3. The Status of Face-Veil in the traditional Muslim thought.
4. The Problem with the Face-Veil in Public space.
5. Is the Face-Veil an Islamic Requirement for Women?
6. The Face-Veil in the Dark and Middle Ages.
7. The Face-Veil in Modern Times.
In a number of states particularly in Europe, the veil has been a bone of contention for the authorities, senate or government. While the veil is generally well received and even praised till date in the Middle East, it is poorly received in the West, with the wearer risking discrimination, marginalization and pressure to dump it. In recent time, after much controversies, debate and voting, certain states like Canada, Belgium and France have banned the veil from public space.
This reality have offended so many, ranging from wearers of the veil, to the advocates and down to the western leftists who may not necessarily appreciate or believe in the veil but stand for freedom of individual to dress as they desire with no restriction from the government.
This paper discusses the basis and legitimacy of the veil ban while challenging or disputing the stance of pro-veil Muslims and the western allies; the leftists.
Even within the topic of clothing, the word ‘veil’ is a multi meaning word. For the sake of clarity, a veil according to this paper is a piece of fabric worn over the face and draping to the bosom. It is common among Middle easterners, Arabs and conservative religious women particularly of the Muslim community. In most cases, the veil is black, concealing the whole face except both eyes or sometimes only one eye is revealed while in rare cases, even the two eyes are concealed.
THE STATUS OF THE FACE-VEIL IN THE TRADITIONAL MUSLIM THOUGHT
The veil is a very controversial subject in the traditional Muslim thought, in that despite all the books, lectures and sermons exalting it as a symbol of Islam and nobility, imploring women to veil, there is not a single verse in the scripture recommending it.
Nonetheless, the veil is so revered in the Muslim world that women have taken drastic steps like cutting off a relation, giving up their ambition or job in order to don the veil permanently. Although the veil is generally regarded as optional in the Muslim communities, family, peer, regional or clergy pressure is more than enough to compel women to adopt it. Besides, in certain region in the Muslim world like Saudi Arabia, the veil is regarded a mandatory wear for women and criminal, sinful for women to unveil before non-related men.
THE PROBLEM WITH THE FACE-VEIL IN THE PUBLIC SPHERE
The dilemma of the veil transcend beyond societal culture or mass reception. It pertains to the design and role of the veil in separation and hamper of communication or interaction. While a number of our wears or accessories like hats, sunshades, surgical masks partly covers the face, the veil stands out as a wear designed and functioning to conceal the face from human sight. This is the main fault of the veil, and whether it protects/empowers women or restrict/repress them is a different ball game.
The liberal aren’t entirely wrong, people must be free to choose their outfit. But there is no such thing as infinite freedom. One man ‘s freedom cannot be allowed to encroach another ‘s right. The point driven at here is plain; our faces are our identities. We owe this identity to whoever we are dealing with, whether the bus driver, receptionist or roadside vendor. To assure them of safety and security from us now and tomorrow, it is their right to identify who they are dealing with. To grant the veil this freedom wont go without compromising this right.
How many of us are willing to to direct a mysterious veiled person who knocks on our door asking to be directed to the door of a neighbor? It is only sensible to identify the person behind that veil because if he/she turn out to be a stalker or robber, he have no clue to track this person or identify he/she even if this is someone close to us.
I ‘ll rather deal with a merchant whose face i can see and recognize even years later than a faceless merchant. We could give more examples. In essence, it is only natural to recognize and identify whom we are dealing with even if it is our new course mate or passenger sitting behind us in the cab. The veil disregard these basic facts, failing to consider that not even our voice or names can fill in for the role of our face in identification, recognition and communication.
IS THE FACE-VEIL AN ISLAMIC REQUIREMENT FOR WOMEN?
Before answering this, here are 3 noteworthy facts;
i) the vast majority of Muslims hold the veil to be optional but highly recommended and deem it the most meritorious outfit for a believing woman.
ii) a small percent of Muslims hold the veil to be mandatory and regard the slightest exposure of a Muslim woman ‘s face in presence of non-related men to be sin and crime.
iii) another small percent hold the veil and in cases, the head covering as an invention of ancient clergy without basis or root in Islam.
Opinions aside, there is no mention of the veil in Islamic scripture; Qur’an. The Book does enjoin modest and chastity in a number of verse but no where does it define a wear/outfit mandatory for believers and neither does it specifies the body parts like face, hair or feet to be covered. Contrary to this, Muslim jurists have somehow deduced from a number of verses, wears/costumes for women, ranging from a simple head covering drawn over the bosom to a cloak draping on on the ground as the wearer walks and down to a veil that conceal the whole face. Any Muslim who denies these costume is considered a disbeliever by these jurist and any Muslim woman who doesn’t wear them is regarded weak in faith.
