Hijab or purdah

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  • There’s more controversy than there needs to be
Some things in life never change. Almost every week there’s a heated debate on the social media about hijab or purdah. Most men have strong opinions on the subject. So too women – the mistrust and dislike of women with hijab on the part of women without hijab (and vice versa) is often extremely thinly disguised. Academically, there are always the same old positions, and the same old arguments for and against.
There are the feminists who would have none of the headscarf, for example; who think it their duty to make fun of it; or at the very least portray it as some sort of a remnant of a bygone era. Then there are the traditionalists who consider it mandatory for all women, failing to wear which is a transgression of the shariah law. And then there’s the liberal stance – equally uncompromising – namely: a woman is entitled to wear whatever she likes; and what business is it of anybody else telling her what – or what not – to wear? This week it was somebody posting a photograph of a woman inside an elevator wearing a headscarf over shorts that triggered the argument. The liberal response to it was: howsoever a woman chooses to express herself with her clothes is her business – and her business alone. One couldn’t agree more, so this article won’t concern itself with headscarf (or anything else for that matter) as a fashion statement. It’s only the religious status of covering the head, face, etc, that will come under consideration here.
The issue of hijab is not merely a heated battle being fought in the social arena. Instead, many countries have legislations and statutes in place making it binding to cover (or not cover) certain parts of the female body. These laws are based on conflicting views on hijab. In some countries, a woman failing to cover her hair in public could very well be asking to be prosecuted. In some others, she is legally barred from covering her face; or at the very least, she makes herself ineligible to enter public schools or public buildings if she insists on covering it. Almost everywhere, she is judged whichever way she dares to ‘err’.
Much of the intensity of the debate, as well as the inevitable stalemate, can be traced back to avoidable misconceptions. A part of it is cultural, not religious, to begin with: Women from royal and elite families in ancient Mesopotamia, and in the Greek and Persian empires observed veils not as something religious, but a sign of nobility and high status. Similarly, there’s been a history of veiling among Hindu women over the centuries, which has had very little to do with religion. It’s crucial to separate the cultural from the religious.
Few topics are capable of evoking stronger emotions than the subject of hijab or purdah
Consideration of what the Quran has to say on the subject makes it clear that there’s much more friction than there needs to be. The Quran deals with the etiquettes of men meeting women in Chapter 24 (An-Noor). Apart from instructions common to both men and women, it tells a woman to conceal her bosom and her jewelry (and/or makeup) – in case she is wearing some – from men who have no business seeing her adornments [24:31]. That’s all she is required to do more than a man. Contrary to what many Muslims (mostly men) believe, the Quranic intent is not for women to somehow disappear into the background. Instead, it’s essentially about a woman’s dignity: about not advertising what she’s not selling, so to speak. There are some things about her body that she can’t help – that’s the way a woman is. Of course, she’s not to blame for those. This fact is acknowledged in the very same verse.
Elsewhere, the Quran has a general comment on the desirable dress for Muslims [7:26]: that it should be an attire of taqwa (God-consciousness). Since there’s no limit to taqwa, a person can have more and more of it. So, what a woman does over and above the minimum requirement (such as covering her head or face) in order to be nearer to God is her choice, which nobody is entitled to expect, much less enforce.
A major reason for misconceptions on the issue is mistaking the instructions given in Chapter 33 (Al-Ahzaab) as something binding on all Muslim women for all times to come. These verses deal with specific instructions given to the prophet’s (pbuh) wives; as well as instructions for Muslim women in times when the atmosphere is such that they are likely to be victims of slander, scandal, or abuse. The context of the verses makes it clear that these have bearing on the ordinary Muslim woman only in situations where extreme lawlessness prevails.
Few topics are capable of evoking stronger emotions than the subject of hijab or purdah. It need not be so at all. Fortunately, all Muslims (without exception) believe Quran to be the inerrant word of God. What it has to say on the issue can go a long way toward making it less controversial than it is.