The following is a final exam paper I wrote on the practice of hijab (Islamic veil). I was in a Sociology class called “Sociology of Gender” taught by Dr. Elizabeth Bernstein at Barnard College. It presents the results of a survey I conducted at Columbia University that shows that non-Muslims and Westerners fail to understand this and other practices because they focus on forcing their assumptions on the situation rather than considering what Islam really means. I got a B+…
Daniel Nehemiah Oliver
Sociology of Gender Final Question 2
There is no god but ALLAH. Muhammad (May the Peace and Blessings of ALLAH be upon him) is the Messenger of ALLAH. Sincere belief in these statements makes one a Muslim. They are the fundamental, guiding principles of Muslim life. They, for instance, establish the Qur’an unquestionably as the word of ALLAH, brought to humanity by his Messenger. Belief in ALLAH and His Messenger and the authority of the Qur’an figure importantly in the Muslim/Western
debate over veiling moreso than Hoodfar, in The Veil in their Minds and on their Heads*, realizes. She rightly identifies the Qur’an as an influencing factor in Middle Eastern veiling practices, but her essay does not explore its implications. Her argument is based mainly on historical and sociological sketches that illuminate truths about Middle Eastern society and Muslim culture, but by ignoring Islam as a faith, and failing to acknowledge Muslims as a distinct, diverse group, held together by and operating upon the dynamics of this faith, the discussion of veiling loses credibility and explanatory value. This paper presents the findings of a study aimed at exploring and explaining this crucial and little understood aspect of veiling.
To this end, I selected a survey sample that could represent these unheard and ignored voices. I picked 3 types of respondents, whom I coded as “Muslims”, “Muslimahs” and “Hijabis”. The Muslims were two male Muslims, one born Muslim (Muslim B) and one revert to islam (Muslim R). (Those who accept Islam from another faith are called reverts rather than converts, due to a belief that all things are born in, and some later corrupted from, fitrah, a natural state of submission to ALLAH.) The Muslimahs were two Muslim women who do not veil; one born Muslim (Muslimah B) and one revert (Muslimah R). The Hijabis were two Muslim women who do veil, also known as wearing hijab; one born Muslim (Hijabi B) and one revert (Hijabi R). All six of these were affiliated with Columbia University or Barnard College either as undergraduates, graduate students, or staff. Their ages ranged from 18-29, and their backgrounds and living experiences represent the diversity of the world’s Muslims to as great a degree as possible given the sample size.
Islam is the basis of a worldwide community united by belief in the Lordship of ALLAH and the messengership of Muhammad. This community is diverse in every way that a community can be: linguistically, culturally, economically, geographically, economically, theologically, and so on. Veiling and most other practices are not uniform. These differences, however, are usually not based on belief, but on interpretation of belief. Take the Qur’an, for example. There are no versions. The only variation lies in the rendering of Arabic terms different translators may choose. So, in the original Árabic, every Muslim reads the same thing, but inevitably many individualized readings result. Consider the following:
(With the Name of Allah, the Universally Merciful, the Discriminately Merciful)
And say to the believing women to lower their gaze, and protect their private parts, and not to show their ornaments except what is apparent, and two draw their veils over their bosoms and not to show their adornments except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women or what their right hands possess, or to their male servants who have no vigor, or children who are not yet aware of women’s private parts…
- Qur’an, Chapter 24 an-Nuur/“The Light”: 31
O Prophet, say to your wives, and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their outer garments over themselves. As such it is likelier that they will be recognized and not molested. ALLAH Is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.
- Qur’an, Chapter 33 al-Ahzab/“The Confederates”: 59
It must first be said that this paper is not gaging the accuracy of this translation from the original text. In addition, the purpose of this paper is not to explain or interpret these verses. These verses have been presented simply as evidence that the Qur’an contains mandates concerning the practicing of veiling or hijab. (The word hijab means “screen or veil”, rather than, for example, for example, “headscarf” or “cloak”. There are many words for Muslim womens’ outer garments, not all of which are found in Islamic literature.) To Muslims, again, the words of the Qur’an are no less than the words of the One, True God.
All but one respondent, Muslimah B, agreed that hijab is legislated by the Qur’an. In the words of Muslimah R, “It was prescribed in the Qur’an for women to cover themselves”. Hijabi B simply answers “ALLAH Commanded it”. These statements begin to answer one of the questions central to this study and the lager debate over veiling: why do Muslim women veil themselves?
