high school was mortified to see her teacher on television proclaiming, “Islam degrades women.” “I started to cry. I could not understand why someone would say something like that,” she told.
“She knows me. She knows what I am like, and that I am not like that. How can she say that?” CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) reported in November 1997 that a 13 year old boy was hospitalized after being beaten by two or more teenagers who called him a “rag head” and “f—-ing sand n-gger.” Apparently the attack occurred after the father of one of the attackers called the father of the victim a “rag head” and the “rag head lover.” Thus the life of these Muslims is miserable in such countries and protective measures must be taken to protect the individual freedom.
MUSLIM WOMEN IN FRANCE
Muslim women in France are refrained from using face veil. The French law doesn’t allow face veil in France. Many Muslim women condemn the law and also protested against it. But the result was not changed. Instead, according to the law they were to be charged with fines and compensation. They are allowed to use the headscarves but not face veil. The government gives reason that this face veil has lead to the accidents of many ladies who wear it and fail to follow the traffic rules.
It keeps them away from the world as due to it they do not see and hear properly. Many feminists say that this religious habit shows the dominance of patriarchal society and women should come up by not accepting it or refusing it. Government has also charged males of the family who impose women of the family to wear it. This law has invoked protest in the Paris where large number of France’s Muslim stay. Thus, many modern Muslims have stopped wearing face veil in the public. But few women are hurt and heartlessly follow it. The government has also asked them to shift to those countries that follow this tradition, instead of living or spending their livelihood in France.
MUSLIM WOMEN IN INDIA
Muslim women in India have full freedom of choosing their views about veiling. It is totally left upon them about the decision of face veil. In India, where 83 percent of majority is Muslims and Christians, the interests of people (Muslims and Christians) cannot be negated. Our politicians seek vote from these two major communities, that’s why they never undermine their interests.
To make a comment upon this is quite tough that ‘Politicians to seek chair (power), ignores the truth’. But, in our topic of discussion this title has no importance, because basically it’s the discussion about ‘Muslim women and the veil’. Indian government has put forth to check that Male of many Muslim family do not threaten/impose their wives and daughters to put face veil without their consent. Thus, the Indian Muslim women enjoy their right in India and are free to choose their likes and wither away their dislikes.
In the English language a ‘veil’ is normally “a piece of usually more or less transparent fabric attached to a woman’s hat, etc, to conceal the face or protect against the sun” This word corresponds to the Arabic niqab , the veil with which women cover their faces. As a word to convey the Islamic notion of hijab it is totally inadequate. It can include covering the face, or not. It includes lowering the gaze with the opposite sex, and applies to men as well, who must lower their gaze and cover from navel to knee.
These days, hijab is also the name of the cloth women use as a headscarf for their head coverings and tie or pin at the neck, with their faces showing. Over the centuries and in different places, how a woman covers has varied enormously – what parts are covered, with what kind of material, texture, pattern etc. The terminology has varied also, region to region, of course. The word niqab refers to the face veil that some women attach to their headscarves.
The study of veil is not only about the religious analysis but also about understanding the complexity of issue in the contemporary world. The instructions given in Qur’an about Muslim women to veil were written according to that time. The practice taking place at that time harassed many women of that time. The instructions given were to improve the conditions of those women.
But the things are changed now, the Modernization see these things as oppression of women. With the rise of Globalization, people have become advanced and do not believe in religious sentiments of those who still follow their tradition and culture. Some Muslim women are oppressed by the male members of their family and are not able to enjoy certain rights. Those women must come up and must put forward their interests. Religious sentiments should never be undermined as it can lead to uncertainty among various classes of the society.
•RETHINKING MUSLIM WOMEN AND THE VEIL, KATHERINE BULLOCK
•WOMEN AND GENDER IN ISLAM, AHMED