November 26, 2012 By Compiled by Abdul Basith

Textuality of Hijab: Asma Barlas and Mohja Kahf

AsmaAsma Barlas (1950-)

Biography and bibliography: Asma Barlas was born in Pakistan and has held teaching posts in the US. She had earlier been inducted to the Pakistan Foreign Service but was dismissed by General Zia ul Haq for calling him in a buffoon in her personal diary. Her works include Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an ( A exploration into how many Muslims read the Qur’an in ways that seem to justify sexual oppression, inequality, and patriarchy),  Democracy, Nationalism, and Communalism : The Colonial Legacy in South Asia  and Islam, Muslims and The US.
Citation: Asma Barlas subjects two sets of verses to close study in her book ‘Believing Women in Islam’

VERSE: 33:32-34

“O wives of the Prophet, you are not like other women, if you are pious. So don’t speak enticingly lest he, who has sickness in his heart, lust after you, but be chaste in your speech. Remain in your homes and don’t display your adornments, as was the case with the earlier age of Barbarism (jahiliyya). Perform the prayer and pay the alms, and obey God and His Prophet-God wishes only to drive away pollution from you, members of the Household, and purify you completely. And mention what is recited in your homes of God’s revelations and wisdom. God is Tender and Experienced.”

Verse: 33: 59

‘O Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters and women believers to wrap their outer garments closely around them (to draw the ends of their Khimar on their bosom-thereby making it Niqab: Ramadan), for this makes it more likely that they will be recognized and not be harassed. God is All-Forgiving and Compassionate to each.’

‘Conservatives read these Āyāt  (verses: both 33:59 and 24: 30) as giving Muslim males the right to force women to don everything from the hijāb (a head veil that leaves the face uncovered) to the burqa (a head-to-toe shroud that hides even the feet; some models even mandate wearing gloves so as to hide the hands). They justify such forms of veiling on the grounds that women’s bodies are pudendal , hence sexually corrupting to those who see them; it thus is necessary to Shield Muslim men from viewing women’s bodies by concealing them.’ The historical development of segregation and veiling of women as per classical interpretations was gradual and was with differences. Barlas says: ‘whereas al-Tabari held that both women and men could show those parts of the body that were not pudendal, al-Baydawi ruled that the entire body of a free woman was pudendal, the gaze itself being a ‘‘messenger of fornication.’’ By the seventeenth century, al-Khafafi had decreed ‘‘even face and hands’’ pudendal. In time, such claims led not only to forms of veiling that involved covering the head, face, hands, and feet, but also to domestic segregation.

In this context, it is important to note, first, that both sets of Āyāt are addressed only to the Prophet; that is, they are not a universal mandate for all Muslim men to force women to comply with them. As I argue in later chapters, not only can one not force moral praxis upon a person—as the Qur’ān (2:256), ‘‘Let there be no compulsion in religion’’—but no one, not even the Prophet, was given the right to force compliance upon his wives with any of the Qur’ān’s injunctions.

She goes on: ‘To begin with, the Qur’ān uses the words jilbāb (cloak) and khumūr (shawl), both of which, in ordinary usage, cover the bosom ( juyūb) and neck, not the face, head, hands, or feet. The Qur’ān does not mandate such a form of veiling in any Āyāt. Women prayed unveiled in mosques until the third/ninth century and they perform the Haj, the holiest ritual in Islam, with faces uncovered. Even more significantly, the purpose of the covering in these two sets of Āyāt is different. In the first set, the jilbāb is meant not to hide free Muslim women from Muslim men but to render them visible, hence recognizable, by Jāhilī men, as a way to protect the women. This form of ‘‘recognition/protection’’ took its meaning from the social structure of a slave-owning society in which sexual abuse, especially of slaves, was rampant.While odious, such practices were not specific to the Arabs, nor were they aberrant. As Judith Antonelli notes, in ancient societies women in the public arena were considered to be prostitutes; in such societies, therefore, the law of the veil distinguished ‘‘which women were under male protection and which were fair game’’.

