Kathy Bullock and Abdur-Rahman Abou Almajd in dialog about Hijab.
"And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! So that you may be successful." Holy Qur'an (24:31)
The Hijab (Islamic dress for women) does not only protect Islamic woman from evil eyes but also give them freedom and independence. To observe proper Hijab is to dress up oneself modestly and appropriately covering all parts of body except face and forearms, without showing one's figure or curves and without using any sort of make-up.
Hijab gives woman an identity of a Muslim beside it is a way of obedience to Allah's command.
In the modern societies a woman has always been looked upon as just another sexual object for the men, the rate of incidences of eves teasing, molestation, rape, etc.
I think every woman ought to wear Hijab, as it is the only thing which protects a woman and makes her feel secured, Wearing the Hijab gives her more confidence in her self as a woman and it doesn't obstruct her in any way in her profession.
Some sisters have failed to understand the actual meaning of Hijab.
We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about the role of Hijab in the modern world, more particularly, Rethinking Muslim women and veil. At this point Professor Katherine Bullock is going to speak about her views on Hijab in the world today.
Dr. Katherine Bullock
Katherine Bullock completed her PhD in Political Science at the University of Toronto, in 1999. She has taught a course on the “Politics of Islam” at the University of Toronto for the last several years.
Currently she is President of The Tessellate Institute, a non-profit research institute, and also of Compass Books, dedicated to publishing top-quality books about Islam and Muslims in English. She was the editor of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences from 2003 - 2008, and the Vice-President of The Association of Muslim Social Scientists (North America)from 2006 - 2009.
Her books include: Muslim Women Activists in North America: Speaking for Ourselves and Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical and Modern Stereotypes which has been translated into French, Turkish, and Arabic.
She has also published articles on Muslim women and the media and Islam and political theory. Originally from Australia, she lives in Canada with her husband and children. She embraced Islam in 1994.
Let's listen to her carefully, In 1991 I saw a news report on the television that showed Turkish women who were returning to the veil. I felt shocked and saddened for them. “Poor things,” I thought, “they are being brainwashed by their culture.” Like many Westerners, I believed that Islam oppressed women and that the veil was a symbol of their oppression.
Imagine my surprise then, four years later, at seeing my own reflection in a store window, dressed exactly like those oppressed women. I had embarked on a spiritual journey during my Master’s degree that culminated four years later in my conversion to Islam. The journey included moving from hatred of Islam, to respect, to interest, to acceptance. Naturally, being a woman, the issue of the veil was central.
Despite my attraction to the theological foundations of Islam, I was deeply troubled by what I believed to be practices oppressive to women. I felt that the veil was a cultural tradition that Muslim women could surely work to eliminate. I was shown the verses in the Qur’an that many Muslims believe enjoin covering on men and women, and it seemed quite clear to me then that, indeed, the verses did impose covering. I wandered home, feeling quite depressed and sorry for Muslim women. If the verses were clear, they had no recourse:
covering would be required for a believing Muslim woman.
I had to put these issues aside in order to decide whether or not to accept Islam. What counted, in the final analysis, was the fundamental theological message of the religion – that there is a single God, and that Muhammad (ßAAS)* was His Last Servant and Messenger.
After several years of study I had no doubt about that … When I finally made my decision to convert, now one and a half years into my doctorate (July 1994), I decided that whether I liked it or not, I should cover. It was a commandment, and I would obey.
I warned some people in my department that I had become a Muslim, and that the next time they saw me I would be covered. Needless to say, people were quite shocked, and as word spread (and as people saw me in my new dress), I found myself subject to some hostile treatment. How could I have embraced an oppressive practice, especially when I was known as a strong and committed feminist? How could I embrace Islam? Had I not heard what Hamas had just done?
Had I not heard what some Muslim man had just done to a woman?
I was not quite prepared for this hostility, nor was I prepared for the different way I was being treated by secretaries, bureaucrats, medical personnel, or general strangers on the subway. I felt the same, but I was often being treated with contempt. I was not treated as I had been as a white, middle-class woman. It was my first personal experience of discrimination and racism, and made me see my previous privileged position in a way that I had never before properly understood.
