119 Farringdon Road
18th September 2005
Re: 'Of course women have a right to choose. But agreeing to wear a jilbab is no choice at all'
Dear Mr. Mayes
I write to complain about the above article regarding the jilbab by Catherine Bennet that appeared in the comments section of the Guardian on September 15th.
I would have hoped for a world renowned paper such as the Guardian to have seen beyond the outdated clich's regarding the Muslim woman's dress and to raise a deeper discussion as to why so many Muslim women, including thousands in the West have adorned the hijab and jilbab. Instead, I was sadly disappointed to read yet another article that merely perpetuates the negative stereotypes and adds further fuel to the fire of prejudice and discrimination surrounding Muslim women.
The piece contains various inaccuracies and derogatory remarks regarding the jilbab that are offensive to Muslim women. Such statements and allegations can only serve to contribute further to the Islamophobia already dominant within Western societies. The areas of concern within the article include the following:
- "Although the wearing of this costume is not ordained in the Qur'an, even according to a literal reading, it is none the less interpreted as obligatory by Muslims in some parts of the world…"
- "Feminists should not deny others the right to wear a restrictive garment imposed primarily on the insistence of male interpreters of the Qur'an who believe, in the medieval style, that their wives, sisters and daughter should be viewed only in their entirety by the men they belong to."
- "So many British women have been moved to defend a woefully anachronistic custom of dubious spiritual importance which, were it to be imposed on themselves or their daughters, they would resist as an affront to human rights."
The first point suggests that the jilbab is not an obligation defined by Islam but a distorted interpretation of the Muslim woman's dress by particular Muslims. If such an unequivocal verdict upon an Islamic rule is given then surely it merits a deeper understanding of the Islamic texts. Chapter Al-Ahzab, verse 59 of the Qur'an states, 'Oh Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their Jalabeeb (plural of jilbab) all over their bodies.' As evident in the 'literal reading' of this verse, the jilbab is unequivocally an obligation for the Muslim woman. If you would like further evidence from the Islamic texts regarding the jilbab I would be only happy to oblige.
Such inaccuracies regarding the Islamic duties reflect inadequate research into the topic that is inexcusable considering the thousands of women in London alone, who I am sure would be more than happy to explain the basis upon why they have adorned the jilbab if only asked.
The second point describes the jilbab as a restrictive garment imposed upon women by the men of the society and based upon a male interpretation of the Islamic texts.
I would like to raise the question as to what exactly is meant by 'restrictive'. Is the implication that the woman is unable to adopt an active public role while adorned in the jilbab? This is clearly negated by the thousands of Muslim women globally who study, train, and work as doctors, teachers, scientists, engineers, and businesswomen as well as engage zealously in the politics of their societies while adopting the Muslim woman's dress. By 'restrictive' is it meant that the garment oppresses the woman by not allowing her to reveal her beauty in public? I have always struggled to understand the basis of an argument that associates tyranny with a piece of cloth or suggests that the liberation of the woman and her contribution to society should depend upon how much flesh she shows in public.
That which is truly 'restrictive' to the contribution of Muslim women to public life is the prejudice and ignorance surrounding her dress that has caused her to be the subject of discrimination within secular societies. This has resulted in many compromising their education or being forced to leave work as evident in the French experience and in many unreported cases within the UK in areas such as retail, nursing and medicine.
The claim that women wear the jilbab under male pressure and interpretation of the Qur'an, is quite ironic considering that it is within secular states that women have felt compelled to aspire to fashion trends, set primarily by male designers who have interpreted how they wish to see women dressed. However, such accusations only serve to belittle the thinking of Muslim women with the underlying notion that we cannot understand Islam for ourselves or make our own choices in life. The view of a handful of women who have felt forced to cover has often been used as a template to excuse a gross generalisation upon the vast majority who have adopted the jilbab from their own convictions. We are yet to observe the mass uncovering of women in Afghanistan predicted following the removal of the Taleban – indicative of women who covered from personal religious beliefs rather than state pressure. This reality is mirrored in the exponential growth of Muslim women in the West, including thousands of converts to Islam who have adopted the jilbab in the absence of societal or state pressure.
If Muslim women do face pressure, it is the pressure to uncover and to reject the jilbab. This is either through the imposition of oppressive laws by extremist secular states such as France, Turkey or Tunisia or through prejudice towards the Muslim woman?s dress generated by the use of secular, liberal values as a yardstick to measure all other cultures and beliefs.
If the concern is that women should be permitted to define their appearance from their own convictions then why not question the basis of the multi-billion beauty industry that has effectively suffocated women with unrealistic images of body size and appearance. Surely you cannot deny the pressure upon women to measure up to a certain height, weight, and body mould. Germaine Greer commented in her book, ?The Whole Woman?, ?Every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure if she is not beautiful.? Where is the question of choice in this reality? It is these irrational ideals that have caused millions of women in the West alone to become obsessed with the superficiality of image on the level of paranoia resulting in an epidemic of eating disorders – women crippled by a lack of confidence in their appearance. Was it not Mary Wollstone, one of the mothers of feminism who wrote, 'Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body and roaming round in its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.'? Is this not oppression of the mind?
The third point describes the jilbab as an anachronistic custom of dubious spiritual importance.
This is an insult to Muslim women globally who have adopted the jilbab as a religious obligation and consider it a reflection of their Islamic identity, based upon clear evidence from Islamic texts. I would argue that it is the attack upon the Muslim woman's dress which is a 'a woefully anachronistic custom of significant secular importance' that roots back to the colonial era and the likes of personalities such as Lord Cromer. He claimed back in the 19th century that Islam degraded the woman via the hijab which he described as a 'fatal obstacle' to Egypt's 'attainment of that elevation of thought and character which the western civilization could achieve'. He argued that the Egyptians should be persuaded to become 'civilized' by disposing of the 'veil'. The aim was to secularise the Muslim woman and eradicate her Islamic sentiment in order to aid the removal of the authority of Islam from the Muslim world and clear the path for the colonial domination of the East.
One has to ask the question as to why the Muslim woman's dress continues to be one of the most contentious issues within Western Europe. Perhaps it represents the identity of a woman who has liberated herself from the shallowness of man-made expectations dominant within the secular ideology and embraced Islam as a way of life. Perhaps the return of Muslim women internationally to their Islamic identity continues to be a thorn in the path of the colonial domination of the East.
In conclusion, the article contains various inaccuracies and injurious claims regarding the Muslim woman's dress. Surely journalists have the responsibility to not only ensure factual accuracy but to also address the causes of societal prejudices rather than to perpetuate them. I request that you correct these issues and hope that your paper will consider the above points on any future writings upon this important topic. It would perhaps be wise when publishing such articles to consult those who have actually adopted the jilbab rather than those who despise it. I hope that your paper will raise further discussions regarding the Muslim woman in the future from the perspective of those who have embraced the Islamic identity comprehensively. There still remains ignorance regarding issues such as the compatibility of women?s rights with the 'veil', the position of women within Islam and the role of women under Islamic governance. These topics require enlightened debate where outdated views regarding Islam and women are discarded into the dustbin of history and discussions brought into the 21st century.
I look forward to contributing to such discussions in the future.
Dr. Nazreen Nawaz
(Women's Media Representative of Hizb-ut-Tahrir Britain)