When I used to wear the hijab as a young Muslim woman, I thought it was pretty cool. I felt protected, modest and feminine. I no longer do so, as I have become a Christian and have seen with greater clarity the negative side of Muslim attitudes towards women.

That's why I am surprised to learn that a number of Western women are turning to Islam and adopting not just the hijab, which covers the head and shoulders, but even the burqa, which covers the whole body, except for the hands and face, or even the niqab, which leaves only the hands exposed. "I've found it empowering to wear it. I love it. It's a statement: I am a Muslim and these are my beliefs," says one Australian convert.

There is nothing wrong with boldly and freely declaring one's faith by wearing a hijab. From that point of view, it is like a habit for Christian nuns -- an outward sign of purity.

But the special garments worn by Muslims symbolise something more than a decent lifestyle. They are also supposed to protect men from the evil of women. Islam views women as awrah, a word defined by the Encyclopedia of Islam as pudenda, or female genitalia. Early scholars and collectors of hadith, or sayings of the Prophet, supported this. Imam Hanbal considered even the woman's hand and the face to be awrah. Ash-Shaafi’ee held that the showing of a woman’s feet is awrah and therefore should be covered. According to al-Tirmidhi, the Prophet held this conversation with his wife: "'Allah will not look at (on the Day of Judgment) the one who drags his garment out of boastful arrogance.' So Umm Salmah asked: 'What should the women do with the hems of their garments?' He replied: 'Let them lower it the span of a hand.' She said: 'What if their feet are exposed?' He answered: 'Then let them lower it a forearm and not exceed that.'”

Although not all Muslim societies treat women with this sort of disdain, suspicion is at the heart of Islam. Mohammad was jealous of his wives and would not trust them because he himself could not take his eyes off other women. He said: "I am indeed a jealous man and none is free from jealousy save one whose heart is degenerate. The only way to avoid jealousy is by having no man enter upon her [the wife] and by preventing her from going into the marketplaces."

Hence he mandated that his women should live in purdah, or seclusion. "Wives of the Prophet, you are not like other women. So, if you fear God, do not be too complaisant in your speech, lest the lecherous-hearted should lust after you. Talk with such people in plain and simple words. Abide still in your homes and do not display your finery as women used to do in the days of ignorance." According to another early scholar, al-Bukhari, the hijab was not meant for slave women but only for wives. But the hijab does not provide safety even within the home: it does not keep husbands from beating them. Mohammed allowed beating of wives, and he himself beat them, including his nine-year-old wife Aisha.

According to the renowned Islamic theologian, mystic and teacher of the 12th century Abu Hamid Imam Ghazali, women should not go out unless there is an emergency. In his book, Etiquette of Marriage, he suggests that “She should put on old clothes and take deserted streets and alleys, avoid markets, and make sure that a stranger does not hear her voice, her footsteps, smell her or recognise her.” Women are not trusted by Muslim men, and that is why driving or going alone by women is banned in Saudi Arabia and some other Muslim countries. My former  husband, a Muslim, would not allow me to even open the curtains in the house. I was not even allowed to go to do the laundry alone.

As a result of its beliefs about women, polygamy and concubinage became institutions in the Muslim world. Sexual slavery was a frequent occurrence, even among lower levels of society, particularly during the periods of the great Islamic conquests. Mohammad himself was not devoid of sexual immorality. He would attack the caravans that passed through Yadrib (Medina), and distribute the booty, which included women, amongst his followers. There is a twisted and self-contradictory view of modesty in Islam. Apart from the fact that Muslim men can have four wives at a time, they are permitted to have concubines as well according to the Qur'an. Mohammad's grandson Hasan had two hundred wives and replaced them four at a time. Muslim women do not just get used to it. They suffer and are jealous of other women in their husband's life. Even the Prophet's wives were jealous of each other.

Winston Churchill wrote of the consequences of Muslim attitudes toward women in his book The River War (1899): “A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property -- either as a child, a wife, or a concubine -- must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.”

But oddly enough, zealotry about modesty has not fostered societies which respect women as human beings, and not just as sex objects. In fact, the opposite is true. When I was growing up in Pakistan, I encountered a lot of sexual harassment. There was no redress. My mother just told me to be quiet and walk on, or else men would gather and gawk at me in the most humiliating way. Since I came to the US 20 years ago, I have not worn the hijab, and I have never personally had any bad experiences.

