26 September, 2017

The Islamic Hijab & Veil

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

A Quiet Revolution (Yale University Press, 2011) is by Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian-American; Professor of Divinity at Harvard University. Unless otherwise made explicit, what follows is from this study. The work’s focus is mainly from the 20th century onwards, with much of the reference being related to Egypt (to a lesser degree to Saudi Arabia) and the USA. The hijab and veil are emblems of Islam (p. 132) though, of course, there are pious Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab. Equally, to be a Muslim is not necessarily to be an Islamist: ‘Islamism’ is a very political form of Islam (ibid).

Women’s rights have been used as a cloak to attack Islam and the Muslim world in general; to denigrate and dominate (pp. 223-4). For example, the British Occupation of Egypt began in 1882, and Lord Cromer was appointed consul-general, a post he held for twenty-four years. Cromer who repeatedly decried the position of women in Islam was a fierce opponent of women’s rights in England. Indeed, he was for a time president of the ‘Society Opposed to Women’s Suffrage’ (p. 31). The presence of the veil was taken to be an indicator of the level of the backwardness of a society (p. 20) – isn’t it still? The Oxford historian Albert Hourani in The Vanishing Veil (1956) predicted that it would soon be a thing of the past (p. 19) but the veil reappeared in the 1970s (p. 8), and today we live in a world where veiling steadily gains ground across the globe (p. 305).

The Caliphate which had existed under the Ottoman Empire was abolished in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk. In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hasan al-Banna whose ideal was to work for humanity, particularly for the poor and oppressed. Their clinics, health-care centers and hospitals were open also to the needy who didn’t belong to the Brotherhood (p. 51). A Muslim Sisterhood was established in 1937 (p. 136). The Brotherhood was dissolved in 1948 and al-Banna murdered. Fleeing persecution in Egypt, members of the Brotherhood found refuge in Saudi Arabia which from the 1950s saw a massive increase in its oil-based wealth. The Kingdom, established in 1932, followed the teaching of Abd al-Wahhab (1709-92), and sought to Wahhabize Islam (p. 97). Members of the Brotherhood offered their experience and expertise, and it is they who ran Saudi projects, including publications and missions. (In the past, wealthy Egyptians had taken to wearing European-style dress. Now women returning from Saudi Arabia with money to buy houses, property or businesses imitated the Saudi dress-code: Saudi chic, p. 101. Besides, wearing the hijab a woman could leave the home, go out to work and yet signal that she was a good wife and mother: p. 122. This is particularly relevant in the context of over-crowding in buses, trains and offices.) A university was set up in Medina in 1961 to train Muslim missionaries (p. 61). The word jahiliyya (jahl = ignorance) referred to the pre-Islamic era in Arabia but Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (leading intellectual of the Brotherhood, hanged in 1966) asserted that most so-called Muslim countries were in fact not Islamic but rather were jahiliyya societies (p. 69). To Qutb, the Islamic confession of faith, “La illaha illa Allah”, was revolutionary: sovereignty lay not in governments but in Islam (p. 71), and the true path was through dedicated and selfless labour and struggle. Of the four types of jihad (jahada = to strive): the first and the greatest is the struggle with oneself. I am reminded of one of the sayings attributed to the Buddha, very much in line with Stoic philosophy: Greater than conquering others is the winning of control over oneself.

The 1956 constitution gave Egyptian women the vote. “By 1962 women had been appointed to senior government positions, and all the women holding such positions were bareheaded” (p. 64). But more than the defeat by Israel in 1948, the defeat of 1967 had “an earthquake-like effect on the Arab world” (pp. 65-6): I suppose because it was not an honourable defeat but a humiliating debacle. Arab efforts at Westernisation hadn’t brought results, and the people now believed that salvation lay not in nationalism, not in socialism, but in Islam: an attitude encouraged by the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf kingdoms threatened by notions of socialism. The wearing of the hijab is influenced by non-religious factors and developments as well.

African Americans make up a considerable percentage of US Muslims (p. 11). Similarly, some of the so-called ‘Untouchable’ caste in India, rejecting a religion which sanctioned their rejection, converted to Buddhism. And Arundhati Roy in her novel, The God of Small Things, suggests with ironic humour that if there are “untouchables”, then there must also be “touchables”. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, America became an “Islamist haven” (p. 177) with the Reagan administration elevating Wahhabism to the status of ‘liberation theology’. Abdel Rahman, known as the blind sheikh, obtained his green card quickly, and Ayman al-Zawahiri was also in the US (p. 180).

