By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota
Living Islam vs. Using Islam Against Others
Living Islam means living, modeling, guiding, teaching, and counseling with loving care and concern. It is a life of trust, struggle, and noble effort. Using Islam often takes the form of holier-than-thou judgmentalism that is used to oppress and keep others in line. It often shows its ugly side through allegations that others are not “Islamic” or “obedient” enough. In actuality, the obedience that is demanded is not obedience as a result of taqwa, that is obedience to Allah, but rather obedience to the tyrant and his own fear-based self. When Islam becomes objectified in such a manner, the state of inner unity (that leads to outer unity, i.e. peace and where ‘it’, i.e. Islam, is ‘used’ to achieve an objective other than its divinely inherent goal of bringing peace and goodness to people’s lives.”
Hijab, which in its essence means “to conceal,” is usually associated with Muslim women. Although other faith traditions promote modest dress, and Muslim men are also asked to dress modestly, most of the noise around this world is directed at Muslim women.
There are two unhealthy views around women wearing hijab. First, that a woman who wears hijab is always oppressed. Second, that women must wear hijab because they are necessarily seductresses, and men cannot follow their own consciences unless women are covered.
Hijab and oppression
Some people believe that hijab is always oppression. Certainly, they realize that not all women who wear hijab are coerced into doing so. But, they say, in those cases there are social and family pressures.
It’s true that humans are always subject to social and family pressures. None of us—Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist—was born alone, on a desert island. None of us made up our own rules from scratch. All of us were raised in some sort of social system, where we were likely subject both to healthy and unhealthy social pressures.
Although there are many negative social pressures, there are also many positive ones. We are pressured to recycle, put on our seatbelts, eat healthy foods, and wear a bike helmet. All these things are good for us as individuals and for the wider society.
There are social norms everywhere, and just because a person adopts a social norm—such as wearing hijab—doesn’t necessarily mean they’re oppressed, nor does it necessarily mean they’re religious. Some women wear hijab but don’t pray or seek refuge in God.
Some women are forced to wear hijab. They might be forced by law, or they might be bullied or shamed into it. Where women are compelled to be obedient to another human, this is oppression, and there are Muslims—both men and women—who speak out against this. Women should not be forced to wear hijab out of fear of a tyrant.
The same is true, for instance, of marriage. The fact that a woman follows social norms and gets married doesn’t mean she is oppressed. But if another person tries to control her, and force her into getting married, then that is oppressive.
There is a stereotype about Muslim women that they are constantly repressed, and that all Muslims are dying to pull of their hijab, drink alcohol, and eat bacon. While this might be true of some, it’s certainly not a struggle for everyone, and some might simply want to adhere to a healthy lifestyle.
Simply because one can do something doesn’t necessarily make it a healthy lifestyle, and we also need to consider the consequences for ourselves and others.
While there are voices within the Muslim community pressuring women to wear hijab, there are also people within the Muslim community forcing women to take it off. In both cases, this is an issue of abusive control.
Seduction, temptation, and covering
Some men believe women should wear hijab because they are, inherently, temptresses. But women should not need to feel responsible for the irresponsible behavior of men. If a man should harass a woman, then that responsibility falls entirely with him, whether a woman is wearing a winter coat or a bikini.
Women are not required to change themselves to fix men’s behavior. If men need help controlling themselves, then they should seek help.
So then why wear hijab?
Sometimes, we come up with reasons to fast during Ramadan. For instance, some say we fast so that we can feel empathy with those who are hungry. While fasting might spark empathy for some, that is not why we fast. The poor are not exempt from fasting. Why do they fast, they are already poor.
We fast because it is a commandment from God. We fast because we are showing our trust in God. We trust that God is all-knowing, and He commanded us to fast.
Hijab is the same. If you are drop dead gorgeous or not good looking in the eyes of some, you are required to wear it. We might not know why God has commanded us to wear hijab, but we wear it because we trust God.
“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.”