Q: Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil, Challenging Historical & Modern Stereotypes is very much needed in the world today; could you tell us some about Historical and Modern Stereotypes?
Katherine Bullock: Interestingly, the earliest European stereotypes of Muslim women were almost the complete opposite of today’s stereotypes. In the medieval romance literature, Muslim women were portrayed as bold and forthright women, often called a “termagant” – a medieval term meaning “quarrelsome or overbearing woman.” The classic narrative was that of a bold Muslim woman falling in love with a European Crusader, converting to Christianity and assisting the Crusaders defeat their city.
By the nineteenth century, the “termagant” image gave way to a more passive image of the exotic, luscious harem beauty. The notion of a Muslim woman as imprisoned and oppressed by her backward culture developed.
In the late twentieth-century, a new stereotype emerged, one that portrayed Muslim women once more as agents, not passive beings, but not as agents to be celebrated for their positive contributions to civilisation – rather, agents of “Islamic terrorism” – shown throw a common motif of a veiled woman carrying a gun.
The clue to these changing portrayals is to understand how the image of the “Muslim woman” is linked to geo-politics.
The medieval “termagant” stereotype prevailed during the time that the Muslim empires were expanding into European territory; when the situation reversed during the European colonial era, the Muslim woman is stereotyped as submissive and oppressed.
In our more complicated globalized world, where massive numbers of Muslims now live in Western countries, the threatening image has resurfaced. In all cases, however, the Muslim woman is meant to be “saved” by the European/Westerner: in the medieval image, the bold woman is “tamed” and brought into Christian civility; in the colonial era, the oppressed woman is “liberated” and brought into Christian civility; and in the current era, the submissive but potentially viscous Muslim woman is “liberated” or “dominated” and brought into secular civility.
Q: Chapter One, The Gaze and Colonial Plans for the Unveiling of Muslim Women, could you elaborate on that?
KB: Basically my argument in chapter one, the most densely theoretical chapter of the book, is that modernity brought with it an understanding that the world could be seen “objectively,” as if from the outside.
One could be an observer from afar, and gain knowledge of something. This prioritises “looking” or “the “gaze” as a source of knowledge, and requires being able to see. When the Europeans arrived in the Middle East, they often felt disoriented.
The cities were not built in neat geometric patterns; the windows were covered with lattices; and the women covered their faces with a veil. The Europeans were thus deprived of “looking,” and this made them feel vulnerable, not the powerful, civilizing force they imagined themselves to be. So, they revenged against the veil: all kinds of paintings, postcards, and verbal descriptions of Muslim women unveiled. One woman traveller even recorded her attempts physically to remove a Muslim woman’s face veil.
Q: Hijab can be experienced as liberation from the tyranny of the beauty myth and the thin ‘ideal’ woman, could you elaborate on that?
KB: By adopting long, loose clothing required by hijab, a woman removes her body from the beauty judgment based on her body size and shape. Currently, in Western capitalist societies, a woman is deemed beautiful if she is thin.
Actually, the image held out as beautiful by the models in magazines is a fake one, because computer technology alters the photographs of the models. Normal women living normal lives, especially after having had children, where weight gain is normal, and it is difficult to exercise, can never attain this “beautiful” body.
So, many women experience themselves as “ugly” (see the rise in cosmetic surgery amongst older women, and anorexia/bulimia amongst the youth). It is an always present, though sometimes subconscious feeling, that leads to low self-esteem. Muslim societies have their own beauty prisons – such as the need to be “light” skinned amongst South Asians; or dripping in gold and designer clothes amongst Arab nations.
By adopting the hijab, with a religious philosophy that hijab is an equalizer, like a hajj outfit, and that Allah (swt) judges people based on their piety not their outward appearance, a woman can feel that she has liberated herself from these beauty prisons, and be free to be a normal woman.
Q: You've been writing "as a practicing Muslim woman," who embraces a certain kind of "feminism", your aim is to defend Hijab in the Western intellectual world, how do you prove?
KB: I don’t understand this question. How do I prove what?
Q: What about the real inside story of Hijab?
KB: The real inside story of hijab is that there immense diversity in the experiences of hijab. Every woman has her own unique story about why she chose to wear it, and what it means to her.
