Sunday, January 31, 2010

Amina Wadud on the Hijab

"If you think the difference between heaven and hell is 45 inches of material, boy will you be surprised."

I've just finished reading Amina Wadud's book "Inside the Gender Jihad". I've always been very impressed with her writing - she is eloquent and writes beautifully, but also commands a lot of respect.  She is very (I mean very) well-learned and is really one of the top Western Islamic intellectuals around today.

She wears hijab, so I was interested to see how she came to that decision.  She is known for her hermeneutic, linguistic, and contextual analyses of the Qur'an and Sunnah, so I wanted to know what her interpretation of the Qur'an and Sunnah on hijab are.

She writes in the book that she does not see the hijab as an Islamic obligation. "I do not consider it a religious obligation, nor do I ascribe to it any religious significance or moral value per se.  It is certainly not the penultimate denotation of modesty, as mandated by the Qur'an, "the best dress is the dress of taqwa.

"Over the past several decades, the hijab has been given disproportionate symbolic significance both within and without Muslim communities. Like a sixth pillar, we cannot discuss Islam and gender without discussing the hijab. While overloaded with multiple meanings, it is often the single marker used to determine community approval or disapproval. Although sometimes random and coincidental, it is also burdened with different levels of volition by Muslim women."

She makes a very valid point: hijab does not necessarily provide a woman with respect or protection.  "Those who reduce women to their sexuality will continue to do so. In reality the hijab of coercion and the hijab of choice look the same."

"If a man respected a woman as an equal human being and not as an object of his sexual fantasies, then even a naked woman should be safe from male abuse." I think this is a great point - there is NO excuse for a man to disrespect a woman, no matter what she is wearing. And a good man will respect a woman whether she is veiled or not - the veil is not necessarily going to make a difference, and if it does, then he isn't the best of men.

"When a Serbian soldier in the rape camps can rip a two-year-old girl's body apart by raping her, it is obviously naive to assume that any amount of head-covering would have made any difference or created any real change in deep-seated male aberrations."

Wadud also discusses the fact that because she wears hijab, some women avoid her because they assume the hijab means silence and conformity.  Similarly, some women assume she is more religious than non-veiled women, something she also criticizes.

Finally, she writes, "Dubbing it the sixth pillar only shows its ability to divert attention from the issue of substance regarding modesty and relations between the sexes, like unrestricted male libido. The hijab is also a significant marker for the community approval or disapproval.  The paradox of my choice and devotion to wearing hijab without considering it obligatory means a significant duality of some strategic consideration for my various roles in the gender jihad."

Her arguments are interesting because she is not one of those scholars who sees the hijab as oppressive/looks at it condescendingly - she herself wears it.  She is simply pointing out that she does not see it as an obligation and that many Muslim women feel an immense amount of pressure to conform to this dress code, whether they believe in it or not.

I personally find it interesting how any scholar (Wadud, abou el Fadl) who says the hijab is not an obligation gets viciously attacked to the point of ridiculousness.  Why is it such a sensitive issue?

What does everyone think of her arguments?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

France and the Burqa...Again

Read the story here.

So we all know by now that France has an issue with the niqab.

What does everyone think of this? France has given several arguments for this stance, the strongest one that it is impractical. However, to me it seems more related to Islamophobia than France actually having an issue with it. If France didn't have other issues with Muslims, then maybe their position would seem more credible.  But certain incidents such as banning the hijab and burning cars seem to kind of weaken their position.

Some opinions:
Nasr Hamid abu Zeid: "This is why I believe that it would have been possible to solve the problem - if there really is a problem - in another way. This law has provoked many reactions among Muslims in French society and throughout the Islamic world. This can only lead to increased tensions in relations."

Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun: "When someone wears the headscarf in school, for instance, it is a deliberate decision to not take part in certain kinds of classes as for instance sports or biology.  The headscarf is - to my mind - the triumph of ignorance. The laws of laicism, that is, the separation of state and religion is very, very important."

Egyptian filmmaker Safaa Fathy: "The French government is attempting to prevent the growing radicalization of Arab and Turkish Muslims who live in suburban areas. There, young girls of only eight years old are already forced to wear a headscarf.  What we are dealing with here is a political-religious movement, which I witnessed emerge and grow in Egypt at the end of the 1970s and the start of the 1980s.  I support the existence of a law that protects girls from the pressures brought to bear from within the Muslim community, as this concerns a community that forces women to wear the headscarf. The headscarf is a sign of a woman's membership in the Arab-Islamic community."

Her last comment is very interesting.  From your experience, is there a lot of pressure on young girls to veil, from their families, communities etc?

What does everyone think about women who are nurses, doctors, etc wearing a niqab to work? Is it impractical, or does it not make a difference?

And how do you feel about France wanting to ban the niqab? Is it their right? Or is it an infringement on the rights of their Muslim citizens?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Leaving Cairo

I've been in Cairo for almost two months and I have less than a week left. A huge part of me is really sad that I'll be leaving Cairo, but part of me is excited to go back to Holland and continue my life there. This trip back has really made me realize that Cairo is my home and how in love with it I am. I really don't think there's another city like it.