The command on hijab or modesty is first addressed to Muslim men, not women. God first addresses men regarding modesty or “hijab of the eyes”.
In this verse, Muslim men are commanded not to lustfully look at women, that are not their spouses or women that are permissible to marry, meaning not relatives. This helps prevent temptation or desire.
Then, in the following verse, women are commanded likewise.
“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty;”
Being human like men, they must also practice “hijab of the eyes”.
We see similar teachings from Jesus, upon him peace, where he says, “You have heard that it was said by them of old time, you shall not commit adultery. But I say unto you, That whosoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
Hence, while in some communities, it is perceived if someone is not making eye contact they are deceitful or lacking confidence, if you see a Muslim not making eye contact to a member of the opposite sex, this is an indication that they are abiding by the Qur’anic as well as Biblical teaching.
Implementation and application
The verse completes with the following:
“…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 except…”
‘A’isha, the Prophet’s wife, upon him peace and blessings, said: “I have not seen women better than those of al-Ansar (the inhabitants of Medina): when this verse was revealed, all of them got hold of their aprons, tore them apart, and used them to cover their heads…”
There was no debate, because first and foremost, Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, connected them to God and he was the perfect man living and modeling Islam. There was trust and noble character, hence women did not debate the issue, as they were focused on pleasing God, as Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, taught and modeled to them.
The verse then lists male family members such as husband, father, father-in-law, the son(s), and others, where hijab is not a requirement.
In another verse, we read:
“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters, as well as all [other] believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments [when in public]: this will be more conducive to their being recognized [as noble women] and not annoyed. But [withal,] God is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace!”
Every faith has it social and culture norm. When working at EDS, we had to dress very sharp and professional. I went through training for two months to help us understand how we are to be perceived, and what is allowed and not allowed in dresscode and communication. We had a dress code that was very formal and meant to distinguish us from others, as well as help the customers to recognize us as very skilled professionals and to treat us with respect.
Likewise, there is a culture and social norm in Islam. There is a social ill in every community around the world, that women are perceived as sex objects. The #MeToo movement has brought it out in the open, front and center! It impacts all communities, including Muslim communities. Hence, women must be known to themselves and others with the image of noble attire to distinguish themselves from this social ill and rid their communities from it, and promote respectful interactions and encourage others to treat them as such. Hijab is meant to visually command respect.
Mercy and Compassion
According to Malik b. Anas, Jesus, the son of Mary, upon him peace, said, “Do not speak much without remembering God, for by doing so, you harden your hearts. Surely a hard heart is distant from God though you are unaware. Do not, like lords, look at the faults of others. Rather, like servants, look at your own faults. In truth, humanity is comprised of only two types, the afﬂicted and the sound. So show mercy to the afﬂicted, and praise God for well-being.” (muwatta’ of malik)
We learn from this that, if you see a woman who is astray, unprotected or vulnerable, do not take advantage – we are not speaking of rape, but of wooing and manipulating into illicit sexual behavior. Sexual assault is about power, not desire.
You can look at her with God’s Mercy and Compassion or rationalize impermissible actions or reduce her to a seductress. Likewise, for men who may be astray and lack self-control (not rapists). You can lure them into sin(“eat you heart out” or “dress to kill”), or look at them with God’s Mercy and Compassion, then push them away and pray for them.
The story of Joseph, upon him peace, teaches us – we will be tested in our areas of weakness, so we must all practice and strengthen ourselves with God, first and foremost, as well as anchor each other with God, to be honorable and noble before God.
Finally, as we wear hijab, we must understand, our focus is on God, not how others wear or don’t wear it. This also means we don’t look down on others who don’t wear it, nor are we meant to feel superior to those who don’t wear it. Everyone has their own relationship with God.
May Allah guide and protect us all.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.
Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US. She was the chair for the Interfaith Relations at Islamic Center of Minnesota. She has completed training in restorative justice at the University’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. She was a 2008-2009 policy fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. She is a public speaker and writer and lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
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