Saturday, December 18, 2010

Niqab: Oppression or Liberation?

Niqab: a face veil covering the lower part of the face (up to the eyes) worn by observant Muslim women

Oppression: the state of being kept down by unjust use of force or authority

Liberation: To set free, as from oppression, confinement, or foreign control

When I think of oppression, I think of slavery, prejudice, inequality, dictatorship, rape, abuse, lesser race, caste and class, the MAN, voting rights, civil rights, misogynist, and so on. So the question stands, can a niqab, a piece of cloth placed over the face, become a vehicle for oppression? Well, of course it can. Just like a miniskirt, or a haircut, or a room in a house.

Compairing the niqab to the miniskirt.

If a person of authority forces a woman to wear a mini-skirt every day, in order to make her feel used and worthless, the mini-skirt, a piece of fabric, then becomes a vehicle for oppression. It gets tricky when one tries to determine what actions fall under “force”. In America, we live in a society that is over sexualized. This is not an extreme statement; this is a common sense statement. Sex is everywhere: shows, movies, commercials, newsstands, street corners, schools, workplaces, and even places of worship. We live in an age where sex-scandals are top news-stories. These scandals have no limits- pastors and congressmen caught in homosexual acts, celebrities committing adultery with porn-stars and prostitutes, and let’s not forget about the molesting priests.

One would think a society with so much sexual deviance would try to counter this behavior with positive reinforcement. Perhaps a troubled society like this would encourage their young women and men to have decency and respect for their bodies. But this is just an ideology. The truth is that on the cover every popular teen magazine, you will find titles like, “Wanted List: Mod Mini-Skirts” (promoting the shortest skirts paired with platform stiletto heels) and “How to Make Out” (a complete detailed guide on tongue kissing).

Yet some women will argue that dressing sexy is a form of liberation. These women will say it is their right to bare their bodies and the female body is something that should be celebrated and not covered up. Buying into this concept might be easy if there were no such thing as “the glass ceiling”, sexual harassment, eating disorders, and the constant sexual objectification of teen girls and women on almost every media outlet.

The niqab is a relatively new concept in the west. Until recently, Americans would be most familiar with the face veiling from episodes of I Dream of Jeanni or from images of seductive and mysterious belly dancers from various films.

However, in these post 9/11 times, images of the niqab come to the west in forms of Afghan women covered in head-to-toe burqas in worn-torn Afghanitan. We read and watch news stories about women who are confined to their homes, not allowed to go to school or work. We read about young women falling victim to honor-killings and forced nuptials. Images of veiled women being beaten in the streets for having their ankles exposed immediately resurface when the American thinks about the niqab.

The trick question: What about American niqabbis? Not only immigrant women, but many American Muslim converts have adopted the niqab to demonstrate modesty and rebellion against a sexed-up culture. Some of these women even consider the niqab as a symbol of feminist liberation, taking back their rights over their bodies and the way society judges them. Some Western societies feel the niqab as being an threat, and have actually banned the garmet. This is one thing mini skirt wearers won’t have to worry about unless they visit Saudi-Arabia or another country where there are modesty laws in place for women.

“Their husbands force them to wear it”, “They are oppressing themselves”, “They have no identity.” Sure, these sentiments could be true of some women who don the niqab, just as the exact same sentiments could be true of a woman who sports a mini skirt. When it comes down to it, a piece of cloth cannot oppress a woman. A government, a society, an employer, husband, or father: they can oppress. They can misuse their authority to keep women down by denying them education and filling their minds with the words of men, instead of the words of God.

Society can oppress by portraying an unattainable image of what beauty should be and shove it down the throats of young impressionable girls and women everyday through every vessel. Oppressive husbands use insults and physical domination to hold down their women. A niqab, a miniskirt, an advertisement, a written or unwritten law, and sexist epithets are just a few examples of the devices for which oppressors can use to make women feel and exist as a lesser gender.