In mandating the jilbāb, then, the Qur’ān explicitly connects it to a slave-owning society in which sexual abuse by non-Muslim men was normative, and its purpose was to distinguish free, believing women from slaves, who were presumed by Jāhilī men to be nonbelievers and thus fair game. Only in a slave-owning Jāhilī society, then, does the jilbāb signify sexual nonavailability, and only then if Jāhilī men were willing to invest it with such a meaning. Consequently, even though worn by Muslim women, the jilbāb served as a marker of Jāhilī male sexual promiscuity and abuse at a time when women had no legal recourse against such abuse and had to rely on themselves for their own protection.  Further, as the Āyāt clearly state, at the time of their revelation some Jāhilī men were involved in a campaign of sedition against the Muslims (which included an attempt to slander the Prophet’s wife, ‘Ayesha, by impugning her integrity). Thus, Muslim women had a double reason to fear abuse at the hands of non-Muslim men.

Finally, neither this set of Āyāt nor the second, as my reading in Chapter shows, frames the issue of veiling in terms of women’s sexually corrupt/ing bodies or nature. Thus, the Qur’ān’s treatment of the public and private display of the human body, male and female, is not premised on a view (shared also by Jews and Christians) of the body itself as corrupt and corrupting.’

Read: Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Quran, University of Texas Press,

Mohja Kahf (1967-)

Biography and Bibliography: Born in Damascus, Mohja Kahf received PhD in comparative literature at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She is now teaching at the University of Arkansas. Her novel The Girl in Tangerine Scarf charts the spiritual and social landscape of Muslims in middle America, from five daily prayers to the Indy 500 car race. Her first book of poetry, E-mails From Scheherazad, was a finalist for the 2004 Paterson Poetry Prize. Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque 1999 U of Texas Press is her scholarly monograph. She has contributed From Her Royal Bod the Robe Was Removed: The Trauma of Forced Unveiling in the Middle East to The Veil: Women Writers: Its History, Lore and Politics edited by Jennifer Heath. Her article Spare Me the Sermon on Muslim Women appeared in Washington Post critiquing the Western Liberal position on veil as a symbol of oppression. ( dyn/content/article/2008/10/03/AR2008100301968.html)

Citation: The following comments is an excerpt of her article From Her Royal Bod the Robe Was Removed: The Trauma of Forced Unveiling in the Middle East. Her argument in this article is reflected in the Washington post article as well:

Veiling—covering the head with a piece of fabric, and sometimes the face as well—predates Islam. Christian women in the Near East veiled long before the advent of Islam and continued to veil in Europe until the twelfth century (they did not unveil because of an increase in gender equality; in fact, medieval scholars regard the Gregorian reforms of that era as a nadir for European women’s rights). Before them, Jewish women veiled, as did Roman, Greek, Zoroastrian, Assyrian, and Indian women, among many of whom veiling was a privilege belonging to women of the upper classes and aspired to by lower class women. Women veiled in the ancient pagan Near East. Statuettes of veiled priestesses date back to 2500 b.c. e., long before any of the three Abrahamic religions (figure 1.1). In the city-state of Palmyra, where the pagan Arab queen Zenobia would rule in defiance of Rome, bas-reliefs ca. 137–150 c.e. depict elegant veiled women, whose high status is evident from their jewelry, servants, and commemoration in limestone.

In figure after figure, the woman’s right hand touches the edge of her veil where it drapes over her shoulder, as if in the act of drawing the curtain that defines her personal space (figure 1.2). One way to interpret this long historical presence of veiling is to believe that men have always tried to control women’s bodies. This may be true, and it is true that Islamic as well as Christian and Jewish authorities have asserted their own definitions of veiling, but it doesn’t tell half the story of the veil. Men have also tried to control women’s bodies through the institution of motherhood and continue to do so through laws governing reproduction but, as Adrienne Rich points out, this does not make motherhood conform to patriarchal prescriptions. Rich distinguishes motherhood prescribed by male definitions from experiences of motherhood springing from women’s lives, and there is a similar distinction between institutions of veiling defined from above and women’s own multivalent practices of veiling.

Read,  The Veil: Women Writers: Its History, Lore and Politics edited by Jennifer Heath, published by University of California Press


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