“Islam” – an Arabic word – literally translates to “surrender/submission to the will of God”. Like any other religion, Islam is based on beliefs and faith in an invisible but omnipresent God who is the source of everything.
Being born in a devout Muslim family, I grew up listening to incidents from the Quran which were more like interesting stories aimed at moulding the young mind into a God fearing-pious individual. The stories often reflected on the importance of faith and how many civilisations before us have perished owing to the wrath of God for the non-believers in the form of natural calamities like earthquake and flood.
As I grew, these storytelling sessions turned into Quran-reading sessions which were followed by a discussion on what had been understood as a whole. I was introduced to most of the cultural and traditional dos and don’ts of Islam in this way.
Most of the interpretations of the Quran that my parents introduced me to were quite logical except when it was implied that girls should avoid unnecessary interaction with boys or ghair-mahrams (ghair-mahrams are those male members of the family and society which are not associated to a girl with any close blood relations). Being my grandfather’s little tomboy, I was uncomfortable digesting the theory which held me back from interacting with one half of the human population.
Somewhere in my mid-teens, my mother read to me a verse from Surah An-Nur (24:31- “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to guard their private parts, and not to reveal any of their ‘zinatahhunna’ (beauty spots) except what is normally apparent, and to draw their ‘khumurihhinna’(their khimars) over their ‘juyoob’ (cleavage/bosom)” (The Manipulation of 24:31) from the Quran. The Urdu translation of the original Arabic text asked the ‘women to cover their bosoms with an extension of the headscarf/veil’. For me it implied wearing a headscarf or “hijab” (popularly defined as a traditional headscarf worn by Muslim women, covering the hair and neck). Literally, “hijab” translates to “curtain” but it is used in the Quran to signify the general idea of modesty in the clothing style of men and women. Being a religious child I was quick to abide by it.
Literally, “hijab” translates to “curtain” but it is used in the Quran to signify the general idea of modesty in the clothing style of men and women.
After all these years of continued acceptance of the practice of wearing a hijab, I started to question the reason and logic behind it. Before revealing about my conflict with hijab to my family, I started researching about it. What I found was different from my previously held religious beliefs; there were broadly three reasons for the existence of this practice all over the world in the present times.
1. Cultural Infusion
According to the Quran, Islam succeeded an era of Jâhiliyyah which prevailed not only in the birth place of Islam (the Arabian Peninsula) but all over the world. The Arabic word Jâhiliyyah translates to an era of ignorance, and a prevailing lack of true belief in Allah and his teachings.
Islam originally is a religion which gives equal rights to men and women. Women were consulted by the Prophet with great importance and seriousness, women were consulted for the choice of a successor after the prophet’s death as well, and they were even appointed as officials in the market of Medina in the rule of Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab (after the Prophet’s death).
the customs and traditions of the conquered people seeped into ISLAM. These included the practice of seclusion of women and the veiling of their body.
Islam spread swiftly beyond the Arabian Peninsula after the death of Prophet Mohammad. And the customs and traditions of the conquered people seeped into the religion gradually. These included the practice of seclusion of women and the veiling of their body. Many religions like Judaism, Christianity (Catholicism), Hinduism (Rajputs of India) et al which were prevalent before Islam, during its spreading era and even now, encourage the women to cover their head along with the rest of their body as a symbol of modesty and virtue. As modesty and virtue are an integral part of Islam as well, the previously existing traditions easily seeped into the new religion that was Islam. Verses from the Quran have been used to unjustly justify these practices.
2. Misinterpretation of the Quran
Arabic is one of the oldest languages on Earth, and it has evolved through the ages with few words gaining popular meanings. These popular meanings are not what the word primarily meant (e.g., hijab).
The same is the case with the word “khimar” (Verse 31 of Chapter 24 of the Quran). The contemporary, popular meaning of “khimar” translates to “a piece of clothing – a veil or headscarf used by women to cover their head”. But when we dig deeper and look at the etymology of the word “khimar”, we come across a source – “kha-miim-ra” which deals with any form of covering. Another word which shares the same source as “khimar” is “khamr” which signifies the covering of senses that happens due to intoxication.
The concerned verse (24:31) is always used to justify the veiling/covering of head/wearing of hijab by women. It actually translates to the primary message of covering of the bosom. Instead the focus here is wrongly shifted to the covering of bosoms with the headscarf or veil. If that had been the case, it would have been clearly mentioned as it has been done for other body parts of men and women and how to cover it.
The concerned verse (24:31) is always used to justify the veiling/covering of head/wearing of hijab by women. It actually translates to the primary message of covering the bosom.
3. Symbol of Identity
What began as a cultural practice found its way into the religion and gradually became a form of religious representation. As Leila Ahmed and Joshua Keating describe in Veil of Ignorance, the headscarf is used by many modern Muslim women, to assert the “presence of a religious minority entitled to justice and equality” and “for many others … a way of rejecting negative stereotypes and affirming pride in Muslim identity in the face of prejudice.”
From being an apparent part of the religion, hijab has transformed into a socio-political statement worn proudly by majority of the Muslim women in various countries all around the world. The practice is no longer a form of oppression, but a way of proving their identity and individuality. Even though most of the Non-Muslims see hijab as a prominent tool of misogyny, these modern women creating a place for themselves among all the prejudice that surrounds the religion do not find it to be an oppressive and biased tool but a style of clothing which is an integral part of their identity.
The practice is no longer a form of oppression, but a way of proving their identity and individuality.
Humans are known for following their ancestral practices in the name of culture and tradition even if it is not backed by reason and logic. Even though Islam discourages this through Surah Al-Baqarah [2:170- “When it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has sent down” (through scriptures). They say, “Nay! We shall follow what we found our fathers following.” (Would they do that!) Even though their fathers did not understand anything nor were they guided?” (Quran)], we are prone to accepting and following popular belief and culture.
People who try to question these cultural beliefs or even try to search for logic and reasons are opposed and termed anti-religious. But as is mostly observed and agreed, Islam is and will always be a diverse religion with a scope of exploration and logic behind its teachings. Even though Islam needs us to surrender and submit before God, it does not want it to happen blindly. After all, a religion is not supposed to confine its followers, but to have scope for their evolution and growth.
Islam is and will always be a diverse religion with a scope of exploration and logic behind its teachings.
Religion should not intoxicate, neither should it be the opium of masses, it has to liberate and make the believers feel at home. And this is what I plan to do with articles like this; I want to reach the root of every custom and ritual that dominates our life but we blindly follow them just because we are told that it is an important part of our religion.
My family feels that it is lack of religiousness on my part which led me to abandon the practice of wearing the hijab or even to do a research like this, but with more researches like this in the future, I want to make them realize that it’s my faith in Allah and his teachings which makes me search for the reality which is lost somewhere in this post truth era. Even though “post truth” was recognized by Oxford as word of the year in 2016, I believe that the phenomenon has actually always been a part of our society. We don’t believe the truth, we believe what we see. I as a Muslim would like to change that. For wisdom is empowerment. And all of us have the right to be empowered.
The writer is a young Muslim woman who wants to be free enough to not be afraid of using her name in articles and research which do not comply with the popular opinion.
Featured Image Credit: Salwa Najm