Friday, August 19, 2011

Faith and practice: For Muslim women, wearing a veil isn't oppression

The most revered woman in Christianity, the Virgin Mary, is often depicted with a head scarf and a loose outer cloak. In today's modern world, most Christian women don't necessarily follow suit, but Christian nuns throughout the world continue to dress like the Virgin Mary even today.

Ahmadiyya Times | News Watch | US Desk
Source/Credit: The Star - Tribune
By M. Imran Hayee | August 17, 2011

'It's a scorching day, aren't you feeling warm in this?"

These polite words touched our ears when my wife and I entered the grocery store on one of the few hot summer days in Duluth. My wife was wearing a head scarf and a loose outer garment over her regular clothes.

By far, she was well overdressed for the weather.

A pleasant conversation followed between my wife and the polite enquirer, leaving behind a fundamental question echoing in our minds. What makes us choose our dress?

Weather protection and comfort have affected human clothing choice since the very beginning of life. But as life progressed toward civilization, humans have used a variety of other factors such as economic, cultural and religious considerations to choose what to wear.

Because my wife is a practicing Muslim woman, her decision to "overdress" herself on that hot summer day was governed by her religious inclination.

Although the Qur'an tells both believing men and women to "lower their gaze and guard their modesty," it advises Muslim women in particular that "they disclose not their beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms."

The spirit of a Muslim woman's dress code, commonly known as the veil, is to protect her modesty by wearing such a dress that does not enhance her beauty while in public.

Many cultural and social biases have influenced the interpretation of the Islamic veil, resulting in a variety of types, ranging from a simple head scarf to a full-body cloak with a small opening for eyes.

As much as the veil is common among many Muslim women, it is not necessarily exclusive to Islam.

Many ancient civilizations and religions have required women to observe the veil for the reasons similar to that of Islam. Early Judaic references portray the veil as Jewish woman's esteem. During the Tannaitic period, failure of a Jewish woman to cover her head was considered offensive to her modesty.

Similarly, the New Testament commands women to cover their heads out of modesty. In the spirit of this Biblical injunction, the Vatican implemented the Code of Canon Law of 1917, mandating a head covering for women during church services, but repealed it in 1983.

The most revered woman in Christianity, the Virgin Mary, is often depicted with a head scarf and a loose outer cloak. In today's modern world, most Christian women don't necessarily follow suit, but Christian nuns throughout the world continue to dress like the Virgin Mary even today.

While most ancient religions have a common stance on the veil, it is only Islam which has kept up with the tradition. The Qur'anic injunction about the veil is a self-imposed mandate for Muslim women.

Still, allegations abound that Islam confines women to their homes and denies them the right to education, work and economic freedom. These allegations are further strengthened by prevailing traditions and laws in some of today's Muslim countries.

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, women can neither drive nor go out alone without the company of a male relative. In Afghanistan, women are often beaten and maltreated both in public as well as in private, and are forcefully forbidden to go to school.

Does Islam really warrant this discriminatory and cruel treatment of women?

Islam offers an egalitarian beginning of human life as the Qur'an declares, "He has created you from a single soul," and pronounces husbands and wives to be "garments for each other," providing protection and comfort to each other.

The prophet Mohammed once told his companions, "The best among you is the one who treats his wife the best."

Islam has never been the motive behind the discriminatory and cruel gender-related practices. The real driving force behind these practices must be rooted in the traditional system of patriarchal societies in which men have held sway over means of production and political power.

The Qur'an does hold men responsible for providing for their families but does not restrict women from being productive in society.

In fact, it supports the idea that women can excel men in certain arenas of life by stating, "And covet not that whereby Allah has made some of you excel others. Men shall have a share of which they have earned and women a share of that which they have earned."

A true Muslim man would never create a hindrance to a woman's way up nor be jealous of her should she achieve a certain distinction and talent. I am very proud of my wife's many contributions toward our family and community at large.

Hot weather or cold, the veil is a Muslim woman's distinction and does not hinder her progress in any field of life. Next time, when you see a woman "overdressed," you'll know why!

* * *

M. Imran Hayee is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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