Thursday, 16 June 2011



by Afra Jalabi

The Oprah Show did an introduction of Islam on
October 5, 2001, which was called Islam 101. Oprah, whose program
is broadcast to most of the world, wanted to introduce Islam to
the American public. “Since our world was horribly shaken three
weeks ago,” she told her viewers, “all eyes have focused
on a part of the world and a set of beliefs that many of us know
very little about. We're told that terrorism violates the teachings
of Islam, but what is Islam? Who are Muslims? What are their practices?”

This was promising. Moreover, Oprah was friendly
and open to what Muslims, who constituted the majority of the audience
during that show, had to say. Even the expert she had asked to the
show, anthropologist Akbar Ahmed, was Muslim. But did we discuss
the meaning of being Muslim, or the problem of violence, or even
the rage caused by American foreign policy in the region? No, the
Muslim audience had more pressing things to discuss. The show proved
to be a mirror of our intellectual bankruptcy, a mirror of our true
obsessions and fixations, because after a quick discussion of what
Islam was about, the show veered off to discuss women in Islam,
particularly the dress code. The “after show” segment,
which the program puts daily on its website after the live recording
in the studio, was entirely about “Hijab.” This was both
insightful and disheartening. It seemed that the gender question
in Islam had become the central issue and what Muslim women wear
the core of the debate on Islam, both internally and externally.
It was disgraceful to see how our contemporary discourse as "modern
Muslims” has become so focused on the scarf at the expense
of the real paradigms that define Islam, its history and its universal

It is truly sad to see a certain culturally and
historically specific edict with controversial roots and implications--becoming
the raison d'être for contemporary Muslims while the larger
parameters of Islam and its challenges are rendered into obscure
shadows in the background.

In a pervious show, a woman from Oprah’s audience,
asked if Muslim women could take off their scarves, at least until
things calmed down. Oprah had to apologize in this show for that
question after a big amount of mail from Muslims was sent to her
(When did Muslims start writing so much mail? If it is about the
Hijab, I guess, we will write). But, Oprah did not have to apologize
for something the very religious establishment in the Middle East
had raised in the last few weeks. This was a legitimate question,
although it was received with hostility, even when it came from
Imams in the form of affirmative fatwas in the larger community,
published in Al Majalah magazine a couple of weeks ago-- allowing
women to remove their scarves in the wake of recent events.

I understand Muslim women’s sensitivity regarding
the recent fatwas or the question on Oprah’s show. They feel
this is who they are and they are not about to quit when the going
gets tough. They perhaps even feel somewhat betrayed by such fatwas,
since wearing the Hijab has not always been easy anyway in a society
which has equated it with gender oppression and fanaticism. But
for Muslim women living in North America, keeping the Hijab in the
current crises has also represented a spirit of defiance against
racism and ignorance. This shows the contextual nature of Hijab,
which could be a symbol of oppression or courage and independence,
depending on the circumstances. In fact, an American women organization
called for American women to cover their hair on October 8th as
a sign of solidarity and protest against racial harassment.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that the scholars acted
out of concern and open mindedness. But I also find it interesting
how, for the first time since the Hijab has become central to our
identity in the last few decades, the scholars suddenly realized
the relativity and conditional nature of the verses dealing with
covering, and the principles of recognition and safety implied in
them. --In the case of early Islam, free women were asked to cover
to be distinguished from slave women while slave women were not
allowed to. I do not think the well-meaning Muslim women in Oprah's
audience knew anything about this or even wanted it aired in front
of Oprah.

I have always hesitated to discuss the issue of
Hijab in public, or its controversial historical roots I had come
across in my reading of classical Islamic texts for fear of falling
into the same hole of centralizing this marginal edict of Islam.
I also did not want to associate myself with an issue that I consider
marginal, yet so sensitive to the entire Ummah. In fact, I adopted
a culturally specific code of dress for myself. I cover in Muslim
circles and the Middle East and do not in the West. If I do otherwise,
I will put too much time into having to explain why I am not wearing
it or why I am wearing it, depending on where I am. By adopting
a chameleonic way of dressing, --and not a chameleon character--
I have reduced the amount of time and energy spent discussing the
scarf while creating a different context to discuss things other
than what I am wearing. I also did this because, while I believe
in modesty, I do not define myself through the scarf, nor shy away
from it. It is simply a way of dressing that can be beautiful, empowering
and protective but also, at times, limiting, misleading and impractical.
In addition, I felt, by discussing the juristic and historical facts,
which informed my decision, I would be digging out some trivial
nuance while invoking tremendous opposition from the community.

