Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Niqab/Burqa/Hijab in Islam

Al Jazeera English - Europe - French report calls for veil ban

The debate continues about banning the niqab in France, but there are many things about veiling that most people, including Muslims, don't understand. First of all, the issue of modesty as described in the Qur'an is vague. It encourages both women and men to dress modestly. The Qur'an states that:

"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty:
That will make for greater purity for them:
And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty;
That they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof;
That they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty..." (24:30-31) (

Here, both women and men are encouraged to dress and act modestly. Women are told to "draw their veils over their bosoms," but women at the time that Islam emerged wore veils and did not cover their breasts, so this verse was speaking specifically to that. It is not necessarily meant to be taken literally, but to be applied broadly for all places and all times to mean that we should dress modestly according to our time period. Nowhere does it say that women must cover their heads and faces. However, some women feel more comfortable wearing looser clothing (such as robes or looser-fitted western clothing) and covering their heads and faces. Is this a matter of internalized patriarchy or should women be allowed to choose to express their modesty in their own way?

Regarding Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet, pbuh), there is a Hadith that states that women should only show their face and hands. But the Hadith literature has often been found to be inauthentic because it relies on a long line of transmission. Many times the transmission is faulty because one person may have 'told' another person who was not even living at the same time, or they were passed along by misogynists who were simply stating their personal views. Therefore, it is difficult to rely on all Hadiths 100% of the time.

With regards to modesty in men, I have heard conflicting views as to a 'dress code.' I have heard that they are required to be covered from the navel to the knee, but I have never heard this from a reliable source and it could be fabricated at some point in history for all I know. I would be surprised if they are permitted to have their shirts off, though because we live in a patriarchal world, men are able to get away with so much more than women. Not that it is ever just one person's fault--patriarchy is a system that is perpetrated and sustained by both and men and women. Also, many men cover their heads while praying, but I have not been able to figure out why--presumably for the same purposes women are supposed to cover their heads while praying. Many men however, do not do so. This is an interesting issue to look into, one that probably stems back to the issue of modesty in men and how patriarchal cultures permit men to have more flexible rules.

In sum, the issue in France is much more complicated than most people realize. As Islam continues to progress socially, full coverings may eventually become regarded as unnecessary (though it may take several generations). However, changes will only come from within the religion, and imposing Western views on Islam will only continue to anger Muslims and will probably not amount to much. It will be interesting to see how this issue continues to play out in France and other non-Muslim majority countries.

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