We now examine the claims of these jurist and the oft-repeated verses they present as evidence.
“Muhammad ‘s wives were ordered to veil. His wives were pious and led exemplary lives which true Muslim women must emulate. So, the veil is highly recommended, if not obligatory for Muslim women”
EVIDENCE: Qur’an 33:53
O you who believe! do not enter the houses of the Prophet unless permission is given to you for a meal, not waiting for its cooking being finished– but when you are invited, enter, and when you have taken the food, then disperse– not seeking to listen to talk; surely this gives the Prophet trouble, but he forbears from you, and God does not forbear from the truth. And when you ask of them any goods, ask of them from behind a barrier; this is purer for your hearts and (for) their hearts; and it does not behoove you that you should give trouble to the Messenger of God, nor that you should marry his wives after him ever; surely this is grievous in the sight of God.
A detailed analysis of this verse reveals no direction for the veil or any clothing. This is simply an instruction barring men from visiting Muhammad ‘s home without permission and that when these men visit the Muhammad ‘s home, they mustn’t barge into the wives’ room or privacy to make a request but request for behind a barrier(door, wall or curtain). The directive here is not even for the wives of Muhammad. It purpose is to guard the privacy of Muhammad but unfortunately have been employed till date to bury women in black sacs from puberty till death.
“The Qur’an obligates women to cover themselves in a long, broad, loose outer garment(cloak), hence the whole body and face must be covered”
Evidence: Qur’an 33:59
O Prophet! say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments; this will be more proper, that they may be known, and thus they will not be given trouble; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
To understand this verse better, it is essential to learn the context by reading from verse 57 to 60 of the same chapter:
57. Indeed, those who offend God and His Messenger – God has cursed them in this world and the Hereafter and prepared for them a humiliating punishment.
58. And those who harm believing men and believing women for [something] other than what they have earned have certainly born upon themselves a slander and manifest sin.
59. O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is God Forgiving and Merciful.
60. If the hypocrites and those in whose hearts is disease and those who spread rumors in AL-Madinah do not cease, We will surely incite you against them; then they will not remain your neighbors therein except for a little.
We learn from 58 that innocent Muslims were suffering prosecution and persecution. The wages for these prosecutors and persecutors was spelt out in 57. In 60, we confirm that those within the city(Madinah) responsible for this persecution will eventually be overcome and forced out of the city if they persist. In the meantime, as a precaution against sexual harassment which persecuted women risk, God instructed Muhammad to tell his wives, daughters and other believers’ to dress more conservatively in 59. Thus warding off harassers. Regardless of your gender, the more conservative or traditional you dress, the more formal you look and the less likely you are to be harassed.
The direction to the women here is a precaution and response to the circumstance, against the harm and ill-treatment they risked or were subjected to. It is not a fixed, immutable rule that bind on all Muslim women regardless of time, place or circumstance. That would be like living on a drug for the rest of your life because the doctor recommended this drug to you or a family to alleviate an acute ailment. Women under no threat or risk of persecution or harrasment aren’t concerned with the above verse.
Even if we agree with the jurists for the sake of argument that the directive in this verse is eternal, universal and not based on circumstance; there is no indication in this verse that even the face or hair must be concealed by the garment. The direction is lengthening of the garments. And garments generally covers the torso and limbs, not head or hair. Even a cloak doesn’t need to cover the face or hair.
“The Qur’an obligates women to draw their headcovering/face-veil over their bosom, so they must use this to cover their face/hair and then draw part of it over their bosom”
Evidence: Qur’an 24:31
And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their zinatahunna only that which is apparent, and to draw their khimar over their juyb, and not to reveal their zinztahunna save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigour, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their zinatahunna. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed.
This is the most invoked verse by orthodox Muslim jurists to enforce their dress code. It important to note that non of these verses so far have specified a woman ‘s head or hair or face to be concealed. The jurists have to introduce words like hair, head or face when they interpret these verses. Why? Doesn’t the Qur’an emphasize it is detailed and explanatory? (Please see Qur’an 6:114, 12:111, 16:89 e.t.c).
Let us analyse two words which rubbishes the claim of the veils or headcovering, these words have been distorted overtime and mistranslated to serve the claims of the veil or headcovering till date.
The word “khimar” in this verse is often translated by orthodox translators as veil or headcovering. Khimar is accurately an Arabic word for a cover, something that covers another, be it a piece of fabric covering the window, a jacket covering the chest, a lid covering a can e.t.c so it is not limited to a veil or headcover.
In cases, scarfs, shawls or mufflers are specified as Khimar in Arabic. These were worn by Arabs even before Islam for cultural reason or protection against the cold, dusty weather of their region. The proponent of the veil or head covering have tried employing this to advance their claims.