I've also realized how nice it is to see Islam in moderation. Yes, many Egyptians have become increasingly conservative and some increasingly fanatic over the past few decades, but there are still many Muslims here who practice Islam in a very beautiful way that seems unique to Egypt.  For them Islam encompasses everything, from the way they act to the way they do business. But they see it as more of an inner journey than an outer one.  The women could be veiled or bare-headed, the men could be regulars at the mosque on Fridays or not, the kids could be more "Islamicized" than "Westernized" or vice versa - what makes these people amazing is that they are kind, compassionate, respectful, happy, and content. They feel God and they know He is always there - and they still enjoy life. They go out, they have fun, they joke and laugh, they listen to music, all without a second thought as to whether they are "good" Muslims or "bad" Muslims.

I find this type of Islam absolutely beautiful. I've seen so many Muslims spend their lives worrying about every little thing they do - is music haraam? should I veil my daughter when she turns 12? can i have a dog? Are people who don't worry about those things less Muslim? Are they less faithful? What is faith in the end?

What about all those generations of Egyptians who practiced Islam in moderation - who did listen to music, who did not veil, who were not segregated from each other - were they wrong? Sheikhs back then were more liberal too - were they wrong? There is no doubt that Islam in Egypt has become much more conservative. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. But with it has come immense pressure to fit in with this type of Islam, and if you don't, you will be judged negatively.

Where are the days when it was disrespectful to call a fellow Muslim a "kaffir" - how do you know what their relationship with God is? Who are you to judge them?

It's interesting to talk to older Egyptians about religion, because many of them are confused about what's happening today.  Some don't understand why a woman who doesn't veil is looked down on; others laugh when they hear that owning a dog is now "haraam". Some are angry when they hear sheikhs condemning Christians and Jews to hell. Many of them are just sad - sad that instead of there being room for a multitude of Islams, there now seems to be room for only one. And who gets to decide?

Egypt has long been influenced by Sufism, which I believe gave it such a unique and beautiful view on Islam, as well as a tolerance for different types of Islam. Insha'Allah the time will come when people realize how amazing tolerance is, and what a gift it is to have space to be yourself and to be secure and confident in your relationship with God.  Because in the end, that's what matters - you and God.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Women Before Islam

As someone who is interested in women & Islam, the situation of women in pre-Islamic Arabia is of special significance.  There are basically two main arguments that have been made.  One, made usually by Muslims, is that women before Islam were worthless, had no rights, were seen as the property of their husbands, and were usually killed right after birth. The second, made usually by non-Muslims, is that women in pre-Islamic Arabia were much more powerful and autonomous than after Islam. The second argument is quite rare and I don't hear many scholars making it, but it does exist.

One thing people tend to bring up is that Khadija, brought up before Islam, was independent and autonomous. However, to what extent can be extend this to all women of her generation and above? Aisha and Fatima, for example, were also strong-willed and independent, so could we also extend this to all women post-Islam?

Female infanticide should be one great pointer as to how women were seen before Islam. It is a well-accepted fact by most historians and scholars that there were high rates of female infanticide, and that Islam, by banning it, helped reduce the practice tremendously.

Another important point is that women before Islam were seen as part of a larger unit - the family, headed by the father. So even if they had rights regarding their husbands, we should not forget that their fathers still had tremendous say in their lives and how they lived them.

Asma Barlas writes, "A woman in 7th century Arabia could choose/dismiss a husband at will, she remained with her kin after marriage, and her children belonged to her tribe. However, by the time of Islam's advent, women may have become more dependent on men because of "baal" marriages (derived from the Old Testament) that established the husband as the overlord over his wife and the wife as his subject."

So the form of marriage had changed before Islam arrived.

She goes on: "Sexual unions were generally temporary since husbands deserted their wives for years on end and also enjoyed powers of unilateral divorce".  A nomadic lifestyle prevented the strict seclusion of women but not all women enjoyed freedom of movement."

"Yet some women were able to exercise influence in public life as priestesses and prophetesses, and they could also take part in warfare by tending the sick and wounded. On the whole, however, women's social place was a function of their class or their own personalities and was not codified in law."

This is an interesting point: women of a certain class did have some freedom, but this did not apply to all women across all classes. Her point about a forceful personality is also important - I think we could apply this to Khadija, if it is true.

"In spite of some freedoms, women could not inherit property but were themselves considered property and could be inherited as part of a dead father's estate by his sons."

In conclusion, I think the reality might be somewhere in between, albeit more to the side of "women in pre-Islamic Arabia were worse off than after Islam".  There is definitely a tendency on the part of some Muslims to make the Jahiliyya period (the period before Islam) sound as bad as possible, because this highlights how amazing Islam is; and this makes it difficult to know exactly what the situation then was. On the other hand, there is a tendency by same Western academics to make the period before Islam sound like paradise, thus making it seem as though Islam took rights away from women.  While I don't think women were completely downtrodden before Islam, I do believe that Islam gave them more rights and a higher status. This was mainly achieved through the Qur'an recognizing women as equal to men in the realm of faith: men and women who are pious will both go to heaven. It's that simple. In the realm of political/economic rights, there is not full equality, but there are reasons for this, and it also depends on how we define equality and whether or not one takes the context the Qur'an came down to into account.

What do you all think? What is the first image that pops into your head of women in pre-Islamic Arabia? Do you think they were better or worse off?