It seems some Muslims in the U.S. have only two things to worry about, Halal meat and veiling (hijab). While Halal meat can be found only in the freezer of ethnic food stores, the veil is visible everywhere, even around public swimming pools. It is considered the most distinctive, controversial, and often resisted sign of Islamic identity especially in Western countries. In some Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where hijab is mandatory, the so-called Islamic dress codes are stringently enforced by police. Occasionally, we see a video clip on YouTube of a screaming young lady resisting arrest or begging for mercy while she is being dragged by the so-called Iranian morality-enforcer police toward a waiting police car – her crime, violating the so called Islamic dress codes or showing a few strands of her hair. I don’t know whose morality they try to enforce, or what kind of mentality justifies the public humiliation and demonization of innocent people simply because they are dressed in a way some blinkered individuals think is inappropriate. And, why is an Islamic government so preoccupied with veiling which is not even mentioned in the holy Quran and is not mandated outrightly by Islam? If veiling was so critical to the survival of the faith as some Islamic authorities claim, it should have been required unambiguously by Quran, and if not, it should not be compulsory.
Does Islam really require its female followers to wear a head covering? Even though there is no common agreement on the answer to this question, most Islamic scholars believe that head-covering for Muslim women is not mandatory because it is not specifically stated in Quran. Mandatory veiling, at best, is based on personal interpretations of some Quranic verses, or hadith, by a number of male interpreters who are obviously influenced by gender bias, personal persuasions, cultural norms, and the communal traditions. Below are two of the Quranic verses used as rationale for mandatory veiling.
“And tell the believing women to subdue their eyes, and maintain their chastity. They shall not reveal any parts of their bodies, except that which is necessary. They shall cover their chests, and shall not relax this code in the presence of other than their husbands, their fathers, the fathers of their husbands, their sons, the sons of their husbands, their brothers, the sons of their brothers, the sons of their sisters, other women, the male servants or employees whose sexual drive has been nullified, or the children who have not reached puberty. They shall not strike their feet when they walk in order to shake and reveal certain details of their bodies. All of you shall repent to God, O you believers, that you may succeed”. Sureh 24, Verse 31
O prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the wives of the believers that they shall lengthen their garments. Thus, they will be recognized (as righteous women) and avoid being insulted (molested). GOD is Forgiver, Most Merciful. Surah 33, verse 59
One can obviously surmise from these verses that while it is necessary that women maintain chastity and modesty by properly concealing their bodies with an outer garment that covers the chest and is reasonably long enough to cover the lower body’s curves and cleavages, there is no mention that women should cover the head, or hair for that matter. The coercive idea that women should conceal their entire body from head to toe or hide every strand of hair is indeed unrelated to Islam and is plainly heretical.
The claim of some apologists that veiling is a sign of devotion to Islam and that mandating women to wear hijab stems from concern for their eternal salvation is nonsensical. Do we think that forcing women to cover their heads will convert them into devout Muslims? If so, should government also force people to go to the mosque to pray, or make fasting, alms-giving, etc mandatory? And why should an Islamic government in some Muslim countries be so concerned about people’s welfare in the afterlife while their earthly lives, which are being lived under unbearable living conditions, amount to hopelessness and often utter misery for some?
The often mentioned argument in defense of mandatory head covering is that women should wear hijab so they are protected from being stared at, groped, and harassed by men. This is indeed absurd and downright fallacious. Do these people think that men are created just to be tempted or corrupted by the presence of women? I have seen women covering their hair but wearing tight jeans, displaying their chests, or the contours of their bodies. Is hair more inciting than body contours or breasts? Women should be free to wear what they think is appropriate. It is the task of the law to protect them against harassment or unwanted advances by men, not to legislate how they dress. Forcing women to comply with strict dress codes is tantamount to punishing them for the voluptuousness of men. Isn’t that like punishing a victim instead of the perpetrator of a crime? This reminds me of our own cute Farsi poem: They executed a coppersmith in Kashan for a crime committed by a blacksmith in Balkh! If such reasoning was in fact correct, there should not be any incidents of rape or molestation in Islamic countries, particularly in those where hijab is obligatory; however, evidence points to the contrary. Rapes and molestations do happen frequently in Islamic countries. Such offenses, however, remain mostly undetected. They are not usually reported or leaked to the public media because they will tarnish family honor and blemish forever the lives of the women involved.
