Before this commentary gets underway, I feel that it is necessary to close the gate before the horse bolts. So first up, let me say that I am not anti-Islamic, I have lived as a Muslim woman from the age of seventeen until I was twenty two (and admittedly, found it not to my liking for a number of reasons). I have four children, two of whom are Muslims and with whom I have a warm, relaxed and loving relationship – we are a family regardless of religion. Much of my professional life has been spent working with, and for Muslim people in the war zones of Bosnia Herzogovina, Kosovo and Albania as an humanitarian relief worker, and I have travelled and worked extensively in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia - so I have seen quite a bit of the world and can compare how varying societies adapt the Islamic religion to the cultural morays and sensitivities of their regions. In light of the bravery exhibited by so many women who have taken to the streets in Iran post elections I felt compelled to be honest in what I know of the dress code for Muslim women. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/31529744/displaymode/1168/rstry/31531225/rpage/1/
Tory Maguire’s piece yesterday in http://www.thepunch.com.au/ and the reader’s comments that followed
had much to say on the reasons often cited by western media and society about what is believed to be the motivation for Muslim women to don the burqa and headscarves. The common, misinformed perception is that Muslim women mostly wear the burqa to express their religious devotion. Frankly, I’ve lived on both sides of this debate, and I would like to put the record straight once and for all as I was instructed during my time in a moderately strict Islamic society - to wear a burqa, hijab or headscarf during daily life is not prescribed specifically anywhere in the Koran – it is not wajib (mandatory and prescribed by the Koran), but only sunat (recommended culturally).
As a royal princess in an Islamic country (Malaysia), and originally hailing from Australia, I was required, after my marriage, to undertake four years of Islamic study under the tutelage of the Royal Household’s Iman and religious teacher. We used text books primarily sourced from Pakistan and Egypt which had been specially printed in English for converts to Islam, as well as long tracts of the Koran and my tutor’s own knowledge and interpretations as he was a respected scholar nationally. The majority of these texts were from Cairo University – the penultimate centre of Islamic scholarship in the 20th century.
These twice weekly classes over four years, were never undertaken between myself and my teacher without the presence of my servants, or another royal lady who acted as chaperones – not for my chastity or purity, but, as the Iman explained to me, for his! He truly believed that I, or any woman, could not be trusted in the lone company of a male without the baser instincts of the female gender coming to the fore.
According to these books, I was to learn that it was fine for a husband to beat his wife as long as he didn’t mark her face, I was to ascertain that female circumcision was not mandatory or even mentioned in the Koran, that it is a cultural practice only. However, the father who does instigate the excision of the clitoris of his female child will be rewarded in heaven – this again, I stress, was not mentioned anywhere in the Koran, but simply extrapolated from cultural musings of a scholarly nature. In other words, female genital mutilation is not a religious Islamic practice at all as dictated by the holy words of the Prophet Mohamed. That abhorrent undertaking is about control of women and tempering their sensuality – it has nothing to do with religion and I have yet to meet any Australian Iman who would say otherwise.
I was taught scores of things by the Royal Iman, the beauty of many tracts of the Koran, the cadence of the Arabic language; but much of the teachings, as opposed to the Koran itself, were strictly cultural and archaic, rather than the pure religious teachings of the Koran. I learnt that the primary reason women are required by Islamic societies (the majority of which are patriarchal) to swathe themselves in fabrics and cover their collar bones, necks, arms, legs, ankles, calves, chests, elbows, shoulders, throats, thighs, ears, napes of necks, hair and in some cases, faces, is that women are culturally condemned to the roll of seductress and are considered untrustworthy, immoral humans, driven to tempt men and bring down the bastions of male self-control. The fine shape of an ankle, or a tendril of hair – a glimpse of which can send a mere male into a sexual frenzy, are the tools of seduction. In essence and to outline it crudely – the veil, much lauded by so called Islamic teachings, is a protection for men against we voracious vixens of the mortal world. Not, as so many pundits state, a protection for women against men.
Yes, during prayer, it is common for women to don a full-length, white hijab, but this is because no hair or overt skin, other than the face, may be visible during devotions. Similarly, a man may not have any hair come between his forehead and his prayer mat as he kneels and prostrates himself during the recitations of Koranic verse, technically he must be covered only from knee to waist, but the little white crocheted caps have become popular as they are convenient to wear during prayers and keep the hair under control.
Women must not pray at the forefront of a mosque, in front of men. Women must take their places in prayer at the rear so as not to distract the male congregation from their rituals. But even in prayer, not one of the lines of the Koran bids a woman to have her face completely obliterated by a burqa – her face may be shown to Allah and all around her.
Even culturally, under the Islamic teachings I studied and with which I was indoctrinated, not one stanza exhorted a man to order his woman to cover her face – everything else, yes, but to wend her way along streets covered in a tent with only slits for her vision was never mentioned. Similarly, I am deeply perplexed by the current custom of small, Australian primary aged girls attending taxpayer subsidised private Islamic schools, wearing hijabs as part of their mandatory uniform. There are no teachings which direct females to cover all the parts of the body and the hair prior to puberty. In other words, if a girl has not yet menstruated, a headscarf is not a part of the dress code under Islam.
I have heard it argued by a young Muslim teenager that a hijab or a burqa denotes a female as a “girl or woman of dignity”. My gentle reply was that demeanour and deeds denote dignity, not a piece of fabric. The Koran mentions modesty, but does not describe a burqa or a hijab.
Which brings me to another point, it is most often the strictures imposed by the fathers and husbands within the Islamic communities that lead women to take up the hijab or the burqa. The social pressure on the males, their fear of perceptions within male circles, leads to the demand that their female relatives cloak themselves in what they perceive to be the trappings of honour to ensure, and demonstrate their trustworthiness and prove a lack of feminine sexual sophistication. In other words, the worth of a man is valued in how they control their womenfolk. Frankly, it’s a rather akin to preserving the wrappings on valuable goods before they’re purchased.
But it is implicit within well educated Islamic circles that head coverings on women are a cultural, and or personal choice, not necessarily a religious one except during prayer.
Queen Rania of Jordan, does not don any form of veil, she wears everything from leather trousers to business suits and haute couture gowns very openly – not just on foreign state visits, but in her day to day life amongst her people. (As ironically, did Lebanese born, Empress Farah Diba of Iran). Rania’s predecessor, Queen Noor (the former Lisa Halaby who began life as an American) did the same. Both women, at the highest echelons of Islamic society have stood beside their well educated, monarch husbands and exhorted their country to educate their children and most particularly the girls. Both queens have openly discussed breastfeeding and cleverly quoted passages of the Koran to support their stances on family.
It is a shame that so many of the men who have coaxed, or pressured, or demanded that their womenfolk don the burqa, or that their toddler daughters don a hijab prematurely, are most probably unable to read the Koran in its original Arabic other than by rote and are dependent on the interpretations incorrectly preached to them by immoderate clerics, and cultural exhortations not based in pure religion. The problem with so many clerics in powerful positions within many immigrant Islamic communities around the globe, is that these religious leaders do not allow for intellectual freedom, or personal interpretation when it comes to matters of self assessed modesty and female dressing because of the narrowness in which they view women’s supposedly intemperate sexuality and the lack of self-control in men.
Surely in 2009, human beings can be trusted to walk down the street, safe in the knowledge that a glimpse of hair will not cause a riot or an orgy. A veil worn in any form should be a personal and independent choice, free of familial or social pressure, A perambulating shroud should not be used to effectively excise a woman from the society in which they live and the possibilities of the freedoms we should all enjoy. Vive l’France!