Although the United States is far from being a convent, I feel freer and more relaxed among the Christians here than I ever did among Muslims, either in Pakistan or the US. With all its failings the US still has a fundamentally Christian attitude towards women. Women are deemed to be different but equal and are treated with respect and dignity. Admittedly, secularism in all Western countries is changing our attitudes. Outward physical beauty is valued more than inner moral beauty; pornography is everywhere; extra-marital sex is becoming a norm. Abortion, divorce, and an increasing number of children growing up in single parent homes are sad realities of everyday life. But at least, in a worst case scenario, when passion erupts and the ideals of respect and dignity break down, the woman is not regarded automatically as the guilty party. This is not necessarily true in Muslim cultures. In Pakistan, where Sharia laws are legal laws of the country, if a woman alleges rape she is required to produce four men witnesses for the act, which is virtually impossible.

What I believe is that respect for women is only possible when men acknowledge that women are children of God with the same rights and dignity. The normal Muslim solution to the inevitable sexual tensions of social life is segregation, or in the language of the Qur'an, hijab, a curtain that separates women from the company of men. It can be a garment such as the burqa or a separate room. But this does little to change men's hearts so that they treat women as persons and not as sex objects.

So hiding behind a veil does little to foster modesty. It is like a pigeon closing its eyes at the approach of a cat. What I fear is that a number of Western women, sickened by their experiences in a sex-soaked secular culture, may turn to Islam so that they can live modest and decent lives. They will be making a terrible mistake. Clad in their burqa, they may not be ogled on the street by ill-bred louts, but they become part of a world of submission and oppression. The real solution to their exasperation is to return to their Christian roots in which morality, mercy and love flow from a purified heart.

This article is used with permission from Shamin Hunt.

The following comments below appeared in the the Mercatornet website

Dr Leo Dolan said...

Very helpful to non-muslims who wish to understand the Moslem stance regsrding women.

Cyrus Avnery said...

This article is essentialist in it’s representations of Islam.  That means it takes a religion that is vast and diverse in the way it plays itself out among human beings, and reduces it to a few medieval texts.  She compares the worst-case scenario in Islam with the best-case scenario in Christianity.

My experience among Iranian-American Muslims was very different than your Pakistan experience. The concept of hijab (which governed by men and women) was never a means of segregation. On the contrary, it facilitated greater cooperation and interaction by setting down rules of propriety.

While the word “hijab” had one meaning (the headscarf), it also meant modesty, dignity, and propriety that was incumbent on all.  The Muslim women in this community worked (both inside and outside the home) were educated (some in their native Iran) and asserted their views.  Nobody considered them lax Muslims for doing so.

As per polygamy, I know that in Iran, at least, a woman can (and now almost universally does) make a monogamy mandatory in her legally binding marriage contract. (And this from a fundamentalist government).

You may have had a bad experience with hijab and sexuality in Muslim culture, but that does not entitle you to generalize and essentialize a diverse tradition.

I have no doubt that Muslim women are often dehumanized in many Muslim societies. But you make it seem like this is a necessary feature of Islam, which is an incoherent statement.

Gsk said...

If only women could understand the heart of mysogyny that is in Islam. Testimonies like this one are essential, since women who have lived under Islamic law know best about how they are treated. It also should show that there is a danger in turning to such repression—even as an “antidote” to the promiscuity so prevalent in the West.

Women of our generation are key to finding the essential middle ground—where freedom is valued and passions are prudently kept in check. If women don’t spread modesty with their “feminine genius,” we all run the risk that our freedoms will be eventually supressed by the men who are angry at being constantly teased and taunted by sexual imagery.

(I’ve always found it terribly interesting that Muhammed’s “religion” changed dramatically after his first wife died (the one who supported him financially in the beginning). Without her, he was free to fashion very different rules for himself and others...)

Donna Dumas said...

At the risk of being laconic and sounding haute, I will share my personal experience.

Unfortunatly for islamic women in my region, wearing a hijab or burqu is a sign of a female sycophant who is subservient,acquiescent and capitulates without opinion.

Personally, I have been fortunate enough to travel and have a degree in communications. One of my best friends in college was an islamic lady but refused to wear the burqu for these prujudicial attitudes that prevail.  To take it one step further I have to say that she herself had a great deal of difficulty living in the islamic community while becoming more Americanized. The last straw for her was when her family “arranged” a marriage for her to a man she had never even set eyes on.

I have to say as one looking from the inside of a box at the rest of the world, islamic traditions for women simply aren’t socially accepted in most areas of The Southern the United States.

Gsk said...

“She compares the worst-case scenario in Islam with the best-case scenario in Christianity.”

I’m glad that one can see that there is a singular and positive ideal for women within Christianity. On the other hand, it seems evident that there is much latitude within Islam that doesn’t prohibit the degradation of women. What is not addressed is Muhammed’s premise. One cannot dismiss the various arguments in favour of oppressing women as medieval arguments if they legitimately reflect the prophet’s mysogyny and (especially) if such ideas are brought forward into the 21st century within the context of this “vast and diverse” religious tradition.