Those who maintain rightfully that Islam sought to emancipate women (who were treated disdainfully in Jahilyye, the uncivilized condition of ignorance that existed in the Arabian Peninsula before the emergence of Islam) and to elevate their position by giving them freedom and social value must realize that mandatory veiling contradicts their claim. Veiling and the binding restrictions that come with it, such as covering the body from head to toe and gender desegregation, cause partial impairment of women’s mobility and ostracize them from society. We often see an image of a woman on a street of Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia impaired by the weight of and the heat resulting from the thick, heavy, baggy, dark fabrics covering her body from head to toe – the kind of veiling known as burgha – and it is often hard to tell whether she is walking forward or backward.
A couple of years ago I was invited to do a presentation at a prominent university in Tehran and after the presentation I was taken to lunch. There were three men and two ladies in our party; one of the ladies was my daughter. We had gotten our food, moved toward the dining area, and were about to sit around a table when a man horridly approached us and told us that males and females could not sit together; it was the rule of the university. I was thinking, what happened to universities which once were the powerhouses of progressive ideas, tolerance, and reasonableness? I wondered what kind of calamity would befall me because I sat at a dining table with my daughter, a secretary, and a couple of other men. What happened to Islam which was supposed to be all-embracing?
If wearing hijab is what an Islamic government is all about, is that even consistent with the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad who took his wives to war with him? Do we think that only the outward signs of being a Muslim such as praying, fasting, alms giving, and wearing hijab are enough to make someone a true Muslim? Sure these are important, but the more important things are how we conduct ourselves in society, how we treat others, how we respect the rights and privacy of others, and above all, how we are seen in the eyes of the world.
In the West, veiling is viewed by most people as a manifestation of a much greater undisclosed agenda, that of the subjugation and control of women by men under the guise of Islam, thus sanctioning their inferiority. There is no dispute that modesty is important in any society, especially when it comes to public attire. It is, I believe, an inherent trait of human being. Even if women are free to wear whatever they want, they will not usually breach the standards of modesty. Even if modesty is a subjective concept – what is considered modest in the U.S. may be considered indecent in a Muslim country – people are rational enough to realize what is proper and what is not given the cultural circumstances they live under. Specific dress codes should not be preached or legislated for the sake of modesty; it should be left to the individual’s conscience and intuition. There are a few mandatory dress codes in the United States. Nonetheless, we don’t see anyone indecently exposed or walking naked in the streets. I am sure the women in Iran, or any other Islamic countries for that matter, who have made their way successfully in almost every social as well as intellectual field, are judicious enough to decide for themselves what to wear and how to wear it without undermining or breaking standards of morality or decency. They certainly don’t need “big brothers” and “big sisters” looking over their shoulders or giving them instructions on proper dressing.
And who said veiling originated with Islam? It did not. Veiling existed long before the advent of Islam as the product of the habits and cultural conditioning of women throughout history. Before Islam, wearing veils in different nations was purely a cultural issue related to various non-religious reasons such as social status, wealth, empowerment, ease, ceremonies, or simply for practicality. It was a matter of personal choice and was not forced by government or any authority. If forced, it would have lost its intended connotation. In addition, what gives credence to the idea that veiling is a cultural and not a religious phenomenon is that women in different countries, Muslim or non-Muslim, may choose to wear head scarves of different shapes, length, and styles that reflect their culture and the customs unique to their society.
Compulsory veiling is equivalent to sequestration of the body which is as appalling as sequestration of the mind and its brainpower. It is time for whimsical apologists to stop taking refuge in rhetoric and tell us the real reasons behind the imposition of hijab and the undue intrusions into the private lives of citizens.
Reza Varjavand is the author of a recently published book: From Misery Alley to Missouri Valley, Xlibris Publishing Company.