Genesis 11:5

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. Genesis 11:5

on being a Muslim woman: Hijab

Several months ago I visited my alma mater, and my supervisor. Very kindly he asked me: "So how do you feel as a woman in Islam?" His question was quite appropriate, considering I attended Keith's Religion and Sexuality class while I was a student at Goshen, and feminist concerns were at the forefront of our Bible and Religion course. Also, you may recall Rick's letter, in which he made sarcastic remarks about the role of women in Islam, implying that Islam oppresses women. Therefore, I would like to share a bit about my experience in Islam, and more specifically in this post, how Islamic dress appealed to this American woman.

Muslim women are often assumed to feel or be oppressed, particularly because they wear hijab and loose-fitting clothing. Muslim women are usually perceived to be uneducated, dominated and unthinking creatures, especially if they wear niqab (cover exposing only the eyes). When I first started befriending hijabi and niqabi Muslim women, I was quite curious about their experience, but at the same time, I certainly assumed that these 'covered' women were not freely choosing to cover themselves.

I grew up in an Evangelical Christian church, and distinctly remember all of the teenage girls being sat down at youth group to be scolded. Apparently the boys had complained to the youth pastor that the girls at youth group were wearing the same clothes that the girls at school wear, and we were too much of a distraction for them. We were then told to get our act together, essentially, by raising our neck lines and wearing longer shorts. Since the vast majority of Christians (understandably, considering the surrounding verses) ignore Biblical passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:5-6 NRSV*
5 but any woman who prays or prophecies with her head unveiled disgraces her head-it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. 6 For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. 
and 1 Timothy 2:8-10 NRSV*
8 I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; 9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, 10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.
no Biblical basis whatsoever was offered to us young women to explain the necessary revision of our dress code. We were only told that we were causing the young men to 'stumble', or sin, and therefore, we were to blame. Even worse, the men were never criticized for their inability to control themselves; never were Jesus' words from the book of Matthew 5:27-28 NRSV mentioned:
27 "You have heard that it was said 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
In short, this is the only guideline in Christianity, other than tradition, that provides women instruction on how to dress. These guidelines are ignored first of all, because they are couched between frightening passages about women's subservience to men and women's mandatory silence in church. Secondly, exegesis of this text will reveal the limitedness of these texts, insofar as they were essentially only applicable at that time and place (The details of the 2nd point are less known in the wider Christian church. I will also not outline them here, as it's not the focus of my discussion). Ahmed Deedat explains that it is a Christian woman's choice whether to cover or not, but by choosing not to, she is living dangerously. Also, I find it extremely problematic that the men were never instructed to reform their behaviour.

The Quran provides clear, undebatable guidelines on how both men and women should dress and behave.
Tell the believing men to reduce [some] of their vision (Looking only at what is lawful and averting their eyes from what is unlawful) and guard their private parts (from being seen and from unlawful acts). That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is acquainted with what they do. 
And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision (Looking only at what is lawful and averting their eyes from what is unlawful) and guard their private parts (from being seen and from unlawful acts) and not expose their adornment (natural beauty - e.g. hair, body shape - or accessories - e.g. flashy clothing, jewelry) except that which appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment [i.e. beauty] except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their women, that which their right hands possess [i.e. slaves], or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed. Surah An-Nur 24:30-31.
O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known (as chaste believing women) and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful. Surah Al-Ahzab 33:59
In addition to Quran, Hadith (narrations of the Prophet peace be upon him) and Seerah (the account of the life of the Prophet peace be upon him) provide clear guidance from Allah to believing men and women on how to behave and dress appropriately. Let me emphasise that unlike Christianity, there are clear expectations for men and women about appropriate and inappropriate dress. Adherence to these guidelines is expected of men and women equally. If a woman chooses not to obey Allah by covering her body, she is not blame for the man's attraction or fantasies about her - no, the man is responsible to lower his gaze, and he is responsible for his sin. The Quran never suggests that Muslims will live in a world where all men and women are unattractive or covered in an Islamic fashion. If the Quran assumed that every Muslim lived in a society where men and women did not dress to flaunt their bodies, then Allah would not have included the command to lower our gaze.

