Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Veil of separation

I am reminded of the cowboys and indian movies that I used to watch on Saturday afternoons way back in the 1970s. Besides the Red Indians, a town was often terrorised by 'Cowboy' robbers who almost always masked their faces using a handkerchief or something similiar. They looked sinister and everyone except the town sherriff was afraid of them. The Red Indians never did rob banks. Instead, they tend to go for the throat.

Well, ok, much of this is fantasy and a slur and typecasting of certain types of people. If was unfair to cast Red Indians as always the evil aggressors and the 'white men' as whiter than angels. But the men and women with the covered faces robbing banks and shooting indiscriminately in the air and at people stuck. Which is why when I see people with covered faces, that sinister imagery comes to mind.

Some Muslim women veil themselves in public today. The veil hides everything except the eyes. Like the masked cowboys, they look sinister. I know that putting a veil over oneself is a very personal and religious thing, but when one lives in a community consisting of different people with different faiths and beliefs, you cannot blame anyone for saying that he wishes these women would lose their veils. That is what Jack Straw, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Salman Rushdie wished. I support them. If I read it correctly, even the Koran does not insist on the veil. So people who veil themselves are not so much following a religious injunction as much as they are submitting to an arbitrary human craving or rule imposed by certain people. At its worst, this is akin to slavery. Now, is such slavish behaviour something to be proud of, even in religious context?

It is sad that in the modern world today, in an age of universal suffrage where men and women have equal rights, duties and responsibilities, there are women who still go around publicly asserting their submissiveness. Now I am not saying that this is wrong per se, but that if you want to indulge in submissive behaviour, then do it at home and not on the streets and certainly not when you need to see your MP.

Otherwise, what message are they sending to the rest of the community? That they are separate, holier than thou, mightier in spirituality, or what? All of which reminds me that some time ago, the Singapore Education Ministry disallowed all Primary school students, particularly those from Muslim families, from wearing the tudung or headscarf within school compounds. The government's justification then was that it doesn't want a separate identity to be established within the school system, which might become divisive over time. What Mr Straw, Mr Blair, Mr Rushdie and Mr Brown have said echo this same position espoused by the Government in Singapore as early as 2002.


Wali Paul said...

Muslims believe that God gave beauty to all women, but that her beauty is not be seen by the world, as if the women are meat on the shelf to be picked and looked over. When she covers herself she puts herself on a higher level and men will look at her with respect and she is noticed for her intellect , faith ,and personality, not for her beauty. In many societies, especially in the West, women are taught from early childhood that their worth is proportional to their attractiveness and are compelled to follow the male standards of beauty and abstract notions of what is attractive, half realizing that such pursuit is futile and often humiliating (Mustafa). Chastity , modesty, and piety are promoted by the institution of veiling. The hijab in no way prevents a woman from playing her role as an important individual in a society nor does it make her inferior." (Takim,22)

A Muslim woman may wear whatever she pleases in the presence of her husband and family or among women friends. But when she goes out or when men other than her husband or close family are present she is expected to wear a dress which will cover [her hair and] all parts of her body , and not reveal her figure. What a contrast with Western fashions which every year concentrate quite intentionally on exposing yet another erogenous zone to the public gaze! The intention of Western dress is to reveal the figure, while the intention of Muslim dress is to conceal [and cover] it, at least in public (Lemu,25).

The Muslim woman does not feel the pressures to be beautiful or attractive, which is so apparent in the Western and Eastern cultures. She does not have to live up to expectations of what is desirable and what is not. Superficial beauty is not the Muslim woman's concern, her main goal is inner spiritual beauty. She does not have to use her body and charms to get recognition or acceptance in society. It is very different from the cruel methods that other societies subject women, in that their worth is always judged by their physical appearance. The are numerous examples of discrimination at the workplace where women are either accepted or rejected, because of their attractiveness and sex appeal.

Another benefit of adorning the veil is that it is a protection for women. Muslims believe that when women display their beauty to everybody, they degrade themselves by becoming objects of sexual desire and become vulnerable to men, who look at them as " gratification for the sexual urge"(Nadvi,8). The Hijab makes them out as women belonging to the class of modest chaste women, so that transgressors and sensual men may recognize them as such and dare not tease them out of mischief" (Nadvi, 20). Hijab solves the problem of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances, which is so demeaning for women, when men get mixed signals and believe that women want their advances by the way they reveal their bodies.

The western ideology of, 'if you have it, you should flash it!' is quite opposite to the Islamic principle, where the purpose is not to bring attention to ones self, but to be modest. Women in so many societies are just treated as s ex symbols and nothing more than just a body who "display themselves to get attention" (Mustafa). A good example is in advertising, where a woman's body is used to sell products. Women are constantly degraded, and subjected to reveal more and more of themselves. .

The Covering sanctifies her and forces society to hold her in high esteem. Far from humiliating the woman, Hijab actually grants the woman an aura of respect, and bestows upon her a separate and unique identity (Takim, 2). According to the Qu'ran, the same high standards of moral conduct are for men as it is for women. Modesty is essential in a man's life, as well, whether it be in action, morals or speech. Islam also commands proper behavior and dress of men, in that they are not allowed to make a wanton show of their bodies to attract attention onto themselves, and they too must dress modestly. They have a speci al commandment to lower their eyes, and not to brazenly stare at women.

In Sura Nur of the Holy Qu'ran it says, " Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them, and God is well acquainted with what they do". Many of the misconceptions of the Muslim woman in the west, particularly her veil stems from Arab and Muslim countries that have deviated from the true doctrines of Islam, and have " mixed up Islamic principles with pre-Islamic pagan traditions

Epilogos said...

Thank you for posting such a detailed rejoinder on the Muslim perspective on the purpose and significance of the veil in Islamic teachings. I now understand better why Muslim women do the veil. While I share your criticism of the incessant portrayal of women in a sexist and exploitative light in society today, I cannot agree that the veil is the answer to this ill. It seems to me that veiling is the other extreme to barring flesh. Neither is a satisfactory, nor, in my opinion, a desirable social practice, especially in multi-religious societies. I would like to think that a more satisfactory approach lies somewhere in-between.

Anonymous said...

I think such unbiased person like yourself should study Islam and what it is in the Qur'an. The obligation of Qur'an specifically mentioned through out the Qur'an, and what it is more the Last Messenger of God Almight, the Prophet Muhammad stated about the obligation of covering, and it is specific to where should the places should be covered and those which could be left open (i.e. Face, hand). Now, if you should speak about public right, the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and what it is more from the founding forefather we should have the right to "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I don't see why someone should give her religion right to please your eyes or mine, nor should she become a "Scarlet A" for wearing something that makes her happy. I think instead persuade other to change their religion since as you say we do live in a multi religious global society, I think then it is much more reasonable to respect them for who they are. And, lastly your comment about Singapore policy for elementary know that hijab is required after the girl has become pubescent.