To wear the hijab or veil in a Muslim-majority country is to conform; it’s quite a different matter to do so in a minority situation, particularly one where Muslims face resentment, even hostility. The attack of 11 September 2001 led to contradictory reactions on the part of Muslim women in America. Some abandoned the hijab but far more began to wear it: we have a right to be treated equally. Often, these women were young, university-educated and successful professionally. They are a far cry from the stereotype of powerlessness, poverty and near-illiteracy; a stereotype which has a long pedigree, for example and at random, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein states that the intellect and an independence of spirit are “forbidden to the female followers of Muhammed” (Chapter 14). The resurgence of the veil was overwhelmingly a women’s movement, and there was a “dramatic increase” in attendance at the mosque (p. 169). Wearing the hijab became an act of solidarity with Muslim women all around the world (p. 209). “Palestine and solidarity with the Palestinians loomed large among the reasons given for donning the hijab” (p. 210). “9/11” also prompted a different interpretation of some aspects of traditional Islam. For example, Laleh Bakhtiar in The Sublime Quran, “the first English translation by a Muslim American woman”, adduces linguistic grounds for re-reading verse 4.34: the verse does not mean that a husband can beat his wife but only to leave her alone (p. 267). The “prophet Mohammed was never known to have beaten any of his wives” (ibid). “The absence of a woman’s point of view” in Islam needed to be changed. What was now questioned was not the authority of the Qur’an but its interpretation over the ages by men. Attitudes and practice are not fixed but fluid.

To employ paradox, wearing the hijab is silent utterance. But what is the significance of this silent statement, the quiet revolution of this book’s title? What different factors lead to the wearing of it? It will be interesting if similar research were to be conducted in Sri Lanka by a female Moslem who not only has access to fellow Moslem females from different areas and social groups, but is also able to win their trust and candour. Perhaps, such studies already exist? I’ll be grateful for guidance.

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  • 15
    4

    Dear Prof. Sarvan,

    Let’s hope that Muslims work these things out for themselves. As we are all aware, this a crucial time for Sri Lankan Muslim women because of the MMDA reforms that are pending.

    If non-Muslims do comment on these matters, your review is a model of correctness and restraint. We cannot be indifferent to what happens to people just because they are born in to a conservative environment. There has to be a fundamental human rights concern here.

    We have to take these matters seriously, but not rouse irrational fears. I mean, I am worried about Turkish President, Erdogan’s provocative comments:

    “We will multiply our descendants. They talk about population planning, birth control. No Muslim family can have such an approach,” he said in a speech in Istanbul broadcast live on television.

    http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Turkeys-Erdogan-No-Muslim-family-should-engage-in-birth-control-455429

    Comes from an Israeli newspaper!

    I hope that I haven’t upset the balance that you have set up!

    • 10
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      Turkish President Erdogan is an Islamic fanatic who is going to lead turkey to another humiliating defeat similar to what happened in the last two world wars. US tried to oust him through a coup which failed and now the angry Erdogan has joined hands with Russia whose plane Turkey shot down a few months ago. Russia is making a big mistake in allying with Turkey for Geo-political reason as Turkey has turned against the west. The biggest threat to world peace now appears to be Turkey, who were instrumental in starting the first two world wars, though ending on the losing side.