Monica Rafie said...

Interesting discussion. I married into a family of Persian immigrants - who are not (or at least, no longer)particularly religious. I’ve not yet discussed with the aunts and cousins what they think of the hijab. I simply observe that as very successful businesswomen and professionals, none have voluntarily chosen to wear it.

Speaking as Catholic in the U.S.  looking in from the outside (because, even my family sitaution doesn’t give me a privileged view), I have had the thought that while modesty is a good thing, in Islam this virtue is not (and cannot be)expressed perfectly. It was, I thought, a great example of someting good - gone wrong. It never occurred to me that it’s source was not actually a virtue, but a symptom itself of a sickness. Thank you for your insights!

Philip Saenz said...

I wish that Muhammad had never existed. If you study history, including the Muslim historical documents, and see what’s happening today, you will see that Muhammad has brought more misery into the world than any other man, including the worst tyrants.

ZM said...

Interesting article/discussion. Just to complicate matters, I vaguely recall a group of Egyptian Christians defending the hijab.

Suppose we take modesty to be related to chastity both symbolically (where dress is a symbol of an aspiration in this regard) and instrumentally (where dress is self-consciously intended not to titillate). It seems to me that there will be a degree of latitude over precisely what this entails. There is clearly some social fluidity over dress in general. (I recall that the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe was considered rather outre for wearing trousers, though I am not sure how much the norm against women wearing trousers was related to notions of modesty). It seems to me that one need not be a complete ‘relativist’ on this while accepting that the embodiment of modesty will vary to some extent.

ZM said...

Philip Saenz - I write as a Catholic with Zoroastrian ancestors. (One narrative which shapes Indian Zoroastrians is that of persecution by some Muslims back in the day). With the greatest of respect, I find your post bordering on the meaningless. There was, as far as I can tell, plenty of misery to go around before Mohammed’s birth. I study, in effect, W Europe and N Africa from c.300-1000. There were plenty of terrible atrocities perpetrated in this period and region which had nothing to do with Islam or Mohammed. Indeed, the 20th century has seen some awful misery brought into the world: the biggies obviously include Hitler, Stalin and their respective movements. I am not some self-loathing type who enjoys fomenting ‘collective guilt’: but - as a Mercator article broached not so long ago - the most destructive single acts of intentional killing of civilians were perpetrated in the last century (on the part of democratic states, incidentally). There can be a wooly relativist apologism for Islam, which is neither helpful nor cogent. But nor are, I’m afraid, comments along the lines of yours. What is your model of human agency that one man can unleash so much misery? (And, anyway, I think you’ll find Pandora released even more).

UrbanRevival said...

Chastity, morality, good-intentions....none of it matters without freedom.  The missing (and essential) point is that most Muslim women are not free to choose to wear or not to wear.  The question, for me, is simple: is coerced morality morality, or is the coersion itself immoral?

Remember: the measure of a culutre is how it treats its women.

Marcella Coelho said...

There can be no relativity in modesty. It has to have its own anthropological meaning. I agree with the author it has to come from the struggle to have a purified heart.

Philip Saenz said...

Mr.ZM,I’m not thinking of only the millions of deaths perpetrated by different tyrants. I’m also thinking, for example, the hundreds of millions of mutilations of little girls’ sex organs. As a Catholic, do you think that God gifted females with a clitoris so that treacherous and insidious men can chop it off? I’m also thinking of the millions of women who are degraded every day. Why should seven hundred million women be looked at as second class? Why should their women be used like chattel? I’m thinking about what’s going on today. Today! Today! I’m not thinking of all the atrocities within the Muslim world for the last 1,400 years. I’m thinking of their bad philosophy. Everyday they crow how their religion is the Religion of Peace, but every day --TODAY-- the Muslim Sunnis are murdering Muslim Shiites. Every day the Muslim Kurds are killing Muslims.

Every day the Wahabbis are killing Muslims. They are not only killing Christians and Jews. Read history, and you’ll see that the Muslim world has had a steady diet of wars. At least, Catholics and other faiths rest awhile before they go at it again. There are 73 contradictory sects in the Muslim religion, and they war against each other because, according to their way of thinking, the other sects are “infidels.” There are thousands of contradictory Protestant sects, but you don’t see them constantly tearing into each other. At least they rest from warring each other.

Read history, and you’ll see that this isn’t the case in the Muslim world. I don’t see other faiths treating women so violently. For example, how many women do Protestants and Catholics stone to death? You talk about the tyrants Hitler and Stalin, but even these boys were not as evil as Muhammad. Hitler and Stalin mostly murdered. Muhammad, beside murdering also raped. When did Hitler marry a little girl six years old? When did Hitler rape a nine year old little girl? Muhammad did these things.I’ll stop here because I have too.

