What does the Quran really say about a Muslim woman’s hijab? | Samina Ali | TEDxUniversityofNevada

Reviewer: Peter van de Ven
I’m going to take you back
in time, 1400 years,
to the city of Medina, Saudi Arabia.
To a time when Prophet Mouhammed
was given the task
of finding a solution to women in the city
being attacked and molested.
The situation was this:
It was around the year 600 AD,
long before the modern convenience,
of plumbing.
When a woman awoke
in the middle of the night
with the urge to relieve herself,
she would have to walk out,
past the outskirts of the city,
and into the wild by herself,
for privacy.
Believe it or not,
a group of men actually began
to see an opportunity
in women’s nightly tracks,
and started to linger
at the outskirts of the city –
their identities hidden
in the dark, watching.
If a woman walked by,
and she happened to be wearing a jilbab,
which was a garment like a coat,
the men knew to leave her alone.
A jilbab of centuries ago
was a status symbol,
like a Burberry trench or a Chanel jacket.
It announced that the woman was free,
and a free woman
was protected by her clan.
She would have no problems
speaking out against the attacker
and identifying him.
But if the woman walking out at night
wasn’t wearing a jilbab,
if she happened to be dressed
a bit more freely,
then the men knew she was a slave,
and they attacked her.
Concerned members of the community
brought the situation to the Prophet,
and like so many other social,
political, and familial issues
that Muhammed faced
during his Prophethood,
he turned this particular
matter over to God,
and a verse was revealed for the Quran,
the Muslim holy book.
“O Prophet,” it reads,
“tell your wives, your daughters,
and the women of the believers
to draw upon themselves their garments.
This is better, so that they
not be known and molested.”
Basically, the verse advises
that all women dress similarly,
so that they can’t be
picked out from one another,
zeroed in on, and attacked.
Now, on the surface,
this may seem like a relatively
easy solution to the problem,
but turns out it wasn’t.
The early Muslim community was tribal,
and so deeply entrenched in social status,
and the idea that a slave
would look like a free woman,
that was almost insulting.
And then there was
the matter of practicality.
How would a slave do her work?
How would she function,
if her body was constricted by a coat?
How would she cook, clean, fetch water?
In the end, the early
Muslim scholars ruled
that a woman’s way of dress
should be based on two considerations:
a woman’s function in society –
her role, what we might consider her job –
and the society’s specific customs.
Or, in another way: when in Rome.
Muslims like to take historical rulings
and apply them to the modern era.
So, let’s do that.
A woman’s way of dress
should be based on custom and function.
So, what does that mean for
a Muslim woman living in America today,
for someone like me?
First, it means that I have a function,
a role in society, a contribution
that I can make.
Second, it means
that while I’m making that contribution,
and living in a society
where veiling is not the custom,
and where, in fact, if I veil
it might actually lead to harassment,
then wearing what is the custom,
such as a dress, a pair of jeans
or even yoga pants,
is not only acceptable,
it’s recommended.
But wait, could that be right?
After all, haven’t we all come to assume
that a Muslim woman must veil,
that veiling is
a requirement of her faith?
There is even a term
that we’ve all come to associate
with the Muslim woman’s veil,
an Arabic term
that we’ve all heard use,
whether or not we’ve been aware of it:
So, maybe I missed it.
Maybe the requirement that a woman veil
is in a different part of the Quran.
For those of you who don’t know,
the Quran consists of 114 chapters,
each chapter is written out
in verses, like poetry.
There are more
than 6,000 verses in the Quran.
Out of the 6,000 plus verses,
three refer to how a woman should dress.
The first is the verse
I’ve already told you about.
The second is a verse that directly
speaks to the Prophet’s wives,
asking that they begin to dress
a bit more modestly
because of their role,
their function in society as his wives.
And the third verse
is similar to the first,
in that it was revealed in direct response
to a historical situation.
Early records show that the custom,
the fashion during the pre-Islamic era,
was for women to wear a scarf
on the head, called a khimar,
which would be tucked behind the ears
and allowed to flow behind the back.
In the front, a woman wore
a tight vest or a bodice,
which she left open exposing her breasts –
sort of like the images
you’ve seen in Game of Thrones.
When Islam spread through
the Arabian Peninsula,
a verse was sent down asking
that women use this scarf,
or any other garment,
to cover the breasts.
And that’s it.
That’s basically all there is in the Quran
concerning how a woman should dress.
Turns out, God doesn’t give a bullet point
of all the parts on a woman’s body
that he wants hidden from view.
And in fact, it might be argued,
and it is argued,
I cannot stress enough that it is argued
by many Muslim scholars
that the reason these verses
were left intentionally vague
is so that a woman could choose
for herself how to dress
according to her specific culture
and the progression of time.
And that the term “hijab,”
guess what?
It’s not in any of these three verses.
In fact, it’s nowhere in the Quran,
directly meaning a woman’s veil.
That’s not to say that the word
doesn’t appear in the Quran
because it does appear.
But when it appears,
it’s actually used correctly,
to mean a barrier or a divide.
Such as the barrier or divide that exists
between us humans and the divine,
or between believers and non-believers.
Or it means a barrier,
like a physical screen,
that men during Muhammad’s time
were asked to stand behind
when speaking to his wives.
Or it means the seclusion,
the separation that Mary sought
when she was giving birth to Jesus.
That separation and seclusion,
that means hijab;
that physical screen,
that means hijab;
that barrier, that divide,
that means hijab.