  • 5
    1

    It’s pointless going back in history just as trying to justify bringing back the bullock card.
    I Shure the good prophet had the best of intentions for people in those days and if he is living now, I am sure he will give equal rights and respect to woman and urge the people to do away with the discriminatory hijab which is a symbol of suppression.
    Countries like Saudi are in the medieval age and they are propagating that mindset of the bygone times.
    I remember the good old days immediately after our independence where one or two families from Pakistan keep coming to Kandy for the Muslim festival where a Kuudu was paraded in the streets,very happy occasion for all of us. These ladies were very modern and even smoked cigarettes with that extended holders, just like the Hollywood stars. We use to admire them for their modernity and their styles in line with the modern world.They had a permanent house in the premises of the Meerakan Mosque where we the non Muslims were occasionally were entertained by the Bai community every year where they served mutton buriani.
    I too had friends from the Muslim communities who were married to non Muslims and in one case one eminent person, a doctor was married to a burgher person and had a few beautiful children who are doing well abroad.
    IN late 50s I went out in Kandy with a Persian Girl from the Muslim back ground where her parents were very accommodating and took her to many dances at the Queens hotel. They use to describe how modern it was in Iran under Shah though there were backward stupid people in the South of Tehran.
    I too was in Iran in 60s where ‘the arabs’ were in the Southern parts,were the women were wearing black perhaps from the Sunni sect while the rest who were modern were from the Shea sect.Latter too had backward medieval types until France who did not like American influence in Iran, incubated the fundamentalist Shea leader Komani in France and let lose in Iran and rest is history.We must help the Muslims to absorb in to the modern world by banning hijabs and cut off the vile influences to their faith coming from countries like Saudi Arabia. Hope the Muslims will face the reality of the modern world and get along with it.

    • 2
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      Please stop writing how a Muslim should live unless you prefer Islam forced on you. Perhaps you should take a leaf from – Sinhala_Man March 26, 2017 at 2:12 pm.

  • 2
    1

    “Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, America became an “Islamist haven” (p. 177) with the Reagan administration elevating Wahhabism to the status of ‘liberation theology’. “

    There is need for clarification in this matter.
    In fact, US meddling preceded and induced Soviet intervention: (Source: Le Nouvel Observateur, Paris, 15-21 January 1998 .
    Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser

    Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [“From the Shadows”], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?

    Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

  • 3
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    Prof. Charles Sarvan
    RE: The Islamic Hijab & Veil

    298 words

    1. “Of the four types of jihad (jahada = to strive): the first and the greatest is the struggle with oneself. I am reminded of one of the sayings attributed to the Buddha, very much in line with Stoic philosophy: Greater than conquering others is the winning of control over oneself.”

    2. “Arab efforts at Westernisation hadn’t brought results, and the people now believed that salvation lay not in nationalism, not in socialism, but in Islam: an attitude encouraged by the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf kingdoms threatened by notions of socialism. The wearing of the hijab is influenced by non-religious factors and developments as well.”

    3. “ The resurgence of the veil was overwhelmingly a women’s movement, and there was a “dramatic increase” in attendance at the mosque (p. 169). Wearing the hijab became an act of solidarity with Muslim women all around the world (p. 209).”

    Thank you for a well written article on the hijab. However, what was missing was the fact that the hijab and veil came to Islam after Prophet Mohamed from the cultures of the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires, where the women wailed,

    4. “It will be interesting if similar research were to be conducted in Sri Lanka by a female Moslem who not only has access to fellow Moslem females from different areas and social groups, but is also able to win their trust and candour. Perhaps, such studies already exist? I’ll be grateful for guidance.”

    Yes, this needs organization and cultivation, but going by the position taken by the Ulama of the SL Ulama, this is a hard battle. The Ulama, just like all priests and monks, wants to maintain their importance and hegemony, through religion.

  • 4
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    The way the veil is worn by Muslim women is not aesthetically pleasing. This is how Roman women wore the veil: http://www.bible-researcher.com/ancient3.jpg. You can see that Roman women were not forced to wear the veil, it was simply a very popular fashion item. The veil, as worn by Muslim women, deliberately covers all the hair. So it is not a fashion item, but a symbol of oppression. There are other issues as well, such as lack of vitamin D (which hair absorbs from sunlight), and mental health.

  • 0
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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 5
    6

    Most of those who speak agianst Hijab who wants to see your wives, mothers, sisters and women in half naked as western world want to see them in beach ?
    It is our culture of all Asians?
    So do not talks agiaisn’t Hijab?

    If you have right to be naked
    They have right to be covered?
    If you have rights to send your own sisters into to pub houses and clubs
    They have freedom not to go ?
    If you want your sisters to drino they have feesdom not to drink?.

    • 8
      2

      Dear Lankan No 03,

      Can’t you see for yourself that you are the first person on this blog to talk in a nasty way. The article itself has been written very responsibly. I had tried to express a certain attitude to this problem. Others have followed suit, and some have pointed out certain things that are factual.

