Hijab (head), niqab (face), and jilbab (body)

Sociology of Gender: the Hijab

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

Dr. Homa Hoodfar

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.

Palestinian Christians in headscarves

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,Hijab (head), niqab (face), and jilbab (body) 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

And

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.

Did you ever think to ask me?

“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?

Veiled Hindu women at a temple

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).

stockholm syndrome

 Excerpt of a letter from a friend:

“I have only read the Quran in English so the translation might be bad, but what i read says that a man can rape his wife and his slave girls who are unmarried and married. And since a husband can punish his wife for having sex with somebody else, this is really bad. Then there is also the fact that women is not found as mentally fit as a male when it comes to giving legal testimony. Not that the Bible is any better, I would say worse. The Quran doesn’t say beat your children and kill them if they are disrespectful, nor does it promote genocide and it promotes slavery more. And not that the west does a good job either. Its amazing in Canada, the % of political leaders that are slightly chubby, grey haired white men. And it was only recently that the age of consent for sex was raised from 13. And, raping your wife has only been a crime for about 20 or 30 years or so. However, still better than Saudi which has now had to ban maids from Indonesia the Philippines because they kept fighting back when being raped.”

Dear Friend,

Thank you for taking the time to write this.  I’m glad you trust me enough to be honest about thoughts that you probably assume I will not like.  It is useful and enjoyable to hear your impressions and views about Islam and the Qur-an, and I think I’ve learned a lot about what some people may think or feel.  I can see that you’ve taken pains to say what you know I won’t agree with in a way that does not insult me, and to show that this is a general criticism rather than a grudge against Islam.  I thank you for the respect and consideration you have shown, and most of all the honesty.

From what your message contains, either your translation of the Qur-an’s meanings was scandalously (and singly) inaccurate, or you have succumbed to that all-too-human phenomenon of memory fading with time, and being replaced with impressions of things we think we remember…

I have been blessed enough to have read the entire Qur-an in its original Arabic, along with the entire translation of its meanings.  Simply put, the Qur-an does NOT:

(a) say that a man can rape his wife,

(b) say that a man can rape slave-girls, married or unmarried,

(c) say that a husband can punish his wife for having sex with somebody else,

(d) say that women are not as mentally fit as males, or

(e) promote slavery.

It does touch on all of these subjects.  I am not a scholar, but I read and listen to the words of people who are known as scholars.  From that, my limited knowledge, I will do my best to address these and your other points.

stockholm syndrome 7

The last issue you raised is the current situation in Saudi Arabia.  I have not followed it closely, but my understanding is that certain countries have tried to put safeguards in place to protect its nationals from the sexual and physical abuse that Gulf countries are notorious for.  Saudi Arabia, to my understanding, has responded by denying work visas for citizens of these countries, which are effectively economic sanctions, considering the remittance income these countries get from their citizens in Saudi Arabia.  We can assume that this is basically accurate, and you will soon see that it doesn’t even matter if it is.

Saudi Arabia, quite simply is not an Islamic “state”.  It is not a “caliphate” or ‘khilafa’.  2 of Islam’s holy lands- Makkah and Madeena- are in it’s borders.  But it is not governed by sharee’ah, or “Islamic law”.  It is a hereditary absolute monarchy.  Domestic and international political goals, Bedouin culture, racial and national pride, foreign interests, and economic interests are all parts of its politics and workings.  Islamis, of course, to be found there, but it is only one factor of many.  So why is it, when most people know or can easily guess that all these factors are at play, that Islam gets blamed for everything that happens in Saudi Arabia?

Ignorant people are of two types:  those who turn away from the truth and those who are simply unaware.  Muslims can fall into one of these categories, and some do.  I anticipate your pointing out of the Muslims who are in clear violation of some of the principles I have summarized.

They are not a proof against Islam; Islam is a proof against them.

Strange Marriage, Part 4

Patience is the most pain…

My brother forwarded me an email once.  Some school in Saudi Arabia was looking for an English teacher.  I read it and deleted it.

Meanwhile, things continued as before.  I knew that to get my life together I needed a regular schedule and salary.  So I signed up for a temp job at Dell.  It paid less than driving a limo could, but, at least I knew where I was going to be at a given time of day.

Now when I told my wife that I was going to work in a factory, I made a mistake, and she made a mistake.  I told her I was going to work from 4 pm to 1230 am.  She started imagining the sweatshop her brother worked in with me in it.