ZM said...

PhilipSaenz: thanks for clarifying. I was being a bit mean. I am certainly not denying that there are grave ills perpetrated by Muslims nor that some of these ills pertain, in differing ways, to the fact they are Muslims.

Of course, I think female genital mutilation is an unjustifiable & abhorrent attack on an often young girl’s body. But it’s not simply a Muslim thing: the practice is in some contexts carried out by Muslims for specifically Islamic reasons. In other contexts, this is not so. It is related to perceptions of increased male sexual pleasure; as a rite of initiation; for *perceived* hygienic reasons; for *perceived* fertility reasons. To attempt to understand the various reasons is not to exculpate: indeed, to challenge the practice more cogently might necessitate understanding the reasons why people engage in it. A monocausal - Islam - approach does not adequately describe the phenomenon.

There are also baneful inter-Muslim conflicts, many of which are not new. (Of course, this is true of Christian history too. You mention the respite Christians might have taken: I don’t know enough about, say, M-Eastern history, but I wonder whether a perpetual conflict model holds). These are also ethnic (which I mean in a specific sense, not as racial) conflicts.

Mohammed’s murdering is not analogous to Hitler’s murdering. Moreover, you mention his ‘rape’ of little children. I certainly feel uneasy at v young (female) ages for marriage. But it’s also true that in previous ages, this was a norm. Indeed, in some senses, ‘childhood’ - as we understand it - is a modern thing (as is our aversion to corporal punishment). Again, this is not to exculpate. Nor is it relativism: I’m not making these socio-historical differences normative. But it has to be part of one’s response to these things. I have great affection and intellectual admiration for Augustine of Hippo or Aquinas: I can’t agree with everything either says about women or heretics.

ZM said...

MarcellaCoelho - “There can be no relativity in modesty. It has to have its own anthropological meaning. I agree with the author it has to come from the struggle to have a purified heart.”

I don’t know if this is responding to me. But, if it is, I agree with you. I would only contend that there is a degree of latitude with the outward embodiment of modesty. At a mundane level, think about the difference between a hotter and colder region. Moreover - and forgive me for raising this - those things which are considered (sexually) attractive - and, thus, which might relate to *dressing modestly* - are not absolutely uniform in all places and periods. Compare how two girls (more on this in a sec) who are committed to modesty might dress in contemporary Britain (where I am) and 16th century Spain. They wouldn’t be identical. But they would both be pursuing the same virtue, the same purification of the heart. (Of course, modesty does not just entail how one dresses: it is only on this aspect of modesty that I have been writing).

But why just compare two girls? I remember speaking to a priest (about conversion) and he spoke about modesty as a virtue. The example he used did not pertain to how women dress. But to how young men dress (and he had in mind the current fashion for wearing trousers suspended from just below the buttocks, something to which, I confess, I had at a different time not been averse). Modesty is as much a demand made on men as women as a virtue. (Not saying you’d disagree on this!).

Philip Saenz said...

Mr. ZM, I don’t think I’m at all mean. I’m a very kind person, and people have commended me for that. But I’m also very blunt and I fight like ten tigers when it comes to defending especially the helpless. I and my warriors proved that much during a war not so long ago in Central America. Sir, you mentioned that it was the norm to “marry” the very young years ago. Sir, it is still the norm where Islam has complete control. Can’t you figure out why? Notice what takes place: It’s dirty old dominant men who go chasing after little kiddies and “marrying” them against their will.

Why? Don’t forget that there is much suffering there too on the part of the very young. It happens because some sex craved, mentally diseased, long bearded old men are unfair, and cruel. The dominant men weren’t marrying the very young in Central America because they couldn’t get away with it. However, they were kidnapping little kiddies, and doing pretty much the same thing that long-bearded dirty old men are doing today where they do get away with it because their evil religion permits it. When Muhammad wanted to enter some sordid practice his mantra was: “It is pleasing to Allah.” That Allah sure had some kinky ideas, didn’t he? Like I said, it is still that way today where they can get away with it, and the poor female kids suffer unspeakably. Of course I feel sorry for them, and that’s another reason I fight again, but only through internet.

In Central America we fought with violent weapons. As a result, at least 6,000 of those sex craved satanic jerks will never again kidnap little girls, and sometimes little boys, and then doing with them whatever they pleased. I also feel sorry for little girls in some Muslim countries because dominant satanic men don’t allow the little girls to get an education. There is much misery emanating from Islam, and it has been that way since the inception of Islam. May God bless you and your friends. Yes, I’m Catholic too.