      You have descended to invective. You say that certain things are NOT part of ASIAN culture. Let me tell you that Hijabs, Nijabs, Abayas and whatever other garbs you force on women are NOT part of our Sri Lankan culture. More than all else paedophilia (legal or otherwise) is NOT acceptable to us. They have occurred in all cultures and societies, and I’m sure that such things have happened, and still happen (unsanctioned) within other communities in our country. It is depraved individuals who do these things, and we will hound them out of our society.

      Please don’t make it necessary for us to ask you to either commit suicide (by yourself – without hurting anybody else!) in the hope that there’ll be reward for you in heaven, or go to Saudi Arabia or Kuwait yourself. You just don’t belong here!

      • 9
        0

        Dear Sihala Man,
        ” You say that certain things are NOT part of ASIAN culture. Let me tell you that Hijabs, Nijabs, Abayas and whatever other garbs you force on women are NOT part of our Sri Lankan culture.”
        A few qualification on your statement. Note that I am NOT supporting Hijab in any way:
        Hindu women in parts of India cover their heads even today. Upper-class Kandyan women in colonial times used carriages with drawn curtains, just like the Muslims.
        On the other hand, women of some castes were not allowed to cover their upper bodies!

        • 3
          0

          “Hindu women in parts of India cover their heads even today.”

          They just wear a veil to match the saree or other outfit, there is no absolute requirement. If you notice, the Muslim veil is tight-fitting, the veil as worn by Hindu women is rather loose. So you can see who is forced to wear what.

          “On the other hand, women of some castes were not allowed to cover their upper bodies!”

          This is true in both India & Sri Lanka (Kandy). 

        • 1
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          Don’t go back into history like you using a bullock cart to travel to Colombo. Face the reality and move to the new world.

        • 2
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          Hindu women covering their heads with their saree in the northern parts of India is due to hundreds of years of Muslim rule in these region. Prior to this Hindu women never covered their heads. In the south of India Hindu women do not cover their heads, as they were not ruled by Muslim dynasties.

      • 7
        0

        Dear old codger,

        I’m sure that we both see dress, per se, as NOT the main issue.

        It is the rights of certain human beings who have been born as girl-children into certain families. It is a sensitive subject.

        We just don’t want to see any human beings treated as possessions by other human beings. We must necessarily be deferential to the rights of parents etc. We must also not harbour any desire to destroy the Muslim way of life, their deeply held beliefs and their culture.

        But all human beings have rights – and so do Muslim women!

        • 4
          0

          Dear Sinhala man,

          “Dear old codger, I’m sure that we both see dress, per se, as NOT the main issue.”
          Yes, unnecessary demonization of Islam makes them more extreme. Rather like the the exaggeration of the Soviet “threat” in the Cold War. We have to remember that the very forces which created this distorted Islam are now fighting it(or are they really?) . We will only find out in 30 years or so what is really happening!

    • 1
      1

      You are not ‘Lankan No 03’, I think you are ‘Lankan No 9’

    • 7
      1

      Lankan No 03,

      I saw the other day Muslim mothers & fathers in full naked on the Galle face greens. Shocked?

      I saw them worse than naked through reckless, undisciplined, irresponsible sons they brought up.I even doubt the level of care these parents showed in educating these kids.

      Why do these Muslim boys especially have such low public behaviors? I guess those mothers should take responsibility. Perhaps they were too worried and busy about holding their Hijabs tied to their heads and bodies that other important responsibilities left loosened.

      Similarly aged other boys from the different community were well behaved and disciplined was remarkable.and Muslim parents should rethink.

    • 2
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      I always see that lot of Muslim girls relax in beach with their mangoes clearly visible..

  • 0
    0

    Niqab and burka are different ?

    but, discriminating Hijab and Veil is extrmist itself.

    How about queen wearing the hats of various shapes. How about indian women covering the head ?

    • 1
      1

      Hijab symbolize suppression and not the hats.