Sadly, some of our sisters have not had that choice, being forced to wear hijab, or a particular regional version of it.
But, especially in countries, such as the West, where one is relatively free to wear what one chooses, a lot of Muslim women, including young, second generation women, embrace the hijab as a sign of attachment to their faith; as a way out of the “beauty myth”; as an attachment to what they see as a purer practice of Islam, not the cultural baggage of their parents’ generation; and as an expression of their agency as ambitious, civically and politically active women out to make a mark on their society.
Q: You present an in-depth critique of the infamous books of Moroccan secular feminist Fatima Mernissi whose pernicious condemnation of Hijab, could you elaborate on that?
KB: My principal disagreements with Mernissi are two: (1) an ahistorical approach to the meanings of religious symbols that fails to contextualize how people enact Islam differently in different times and places.
Mernissi equates her negative experiences of veiling in the Moroccan system as ‘the’ experience of veiling, ‘the’ inherent or true meaning of veiling;
and (2) a reductive approach that does not acknowledge the multiplicity of discourses around veiling.
To counteract the negative stereotype that hijab is a symbol of Islam’s oppression of women, it is pertinent to ask if ‘Islam’ requires the kind of society Mernissi condemns as hostile to women, or if there are alternative visions that are more favorable to women.
I argue that Mernissi’s arguments about Islam’s view of women are contradicted by the very sources of Islam, the Qur’an and hadìth (sayings of Prophet Muhammad). My debate with Mernissi is not to deny that Muslim societies embody repressive practices or discourses on women.
My dispute with her is about normative Islam (is the Qur’anic vision anti-woman or not?). An interpretation of a Qur’anic vision that is favorable to women counteracts both Mernissi’s point of view, and any other Qur’anic interpretation that is suppressive of women
Q: What is your alternative theory of Hijab that challenges the unfair stereotypes in the West?
KB: The alternative theory, as I have suggested above in answer to question 3, is that, because of capitalism’s emphasis on the body and on materiality, wearing hijab can be an empowering and liberating experience for women. I also argue that hijab connects women to spirituality, which is a remedy for the emptiness that comes from a life spent pursuing material goods
Q: How do you divide classification of the Western views about the Muslim women?
KB: In the book, I classify Western views into three categories: 1) the mainstream, pop culture view: Muslim women are completely and utterly subjugated by men, and the veil is a symbol of that; 2) the liberal feminist approach, which argues that Islam, like any patriarchal religion, subordinates women; and 3) the contextual approach, which seeks to understand the meaning of a social practice from the inside.
Many of these scholars may also be grounded in liberalism to some extent, but their methodological approach leads them away from using mainstream Western liberal categories to judge the Other’s voice s. 9-Well, could you elaborate on the "contextual approach" ?
The contextual approach seeks an empathetic approach to investigating a social practice.
Scholars may not always personally agree with the practice at hand, but they seek to provide an account that will respect, make sense to, and resonate with, the people about whom they write. Sometimes they question the universal applicability of western categories (such as “equality”) to judge Others’ cultural practices.
Q: You hail a new Hijab movement among the Muslim women across the Muslim world that is growing and resisting against the backdrop of both oppressions of modernity, what about the future of Hijab in the West?
KB: Only Allah (swt) knows the future of Hijab in the West, but there are some troubling signs on the horizon: the bans against the veil in European countries, such as France, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, and the proposed bans against niqab in Quebec. Such legislation is a worrying trend of anti-Muslim racism, cast in the guise of national security, or, as in colonial times, “liberating” Muslim women. But in multi-cultural societies such as Canada, the UK, Australia and the US, research into the lived experiences of Muslim women in hijab demonstrate that a woman can be committed religiously to Islam, wear hijab, and be a loyal and productive citizen of the nation.
Anti-hijab legislation will backfire against the aims to “integrate” Muslims, because wearing hijab is a matter of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. The West will never produce enough convincing arguments to persuade Muslim women to take off their hijabs. Such bans will lead only to restricted, isolated and alienated lives for Muslim women.
Better to allow freedom of dress, and promote tolerance, acceptance, understanding and reasonable accommodation as a way to integrate Muslim women into Western society.
Abdur-Rahman: Thank you very much, Sr. Kathy.
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