But after the Oprah Show last Friday I was so disturbed
that I realized this issue, at least regarding its centrality in
our contemporary discourse, has to be questioned. Muslim women are
still forming their identities and no one should have the final
word on how we should come to terms with being Muslim in this age.

It was interesting to see the Muslim women in Oprah’s
audience appeal to the ideals of pluralism and civil liberties in
defense of their visibility and difference. However, when Queen
Rania of Jordan appeared via satellite, there was a murmur in the
audience and some of the Muslim women said that the Queen should
be covered. Is it possible that Muslims think it is acceptable to
use civil liberties to practice their truth, but if given the power
to decide, they will coerce others to wear and do what Muslims want?
These kinds of questions are far more pressing. We have to create
internal debates about liberties, democracy and the need for various
efforts of interpretation within the Muslim communities. Such debates
should replace the non-issues of dress codes and small edict matters
in mainstream Muslim communities.

We can no longer afford to have the scarf as the
core of the debate on Islam, nor as the symbol by which the level
of a Muslim woman’s piety or commitment to Islam is measured.
We can no longer afford to have every opportunity and discussion
about Islam turn into a conversation on dressing, nor can we afford
as Muslim women, in our communities, to be judged and awarded degrees
and ranks of religiosity according to the level of the dress code
we abide by. The darker the color the better, the bigger the garment
the more pious. The race of ranking morally high through fabric
has no end in a path where the Taliban model seems to be the only
logical conclusion. It makes more sense to judge women on matters
relating to the basic tenets of Islam: regular prayer, fasting,
paying alms. But even such things were not acceptable to the Prophet
as criteria for assessing a person. When one of his companions praised
another companion, the Prophet said to him it was not enough to
see him going up and down in prayer at the Mosque. The Prophet asked
him: Have you traveled with him? Have you seen him angry? Have you
dealt with him in matters of money?

When people are not noble enough to resort to the
Prophetic method of assessing a person, I try to bring them back
to the basic requirements, without getting lost in juristic and
historical details, by citing the story of the Bedouin man who came
to the Prophet and asked him what makes a good Muslim. The Prophet
then listed for him the five tenets of Islam, while the Bedouin
was saying, at each tenet, he would do it, but would not do more,
nor less. After the Bedouin left, the Prophet said, “The Bedouin
will succeed if he is truthful.”

Interestingly, an African American woman in the
“after show” segment asked precisely about this, how the
list of the basic commands and prohibitions of Islam, which the
show presented at the beginning, did not deal with the scarf, and
I guess for her, did not reflect the level of Muslims’ obsession
with it. But it is not enough to have such questions thrown at us
from others. Muslim women need to start thinking for themselves
and learn the difference between a command and what a social practice
open to different interpretations.

The challenge, however, is that most Muslim women
are not equipped to stand up and provide an alternative juristic
view of the matter, and the scholars who do are not willing to discuss
it in public out of concerns of inflaming Muslim sensitivities about
an issue which they, and rightly so, believe is not a pressing one.
Even those who are brave enough to dissent like Jamal Al-Banna face
rejection and opposition from mainstream Muslims, despite being
a scholar whose views are rooted within traditional Islam.

The centrality of the scarf reduces Islam to a
piece of garment and places Muslims perpetually on the defensive
explanatory panel. De-centralizing and de-romanticizing the scarf,
I am afraid, is fast becoming increasingly urgent and necessary.
The recent fatwas are revealing. The scholars would not ask Muslim
women or men, to compromise easily in something they believed to
be a core command of Islam. The events of the last week have, it
seems, started to urge us to rethink our priorities and what defines
being Muslim. This is in itself a big step.

However, for the moment, until those who are politically
and juristically mature and sophisticated want to discuss this matter
openly without getting bogged down by the many implications and
problems it will raise, we will remain hostage to the centrality
of the scarf. And until something is done, we will be stuck with
the rosy and romanticized views of the sweet Muslim ladies on Oprah's
show and forever caught up in the centrality of the scarf.

For eternity the question will not be for us, Muslims,
why our young men are turning themselves and others into bombs,
or why we do not have democracy in Muslim societies, or whether
American foreign policy is based on principles of equality and liberty
for all. The question will be, it seems, for a long time: To veil
or not to veil.


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