  • 2
    2

    give me the child until it is seven and I will show you the man …..this applies equally to girls and women ….they are indoctrinated by their parents , who in turn were indoctrinated by theirs . Every child thinks their parent knows best regardless of the evidence to support this claim. Children are moulded by those adults around them , and the young girls are indoctrinated by all to believe they are inferior to all men , and must obey all men .So is it any surprise that muslim women believe they have chosen to wear the hijab , it has been rammed into their heads from birth , so they believe it is of free choice ….if we put a group of children on an island with not a single adult to tell them this is how you must behave as a male and you must behave as a female ….do you honestly believe the females would bow down to the males as if they were the superior intellect, I doubt it …It is society that mould our beliefs and attitudes , and it takes strong self belief and freedom of thought to cast off the harm that parents and religious leaders fill their heads with .

  • 2
    5

    Dear Sinhala man ..
    If you are really Sinhala man you would speak modestly and you would speak in support of ladies who wear modestly ., ladies are not public property to show off bodies to public . What is wrong with you to support nakedness .. Hijab and Nikab so call it.. it is not an Arab culture but rather it is all about modestly dressing in this world of prostitution ..
    MR Moahemd .: you are slandering about muslim ladies and inshalalh if you are a Muslim you will be punished in this world or next for your slandering
    ..

  • 3
    4

    Dear Sinhala man ..
    Do not be an agent of west or Zionist
    You look not as a Sinhala man rather an agent of outside world ..
    Sinhalese will never support birth control as you like to do ?
    You fear Muslim population increase in the world ? You and your western agents will kill humanity .. look how many people do abortion in SL ? Why do not fear for your people rather than worried about others

  • 2
    4

    Sinhala man
    What is wrong with you ?
    You like to see your mother and your sisters in Streets ?
    Why you bother about others modesty ? This so called Muslim ladies groups who want to free them .. they in deed speak in behalf of devils and they want to free them to go to night clubs and pubs.. there are muslims in name.they have lesbians with them ? What do you expect ? CT wants to support this dirty work? What sport of journalism do you do ? To spread evils on earth ?

  • 5
    2

    Colombo boy & Colombo 2 both have the same gravatar, and they are spewing obscenities!

    I have looked over what I have written above.

    Yes, I do see population control as something that is important for all human beings. It is so important, that if you can’t understand it, I feel that you ought to be put in a space capsule and sent off to Mars – or some planet elsewhere to propagate as best you can. How you will pray is another problem! You may find it very difficult to face Mecca!

    On the other hand I have not spoken of abortion at all. I don’t think that any of us like the idea – although I’m not going to get in to that subject. Not only did it never face me (being a Man!), but also I’m too old now! Actually, I have spoken of the rights of all other life forms, something which guys like you can’t even understand. Yes, I mean that!

    On the other hand, I have plenty of Muslim friends who have respect for animal and plant life. That is the tragedy: they, too, get painted with the same brush!

    Where have I spoken of these things? Mothers and sisters in streets; night clubs, pubs, lesbians?

    Yes, I call myself “Sinhala_Man”, but neither my ethnicity, language, nor gender is as important as being a sentient being. I hope I understand the importance of acting rationally being such.

    On the contrary, the above is what I get for stating this:

    ” We must also not harbour any desire to destroy the Muslim way of life, their deeply held beliefs and their culture.”

    Really, what is the matter with you?

    • 1
      1

      You are a suicide bomber..

  • 0
    4

    What is wrong with you man ?
    Mr Sinhala man ?
    Why do you want to see half naked ladies on the street ?
    Why do you like to see them go astray from right path ?
    In the name of freedom and they want to change religion ? How is it ? Islam is not like Buddhism or Christianity ? They can change everyone and everything ?gyas and lesbians be priests but in in Islam ..
    You have to submit your will full in Islam ?

    • 4
      0

      Do suicide bombers submit to a god?

    • 4
      0

      Kandy man,
      “Why do you want to see half naked ladies on the street ? “
      I wouldn’t mind a few half naked ladies . For about 2 weeks.
      After that it would be so boring, don’t you think? Even if one was your sister (Kandy missy).
      Most ladies are so fat and ugly. That’s why they cover up, dear.

    • 4
      1

      Kandy man, and Sri Lanka NO 5, – apart from the other two,

      Where have I spoken of “Nakedness”?

      That appears to be YOUR obsession!

  • 0
    3

    Dear Sinhala man
    When you say that take off headscarf it indirectly mean that take it that shyness to mix with alien men ? First understand why scarf is needed to protect modesty ? You did not say it nakedness but you open door for it …

    • 2
      0

      Kandy man,

      Fantastic imagination on your part!

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