So she was expecting a call at 1230 my time, but I had made a huge mistake.  I was working until 230 am.  We could not use phones at any time or place in the factory, so I just kept working.  When I finally did call, her only words were tears.

“Do they have AC?” she kept asking.

I said, “Yes, they have AC, they give us breaks, everything’s fine.”

She didn’t believe me.  She thought I was covering it up just so she wouldn’t worry.  Her brother worked long hours at a sewing machine with no ventilation and dim lights, and that was actually pretty good, considering what goes on in other factories.

“Don’t worry.  America only allows that outside of our country,” I assured her.

I wasn’t the only over-qualified guy in the factory.  I used to meet up for coffee before work with a Tunisian guy who was very intellectual, and working on a Master’s degree.  I should say coffees.  The guy picked me up for work at 2.15 and we didn’t start until four o’clock.  And my house was only 15 minutes away!  When he called I was barely awake, which was not a problem because we spent the next hour and 15 minutes exploring the outer reaches of free refills.  Once we spent 3 hours at a Starbucks on a night work finished early, which means I kept having to tell my wife I’d call her back.  Needless to say, she didn’t approve of this friend.  She doesn’t seem to approve of any of the friends I have coffee with, now that I think about it…

Somehow, I started to think about that email my brother had sent me.  My first trip abroad ever involved backpacking Europe in a Mercedes, if you can imagine that, and I’d had the “travel bug”- this desire, this need to be other places- ever since.  Maybe it started a little before that, but ever since I felt like a fish in a fishbowl that was floating in the ocean.  I had to get out.  My teaching license petition wasn’t going anywhere either, so maybe that was it, too.  I asked my brother to resend it, and alhamdulillah he still had it.

My interview with the school changed my life.

They told me about the job, blah, blah, blah, but when I started asking them about bringing family, they said I would be able to have my wife there within 2 months.  Getting that job in Saudi Arabia became my mission in life.  Saudi or bust..

I did everything.  They told me to get any teaching certificate, so I found the only one that was immediately available, a 20-hour weekend certificate in New Jersey.  I missed a flight to New York, got on another one to D.C. and took a train to New York, slept out in Jersey.  I needed some, any teaching qualification to be eligible for a visa.  I straggled my way back to my D.C., where my brother was working.  Then I called them to let them know everything was ready.  And you know what they told me?

Nothing.

They played me.  They were all off on summer vacation. 

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and this only hardened my resolve.  I looked up an old friend, the same one who had invited me to Islam in fact, who I’d heard was teaching in Saudi Arabia.  He directed me to some English language teaching websites where job ads were posted.  I literally applied for every single job in the Middle East.  Unless they said they wanted a Ph.D, they got an application from me that summer.

Saudi Arabia has its particulars.  Their work visa requires a medical screening that should be the newest Olympic sport.  I took the form from the consulate to ProMed, and they kept looking at it, scratching their heads, going to ask someone in the back, looking at me, and scratching their heads again.

“What’s this for?”

“It’s for a visa to Saudi Arabia.”

“But why do they want all these tests?”

“I guess they don’t want any diseases in their country.”

“Yeah, they probably have enough problems already…”

I had to give a blood test, drug test, urine test, AIDS test, chest x-ray.  There was even a stool sample.  I didn’t know what a stool sample was, but, now that I do, I can tell you that you do NOT want to know how to “collect” and store one.

Whatever, I was on my plane to Saudi.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but when I saw Jeddah for the first time on the highway from the airport, I was shocked.  It was just. like. America.  The billboards, the cars, the clothes.  Everything.  OK, well there were about 100 times more people wearing black or white robes, but still.  Somewhere, apparently, and without my permission, they’d figured out that AC is much more effective than the shade of a palm tree, and traded in horses for horsepower…  It was just- I guess I’d read so much about the first generations of Muslims that I hadn’t imagined what else could have happened in the land they once lived in.  It’s not that I expected to go back in time or to be in some kind of holy land.  But I was expecting the difference to be greater.

The Bollywood music started and the crowd parted.  My wife walked out of the terminal, saw me, started gushing, and in a near run interrupted by bounds of joy, she fell into my outstretched arms and bouquet of roses.  

Then I woke up to the fight of my life.