Muslim women cover first and foremost because this is a command from Allah subhana wa ta'ala. Women maintain their modesty and dignity out of obedience and worship to Allah. This is one reason why the clear instruction in the Quran on dress code is vastly different from the largely ignored passages in the Bible. In my youth group, we were essentially told to cover our bodies for the men. In this case, women are caught between two methods of pleasing men: Either putting off clothing to attract them, or by covering up, solely for their benefit. But in Islam, the command to cover our bodies is first for Allah and our own benefit. Yasir Qadhi articulates this when answering the question of a young woman who asks for advice about wearing hijab:

As an American woman who was raised in the USA as an Evangelical Christian, I am especially grateful for the guidance in Islam on how to dress in the most dignificd and modest way. I understand how it feels to throw on short shorts and a tank top, let my hair down, and run out the door. I understand the wish every woman has to be attractive. And I can assure you that I come from a culture where women dress for men. And if we don't dress attractively in pursuit of the affirmation of men, then we at least dress in a way that will not invoke negative comments or disapproval of men. I agree with Kathryn Pauly Morgan's assertion in her chapter "Women and the Knife: Cosmetic Surgery and the Colonization of Women's Bodies" that in our culture "women's attractiveness is defined as attractive-to-men." 

 Whenever I miss going out with my hair down, getting dressed up in skinny jeans, boots, and a cute, tight shirt, it's because I crave the affirmation of men. I'm being completely honest here. But I've also been in the situation all too may times when strange men feasted their eyes, although I didn't want them to. I've been literally chased down streets (in Philadelphia, in northern Indiana, in Greece, to name a few) by men whose attention I did not want, and whose attention offended me.

For example, I've also experienced modern Greek culture, and the pressure on women to dress to impress men, and to maintain an appearance that pleases men of all ages. A number of years ago my family and family friends in Greece repeatedly criticized me for being overweight. A couple years later when I returned, having slimmed down, I was affirmed purely on my improved physical appearance, my ability to squeeze into tight jeans that leave nothing to the imagination. My own gray-haired uncle called me to his side, put his hand around my waist, and smiled while his friend gawked at me saying, "This is how we like our women."To date, when my family in Greece inquires about my well-being, they don't ask about my education or my career, but whether I am fat or slim.

Mary Wolstonecraft wrote in 1972 that "Taught from infancy that beauty is women's scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison." Continuing in this vein, Pauly Morgan says that
When Snow White's stepmother asks the mirror, "Who is the fairest of all?" she is not asking simply an empirical question. In wanting to continue to be "the fairest of all," she is striving, in a clearly competitive context, for a prize, for a position, for power. The affirmation of her beauty brings with it privileged heterosexual affiliation, privileged access to forms of power unavailable to the plain, the ugly, the aged, and the barren.
We undeniably live in a world where women are all too often valued first and almost solely for their physical appearance. All too often the measure of my waistline or the length of my hair has mattered more than my professional accomplishments. Not to mention, the low blouses, short skirts, and high heels that male designers sell transform the woman into a vulnerable, weak, and even childish character. No longer is a woman who can't move for the tightness of her clothes and the pain from her shoes able to escape an attacker by running, or hide from unwanted glances. She is no longer a confident, intelligent woman, but merely an object with no value beyond her sexual appeal. And God forbid a woman appear publicly without meeting the male's expectation for what is physically attractive.

Again, Paul Morgan articulately states that we live in a culture that "defines femininity in terms of submission to men, that makes the achievement of femininity (however culturally specific) in appearance, gesture, movement, voice, bodily contours, aspirations, values, and political behavior obligatory of any women who will be allowed to be loved or hired or promoted or elected or simply allowed to live."