However, scarfs, shawls or mufflers musn’t even conceal the whole hair, head or face. They are worn loosely in various styles or fashions revealing the whole face, neck, part or all of the hair as i have shown below. It is faulty to conclude mere mention of a woman in muffler, scarf or shawl is covering her neck, ears or hair to the last strand. Thus if, the directive in this verse was to cover the head, hair or face, then for clarity sake, God would have specifically used those words in this verse.
Another word mistranslated in this verse is ‘Juyb’. It is often translated as bosom, chest or breast. These body parts have their distinct Arabic names that bears no relation to Juyb. Juyb in classical Arabic is a word used for the low V or U neck-line of tunics, shirts, vests or blouse, often reaching the mid-chest. Curves like the sine curve in geometry was described by Arab scientists as Juyb due to it resemblance with the low V or U necklines of upper garments.
As low V or U necklines of the women ‘s garments tend to reveal their cleavage, there came a directive in this verse; “draw their khimar/covers/garment over their juyb” which basically mean cover their cleavage which was commonly exposed by women even at that time.
To be precise, Juyb is best understood anatomically as the middle chest. If God would clearly spell out this body part to be covered, why wouldn’t He spell out hair, face, neck or feet to be covered if He meant them to be covered as the Jurists tell?
In a nutshell, the response to the original question is simple; there is no obligation or recommendation for the face-veil or even the headcovering in Islam.
Also of importance is the word “zinatahunna” often interpreted as decorations, adornments or ornaments. Hence, Muslim jurists forbid women from wearing them, this gives another reason why Muslim women in sharia’ah compliant societies dress in plain garments with dull colors like black or brown, concealing their earrings, bangles, rings, wrist watches and other attractive, accessories or decorations.
This interpretation contradict verse 31 of Chapter 7 where God enjoined all believers to go to their centers of worship with their “Zinatakum”(adornments/apparels/ornaments). In truth, Qur’anic words are best understood from the context of their usage. Mere reliance on dictionary meaning can result in erroneous conclusions, because vocabularies and dictionaries are subject to alterations over generations.
At the end of this verse, women were warned against stamping their feet, so as not to reveal the “Zinatahunna” which they have hidden. If zinatahunna mean ornaments or adornment, how does stamping the feet reveal them. To be more accurate, zinatahunna refers to sexual parts of the body like breast, thigh or backside whose shape is clearly outlined when a woman walks or stamp her feet in a in certain manners. Also, women are permitted to reveal these zinatahunna in presence of children like toddlers who know naught about a woman ‘s nakedness. A woman ‘s nakedness entails sexual parts of her anatomy as listed earlier, not necklace, beads, decorated fabrics or other adornment.
Many Muslim or Muslim clerics have also invoked ‘HADITH’ to affirm the obligation of the veil or headcovering in Islam. Hadith are hearsays about Muhammad and his companions collected no earlier than 1.5 centuries after Muhammad. Sorting, documentation or authentification of these collected hearsays came even later. The Hadith form the bulk/95% of mainstream Muslim religious beliefs, doctrines, rituals, statutes e.t.c. There is ample evidence from the Qur’an and even the Hadith rejecting the authority of the any other source beside the Qur’an for Islamic rulings.
Not withstanding the spurious nature of Hadith, there is barely concrete evidence from it that recognize the veil or headcovering as an Islamic obligation or requirement.
A careful study of many of the often invoked Hadith by pro-veil jurists reveal significant loopholes like mistranslations, bias authentication or disputable and de-contextualized interpretation on the part of the jurists. Nonetheless, the Qur’an is the Mother Book and best criterion for analyzing anything parroted in the name of Muhammad. If the Qur’an doesn’t confirm the veil as an Islamic requirement, no genuine account from Muhammad will recommend it in the name of Islam.
HOW WAS THE VEIL INCORPORATED INTO MUSLIM THOUGHT
Make no mistake, the veil predates Islam and did not even originate from the Arabs. It originated from ancient Indo-European cultures of the Assyrians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Greek, Romans and Persian. This was very long before Islam.
Among the treasures found by archeologists on excavating a site at ancient city of Ninevah were tablets uncovered the glories of the Assyrian civilization millenniums ago in Mesopotamia. The Assyrians were a powerful kingdom that once led the world in terms of military might as well as science and technology. With conquests of neighboring lands, Assyria was flood with enormous number of slaves. The males were used for manual labor while the females were used as domestic workers and concubines.
To distinguish between free, honored women of Assyria from female slaves, the former were required by law to wear the veil and female slaves were forced to go with their heads uncovered.