It was Ramadan, which in the Arabian Gulf means shortened work hours, which means that the application for my residency permit, essential to my wife’s visa application, was going nowhere slow.  If you ask anybody for anything, they’ll tell you “After Eed.”  It’s not a holy month, it’s the perfect excuse…

I had to work on site till about 12 at the outskirts of Jeddah, hop on the first thing smoking back to my office, and start hounding this guy or that guy, whoever the buck was being passed to, about the application.  It turned out my boss was giving me the run-around.  He kept telling me to have someone else sign something that only he had the authority to sign, and by the way, he always takes Ramadan (and most other months) off, so the only way to get him to sign something was to give it to the guy who drove to his house from the office once a night.  I had to figure this all out bit-by-bit while getting over jet lag, fasting, going through a heat wave that makes Texas seem like Switzerland, and some mysterious headaches, probably brought on from the aforementioned three.

I had to get violent on those cats.  I went through all this trouble to get the driver guy to get a signature, then get that paper to the stamp guy, who doesn’t give a stamp without a signature, and then give the paper to the PR guy, whose job was to take things to government offices.  Do you know what this PR fool did when I finally tracked him down to give him the paper?  He picked it up like it was a towel and practically crumpled the whole thing.  After all I’d done.  I punched him in the chest.  I wasn’t angry (that’s what every guy says when he’s angry)-  I was just the new guy takin’ the shortcut to a little respect.  I hope that didn’t break my fast.  astaghfirullah

Finally it was all done.  Me and my wife’s paperwork were ready.  According to one veteran ex-pat, it was the Saudi record for getting the family’s paperwork done.

There was just one more thing, to bring her.  Normally, people just buy their wife a ticket and meet her at the airport.  I, however, was unwilling to break the Prophetic order forbidding a woman to travel long distances without a close relative.

“Brother, honestly, you’re wasting a lot of money.”

She’s not going to be traveling alone.  Her family will bring her there, then she’s on the plane with lots of people, and then you’ll meet her at the airport.  Someone will be there the whole time.”

This is what people were telling me, including my boss, who’s money I was borrowing to buy all the tickets, and whose travel agency was booking the ticket, and who’s language center I was going to be absent from for a day.  It’s a miracle this even happened now that I think about it.  alhamdulillah

I didn’t care.  I was willing to pay for a $100 visa to Pakistan, and a roundtrip ticket, only to stay for a day, on top of her one-way ticket, to follow my religion.

Besides, I wasn’t gonna take no chances wit’ my baby…

Her dad and brother met me at the airport.  When I walked into the house, she was helping her mother in the kitchen.  The first thing she did was look away, shy…

We didn’t hug- they don’t do that in front of other people in Pakistan.  We didn’t even smile.  There was too much worry, relief, gladness, and nervousness to know what face to make.  We’d been longing for so long we didn’t know how to feel anything else right away…

“as-Salamu álaykum”

“wa álaykum as-Salam”

Those simple words had so many thousand shades of meaning at that moment, and we meant every single one of them.

People had a certain smell when they are sick.  She had it.   Her skin was sallow, her voluminous hair thinned.  They say patience is a virtue.  I say that of all verbs, ‘wait’ is the most painful.  I don’t know what’s worse, being burned by the fire of the urge of what you think you can do, or the torment of knowing you can do nothing.  I’d had a lot of both.

As if on cue, our flight from Abu Dhabi was delayed.  Overnight.

You’re a young sheltered Pakistani girl, who’s only seen planes in the sky.  Now you’re in the middle of of one of the world’s busiest hubs with all kinds of people flying past- a line of 50 Malaysians with mini-visors sticking out of their hijabs making a beeline at you, a towering, Sudani family wearing miles of cloth taking your breath away, some squawky Brits brushing you aside.  Announcements blare in languages you can’t understand.  You’re alone and you don’t know where to go, who to ask, or even what to ask.

What would I have done if her flight had been delayed overnight and I was sitting in Jeddah not knowing where she was or how to reach her?  What would I have told her family that night at the time they were waiting to hear from her?  What would my friends and their advice do for me me then?

I felt vindicated.

As a reward, al-Ittihad Airways sponsored our second honeymoon:  a one-night stay with a free breakfast buffet in an Abu Dhabi hotel.

I had rented our apartment the day before I left.  I hadn’t even slept there myself, nevermind furnished it.  But it was home, our home, at last.  Only then could we finally take a breath and get a real look at each other again.

She was still beautiful…

To be concluded…