Hijab doesn’t mean a woman’s veil.
And yet, isn’t it strange
that what the term actually means,
being screened off, divided away,
barred, separated out,
these are the very terms
that come to our minds
when we think of a Muslim woman?
Why shouldn’t they?
We have all seen the way some Muslim women
are treated around the world:
if she attempts to go to school,
she’s shot in the head;
if she attempts to drive a car,
she’s jailed;
if she attempts to take part
in the political uprisings
happening in her own country,
to be heard, to be counted,
she is publicly assaulted.
Forget about hiding out in the dark
at the outskirts of the city,
some men now feel comfortable enough
to assault a woman on the sidewalk,
for the world to see.
And they don’t care
to hide their identities,
they’re more interested
in making international headlines.
They’re too busy making videos
and uploading them onto YouTube,
bragging about what they’ve done.
Why don’t they care
to hide their crimes?
They don’t feel like
they’ve committed any crimes.
It’s the women
who’ve committed the crimes.
It’s the women who got
these funny ideas in their heads,
ideas that actually
led them out of the house,
led them into society,
believing that they
can make a contribution,
and we all know,
honorable women, they stay at home;
honorable women stay invisible.
Just as it was the custom
for honorable women to do
during the Prophet’s time.
Is that true?
1400 years ago is long before feminism.
Were women locked away
behind doors, screened off by veils?
Well, it turns out
that the Prophet’s first wife
was what we would define today
as a CEO.
She was a successful merchant
whose caravan equaled the caravans
of all the other traders put together.
She essentially headed up
a successful import-export company.
When she hired Muhammed to work for her,
she was so taken with his honesty
that eventually she proposed.
I’m not sure how many women
feel comfortable
proposing marriage to a man today.
And Muhammad’s second wife?
She was no slacker either.
She rode into battle
on the back of a camel,
which is equivalent to a woman
riding into battle today
inside of a Humvee or a tank.
And what of the other women?
Early records show that women
demanded to be included
in the Islamic revolution
taking place around the Prophet.
One woman became famous as a general
when she led her army of men
into battle and crushed a rebellion.
Men and women freely associated
with one another, exchanged gifts.
It was custom for a woman
to select her own husband and propose.
And when things didn’t work out,
to initiate divorce.
Women even loudly debated
with the Prophet himself.
Seems to me that if fundamentalists
want to return
current Muslim society to 680 AD,
it might be a huge step forward.
But we still have to answer
an important question.
If not from Islamic history,
and if not from the Quran,
how is it that we, in the modern era,
have come to associate
Muslim women with hijab?
With being separated out from society,
secluded and isolated,
barred from the most basic human rights?
I hope it’s not any surprise to you
that this isn’t by accident.
For the past few decades, the very people
who have been given the important task
of reading and interpreting the Quran
in a variety of different
Muslim communities,
certain clerics have been
inserting a certain meaning
into those three verses concerning women.
For instance that verse
I told you about earlier:
“O Prophet, tell your wives,
your daughters,
and the women of the believers
to draw upon themselves their garments,
this is better, so that they
not be known and molested.”
Some clerics, not all, some clerics
have added a few words to that,
so that in certain
translations of the Quran,
that verse reads like this:
“O Prophet, tell your wives,
your daughters,
and the women of the believers,
to draw upon themselves their garments,
parentheses, a garment is a veil
that covers the entire head and the face,
the neck and the breast
all the way down to the ankles
and all the way to the wrists.
Everything on a woman’s body
is covered except for one eye
because she must see where she is headed,
and the hands must be covered in gloves.
Because, of course,
there was certainly a lot of gloves
back in the desert of Saudi Arabia.
Etc., etc., etc., etc.,
on, and on, and on,
end of parentheses,
so that she not be known and molested.”
And what these so-called clerics
have concluded based
on these types of insertions
is that a woman only has one function.
To understand what that function is,
all you have to do is read
some of the fatwas or legal rulings
that these so-called clerics
have actually gone ahead and issued.
Let me give you a sampling.
A woman need only finish elementary school
before she gets married.
Which puts her, what,
at the ripe old age of 11, 12 years old?
A woman cannot fulfill
her spiritual obligations to God
until she first fulfills
her physical obligations to her husband.
If he desires her while she sits
on the mount of a camel,
she should submit.
Islam has forbidden a woman
from wearing a bra
because bras lift up
and make a woman appear younger,
and this is calculated deception.
My personal favorite:
if a man has an ulcer excreting puss,
from the top of his head
to the bottom of his feet,
and she licked it for him,
she would still not fulfill
what she owes him.
What these and the many other rulings
just like it concerning women boil down to
is this:
The best of women,
the most honorable among them
is uneducated,
and so powerless,
not very different from a slave.
So, she remains at home
without complaint, without a bra.
Ready and available at all times
to satisfy his every whim,
even if it’s to lick his entire body;
satisfying him whenever he calls,
whether it’s in his bed
or on the mount of a camel.
Does this sound like God’s will to you?
Does this sound like scripture?
Or does this sound strangely,
uncomfortably erotic,
like the worst kind of misogynist fantasy?
Are these so-called clerics,
and the fundamentalists
and extremists who support them,
truly purifying Islam from within,
bringing it back to its intended form?
Or are these men
no different from those men
standing out in the dark
at the outskirts of the city,
eager to prey upon a woman?
Thank you.

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