Consequently, the veil became a symbol of respect and privilege that slaves and concubines were considered unworthy of. The penalty for a slave wearing the veil was very harsh and free women had no alternative than to veil or risk slave treatment from men. With their homes full of slaves, free women had no need to roam the streets, market or farm, mingling with men, hence women seclusion followed.
Next, the Persians conquered the Assyrians and the veil became a means distinguishing free women particularly wives of rulers, influential and wealthy men from common women or slaves.
At the other end were the Byzantines who also adopted the veil, this case with also religious connotation whereby women in veil were accorded respect, nobility and nearer to the peak of modesty enjoined by the Christian faith. Even among pre-Islamic Arabs, the veil was observed by elite women though this was rare compared to the Byzantines and Persian.
In violation of the Qur’anic principles of War, the Arabs invaded and conquered Persia and most of the Byzantine Empire, gradually adopting from the culture of these lands; the veil, hijab, gender segragation e.t.c with time.
As Islam was another religion that stresses modesty, puritans and extremist clergymen pulled it too far, distorting verses of the Qur’an and collecting fabricated tales to endorse and enforce the veil. Like their Byzantine counteparts, they invoked religion to promote the veil. Since the veil also confirns women their homes, and tend limit them in words and speech making them easier to control and dominate, misogynists and male supremacists of scholar and clergy position endorsed it as part of Islam.
The incorporation of the veil into the Muslim thought didn’t happen over night. Evidently, it was met with resistance. Throughout the reign of the first immediate successors of Muhammad as the ruler of the Arab empire that lasted nearly 30 years to the 90 years secular rule of the first dynasty to rule the Arab empire the veil was uncommon and no more than an outfit for elite women like consorts. As the next dynasty to rule sought legitimacy from God and religion, it empowered the clerics and opened the door to fanatism in the Muslim thought. It was during these period that the veil, hijab, gender segregation were cemented in the Muslim thought and pursue by the state.
THE VEIL IN THE DARK AND MIDDLE AGES
To get Muslim women don the veil, they are often treated to tales of early Muslim women whose pursuit of eternal life lead them to veil from head to toe, seclude themselves from public and cut interaction with men to the barest minimum. All those tales were fabricated by puritans, male chauvinists and corrupt clergy to tame and control their women. Enough evidence exists, confirming that Muslim women in the days of Muhammad up till about a century later were active in public or political affairs, mingling with their male counterparts and exposing their face or hair wasn’t an issue of concern for anyone.
What we understand as gender segregation even in Mosques and hijab today didn’t constitute the mindset of the early Muslims but were gradually incorporated in the Muslim thoughts several decades to centuries after Muhammad.
THE VEIL IN MODERN TIMES
Eventually, by the end of the Middle age the veil had outlived it usefulness and recognition in the political spheres, slavery was abolished and starting from Europe to the Middle East, elite women gradually started to forgo the veil. Rather low class women who still admired it but were barred from donning in the past soon began to adopt it. In the religious sphere, the veil still maintained it significance but was gradually overlooked by most people.
The rise of Islamism(Islamist supremacism) account for the up-surge of the veil today. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, till the last fifth of 20th century, the veil wasn’t so common in the Muslim world. Conservative Muslim states today like Saudi Arabia did permit women to at least reveal their faces prior to the 80’s. In Iran women had the right to even wear pants and uncover their hair. The gradual transition from theocratic orthodoxy to secular, pluralistic democracy in these regions was thwarted by the re-emergence of militant, fanatic Islamist revolutionary thinking borne out from clergy grievances and western imperialism.
Today, the veil is not just a religious requirement for top Muslim groups like Muslim Brotherhood. It embodies the anti-western, Islamist supremacist agenda of the these prominent Muslim groups or bodies that promises no more than a return to the days ignorance, backwardness and oppression in traditional Muslim history.
The ban of the veil is neither a restriction of freedom of dressing nor compromise of freedom of religious practice or expression. It protect the right of men and you to recognize and identify whom we are dealing with for crucial reasons like security, trust, reference e.t.c.
It is a step in the right direction against gender segregation, women seclusion and enhances integration of immigrant Muslim in their new society. This will also curtail discrimination and marginalization due to anti-veil sentiments.
Also importantly, it questions the position of the veil in Islam and drive Muslims to objective research of their religious thoughts rather than blind compliance with clergymen and traditions.
Some Thoughts On The Veil:
Brief History of the Veil in Islam
Muhammad Asad Qur’an Translation commentary:
Qur’an Does Not Mandate Hijab
Misinterpretation of Qur’anic Verses on Hijab
Qur’an: A Reformist Translation & Qur’an: A Monotheist Translation : Available for free Download online.
Verses About Hijab in the Qur’an
“Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women” by Professor Khalid Abou El Fadl