Hoodfar unduly emphasizes Arabian and Mediterranean traditions dating back to antiquity, but only presents the fact of veil-wearing: its first recorded references, its changing role in societies over time, etc. However, the reason for veiling is largely untouched in her essay. Westerners and feminists have for some time defined their reasons for other women’s veiling customs: patriarchy, notions of the harem, and extreme repression and domination by men. This colonial method of assumption is prone to great misunderstandings because these “studies” of Muslims have mostly been unaccompanied by what makes them Muslim: Islam. This ignorance seemed apparent to Hoodfar at times, though she did fully address it or elude it. It was not lost on Hijabi B, quoted here at length, who summarizes wonderfully how Muslims feel about the views of Westerners and academics whose conclusions about Muslims are formed without consideration of Islam.
“Responses to common misconceptions (even by [Columbia] professors teaching about Islam” Hijab was not a left-over practice from pre-Islamic culture, it doesn’t mean our parents force us to marry our cousins, it’s not just a political statement, it doesn’t limit intellectual development… it’s not a symbol of male domination, it doesn’t have to be black, it doesn’t make our heads that much warmer in the summer”
She finishes with a telling reflection: “It can be some of those things, but often is not.”
Other respondents described hijab as:
- “the ultimate necessity for any woman (Muslim R)
- “unfair” (Hijabi R)
- “a chore” (Hijabi R)
- “a wonderful way to protect the modesty of a woman” (Muslimah R)
These are all things that wearing hijab or veiling can be, according to the respondents. But in the end, they are largely the effects of hijab, not its causes. For example it is doubtful that that Hijabi R, who feels that hijab is unfair, wears it because it’s unfair.
Regarding cause, interestingly, none of the stereotypical, Western/academic-assigned causes for veiling were quoted by the respondents. Some were actually refuted, as in Hijabi B’s above quote. Family pressure was mentioned once, but only as a discouragement against veiling. All respondents were geographically and socially distant from the Middle East, negating it by default as a cultural explanation of the veiling practice.
To the Muslims of this survey, veiling has a meaning, and a power, that is lost on the minds of Western academia. Just is in Hoodfar’s essay’s explanation of the veil carrying a sense of power, Hijabi R said that hijab was a way to “fight in the way of ALLAH’s Cause”. To Muslimah R it was a statement of faith. Muslimah B felt it “shows one’s inner strength”. To these women, whether or not they chose to wear it, the hijab was a force, and a statement, as well as a shield and display of modesty.
Why has Western academia, with it sustained contact with Muslim population groups, failed to recognize the value of the practice of veiling? It is not just because of the colonial/propagandist motivations that do too much to frame western discourse on Muslims. The seemingly blind misunderstanding is one symptom of a larger problem: willful ignorance of Islam and refusal to acknowledge faith. One does not have to be a Muslim to study the practice of veiling, but how can studies of veiling ignore Islam when the practitioners list ALLAH, Islam and the Qur’an as the cause? Western/non-Muslim perceptions, and to an extent Hoodfar’s essay, fail- refuse, in fact- to capture the reality of veiling as an extension of their refusal to acknowledge Islam. Sympathizing Western feminists thus perpetuate the paternalism and repression that they suffer by re-inflicting it on Muslim women. If Western men have historically treated women like objects, then that is all the less reason for them to do the same thing to Muslim women. The feminist protest is against being treated like a docile, disenfranchised second class, yet feminism, out of ironic sympathy, approaches hundreds of millions across the globe as exactly that. How can feminists insist on their voices being heard, when they drown the voices of Muslim women? How can they, perhaps even more ironically, oppose being treated like sexual objects, while fighting for their right to look like one and belittling the women who refuse to?
This guise of objectivity is itself a veil, masking an academic and cultural arrogance that causes the scientific standards of Western academia to falter and the societies which it informs to suffer. Some studies show American Muslims to live at a higher standard-of-living and education level than American non-Muslims. The statistics of homicide and sexual violence in Western societies soar high above those of Muslim populations. The tendency to criticize and patronize should be replaced with one to recognize.
The West, especially and perhaps because of its academics and feminists, succumbs to the subjectivity it is so wary of internally because it refuses to subjectively evaluate the meaning, or even acknowledge the statement that there is not deity besides ALLAH and Muhammad is His messenger.
* 1997. “The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women”, Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, David Lloyd and Lisa Lowe (eds). Duke University Press, (reprint).