Do you get it? We are focusing on the wrong thing! Niqab? Mini-skirt? These things mean nothing. Educating minds and nurturing souls should be at the forefront of discussion. Let a woman have confidence. Let her believe in her God-given attributes. Let her build up her character and her faith and connection to God. By always focusing on what a woman is wearing or not wearing, we are encouraging the actions of the oppressors. We are tearing down the fragile state of the teenage girl, who is just beginning to figure out where her place is in the world. By empowering our women, we are empowering our societies. By oppressing our women, we are oppressing mankind.

The Prophet Muhammad said, may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him:
“Your Heaven lies under the feet of your mother.” (Ahmad, Nasai)

Judge Not!


Ahmed said...

Wa alaikum asalam- good post. I love the analogy.

I think its also worth investigating the absolutes- for a man, seeing a women in a mini-skirt is sexually appealing no matter the culture. The niqab on the other hand seems to be culturally problematic. If we Muslims are honest with ourselves then we should easily see how the niqab can be disturbing. I personally find it disturbing not to be able to see a person's face. There is something fundamental about that. It is not an issue of Islamophobia or prejudice. It is important to recognize this reality and let me mention why.

There is disagreement between the scholars about whether or not it is fard (in fact, I believe 3 of the 4 Mathabs say its not- simplistic salafi scholars quote a couple of hadiths to make their point emphatically that it is). A basic rule in Islam is that when there is a major disagreement on an issue, then it's not a big issue. For example everyone agrees alcohol is haram so that's a big issue. Not everyone agrees about the ways to pray- not a big issue.

Islamic law does however agree that when it does not conflict with rules of Islam, that culture takes on the force of Law. In fact scholars agree that to go against the culture can be haram (so long ofcourse as it doesn't violate the sacred Laws of Islam).

So taken together the fact that niqab is controversial within the Islamic community, and the fact that it is so culturally disturbing to see a women covering her face, I personally wish Muslim women would think twice before donning the veil out of a misplaced enthusiasm for complying with Sharia, or worse- out of a sense of religious pride or defiance. It is such an anti da'wa maneuver in my opinion, and its not even a big deal. Arab country scholars love to make women issues like this a big deal, as if that is the most important thing for a Muslim women to worry about!

Well I know the point of your blog was not to dwell on the niqab per say, but it made me think about it, so I had to go on this diatribe! Please, please understand this is just my opinion and I'm in now way qualified to give a fatwa about the legality of the niqab.

Anonymous said...

As salam alaykum,
This a bold and daring article that also appear to dance on a tight rope between what is your opinion and how something is understood from a Sharia perspective. I enjoyed it, however that kind of tight rope places you and the point you are trying to make on the defensive. Great work, good information and thought provocating.


Muslim Mommy said...

Thank you Ahmed and Fateen. I realize anytime subjects of what women wear are brought up, it puts me on the defensive because there are matters of Shari'ah, fihq, and strong opinions. I guess the point I'm trying to get across is that I want to make a shift in the conversation. I want to talk about empowering and educating women, instead of always bickering about what they should/ or should not wear.

I was fortunate enough to experience those type of spiritually uplifting and educational occurances quite often in Las Vegas. But lately it seems as though obsession over the "correct" Islamic dresscode seems to fill many converations. Of course, this all depends what circle you're in...

By the Way, of course I support modest Islamic dress, but I also believe women should do it to please Allah, and not blindly follow. Thank you again for your comments

Anonymous said...

You said it. It is full of emotions because we cannot help to have an "opinion" on the matter. Look, I have been from top to bottom on this particular subject. I have given opinions, Allah forgive me! I have listened to many as well.

The best we can do is not get fixed on this subject in particular. We should learn about it as much as possible but if it serves nothing but a fitnah, we should try something else. Because obviously even clear signs in this deen still create problems between Muslims because of our defenses. So, I guess the best we can do when we see a circle of negativity is just leave it :) Alhamdulillah it will not benefit anyone to debate with people who are not knowledgable about the entirety of the subject.

May Allah forgive us all and guide us...