I understand that Muslim women from Muslim cultures may wish to experience the sensation of removing the hijab in public. I imagine that if I had grown up in a culture that required Islamic dress, I would be curious too, and perhaps even envy what I perceived to be the 'freedom' of western women. But Allah knows best. And I believe that women will eventually realize the freedom it is to indulge in our right to cover our bodies, our right to be judged on our intelligence, our right to choose whose eyes gaze at our beauty.

And this is how Islam, and the standards set by Allah, not men, on how to dress Islamically have become for me a liberation. Take a closer look, and you will become even more sure that women covering their hair and concealing the shape of their bodies is most displeasing to men. A dear friend of mine, who was raised in a Muslim country, was constantly put down and criticized by her father, especially in front of guests, because she chose to wear the hijab. Moreover, I once heard a British employee of my University complain about women covering their bodies, saying that he was offended by their assumption that he would be attracted to them. Embedded in his comments was the idea that he has the right to see their bodies, and is entitled to determine himself whether any woman is attractive to him or not. Note that he made no complaints about the young students who paraded around campus, even in freezing weather, wearing low-cut shirts and skin tight, short skirts. Men like to see women's bodies, and it is unnatural for men to propose that women conceal their beauty in public.

I faced a great deal of criticism from men and women when I started wearing hijab, especially colleagues from work. Men who had hit on me before asked, "What happened to you?" One French woman, who was actually married to a Morrocan Muslim man, told me when she saw me without hijab in the ladies bathroom: "Now I can see a real woman," as if I'm not a real woman while covered. Hijabi and Niqabi women seem to face criticism from every direction, but yet we still press on. Consider the depiction of Mary the mother of Jesus in the Christian tradition - in nearly every depiction she has her hair covered, a loose-fitting dress, and sleeves reaching her wrists. Muslim women are proud to match this description.

Furthermore, women who dress modestly benefit society as a whole. By wearing hijab and loose-fitting clothing, we begin to realize our deep value as human beings, rather than as objects of the attention of men. We foster a spirit of intimacy and privacy in the home, when we demonstrate to our spouses that our bodies and beauty are shared exclusively with them. We realize that we need not rely on the affirmation of men to determine our value. There is no need for another women's husband, or a man other than my husband to see my hair or the shape of my body. I used to think it was freedom to walk out of the house in the same clothes that I wear inside the comfort and privacy of my own home. Now, I am convinced that there is no need for me to be on display in public.

It is a woman's choice to cover. Of course, a true Muslim government will require women and men to comply to the Islamic dress code. Even in this situation, I believe, that covering one's body is a choice. I'm not referring to the choice one has to violate the dress code or to go to prison, in such a setting. No, I'm assuming that individuals dress in accordance to Allah's instruction in the Quran. The choice, in my understanding, lies in every individual's intention. For if a man or women covers their body modestly out of sincere obedience to Allah subhana wa ta'ala, they will be rewarded (inshallah) for their intention to obey Allah. But if a man or woman covers their body will a rebellious intention, angry at the guidelines sent by Allah, then Allah will recognise their disobedience. Consider the following Hadith:
Ibn `Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) related from his Lord (Glorified and Exalted be He): "Verily Allah has recorded the good deeds and the evil deeds." Then he clarified that: "Whosoever intends to do a good deed but does not do it, Allah records it with Himself as a complete good deed; but if he intends it and does it, Allah records it with Himself as ten good deeds, up to seven hundred times, or more than that. But if he intends to do an evil deed and does not do it, Allah records it with Himself as a complete good deed; but if he intends it and does it, Allah records it down as one single evil deed." (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
Wearing hijab does not make a woman a Muslim; growing a beard does not make a man a Muslim. But such deeds are signs of obedience and devotion to Allah.

*There a numerous aspects of these passages that are problematic to me, especially the surrounding verses! Unfortunately, that's an entirely other topic that I cannot deal with in this post.

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