Beyond the veil – Frontline
It examines the geography and politics of the hijab and the lived experiences of Muslim women.
Of the 6,236 verses in the Quran (6,348, if you include the verse “in the name of Allah…” which opens all but one chapter), only four pertain to physical appearance. Ironical, given the focus on Muslim women’s clothing, both within the community and outside.
The Hijab: Islam, Women and the Politics of Clothing
Edited by P.K. Yasser Arafath and G. Arunima
Simon & Schuster India
The holy book of Muslims is both a complex and lyrical treatise. Even seemingly simplistic verses assume profundity when read in the context they were revealed. Prophet Muhammad is reported to have told believers, when asked to perform a miracle, that the Quran was his miracle. Hence, to read and interpret the Quranic verses without their context is injustice not only to the book but also to one’s understanding of it.
Nothing in the Quran appears without a reason or context. And nothing is as it appears in the first reading. The first “clothes” verse was revealed in chapter Al-Araf, in the early days of Islam before the fledgling community was forced to migrate to Medina. It read:
“O children of Adam! We have provided for you clothing to cover your nakedness and as an adornment. However, the best clothing is righteousness. This is one of Allah’s bounties, so perhaps you will be mindful.”
While there was no instruction about what must be worn or how, the new Muslims were advised to focus more on their deeds than vanity.
The next two verses were revealed in quick succession after the migration to Medina. These two verses appearing in chapter Al-Nur addressed men and women respectively, urging them to “lower their gaze and guard their chastity”. The additional advisory for women was not to flaunt their beauty and “Let them not stomp their feet, drawing attention to their hidden adornments”.
Clearly, the intent was modesty of attire and demeanour, in addition to giving others privacy by not staring at them.
Hijab and the Quran
The fourth and the last verse was addressed only to women. This verse is held up as evidence that God indeed ordered women to cover up in such a fashion that they were rendered invisible. However, this is also the verse which has an interesting context and a back story.
Part of the chapter Al-Ahzab, the final verse on the hijab is reflective, both in nature and tone, of the rest of the chapter, which includes the infamous “sword verses” as well as prescriptive punishment for hypocrites, recanters, and Jews. The chapter is suffused with a feeling of persecution, siege, and desperation for survival.
Now the back story: The Al-Ahzab verses were revealed immediately after the third and the decisive battle that the Muslims, led by Prophet Muhammad, fought against the Meccans. Before their victory, the Muslims were besieged by the Meccans as well as the Jewish tribes who had initially pledged neutrality but decided to side with the Meccans in the hope that collectively they would be able to vanquish Prophet Muhammad and his followers.
During the siege, the Muslim men and women were frequently harassed by the adversaries who staked out the territory held by the Muslims. In an interesting story recorded by Imam Bukhari, trusted by Muslims as accurate, Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha recounts that the wives of the Prophet would go to Al-Manasi to answer the call of nature at night. One of Prophet’s closest aides and later his successor, Umar, suggested to the Prophet that his wives should be veiled. But the Prophet did not pay heed to this. One night, one of the Prophet’s wives, Sauda bint Zam’a, went out to relieve herself. Umar saw her and called out her name, saying that he had recognised her. Umar did this to force the veiling of women. His argument was that if the women were known as Muslims, then the adversaries, for fear of retribution, would not molest them.
Thereafter the final verse on the hijab was revealed. It said: “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves (part) of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.”
When seen in this context, it is clear that veiling of women was circumstantial and was meant to save them from harassment. So, if there was no threat of harassment or if the veil did not prevent harassment, then should one be wearing it? This is the question that Muslims, especially women, must debate instead of unquestioningly accepting their invisibilisation as part of their faith.
I was hoping to find this spirited debate in The Hijab: Islam, Women and the Politics of Clothing, put together by P.K. Yasser Arafath and G. Arunima and published by Simon & Schuster in December 2022 in response to the hijab controversy that broke out in Karnataka in January 2022. Instead of debate, the book only reiterates in many different ways how the Karnataka row is the consequence of Hindutva’s politics of marginalising Muslims, especially women. The “Islam” of the title is largely absent in the book. What is present in big measure is the feminist argument on the hijab anchored on “choice”, as well as the politics of majoritarianism, both in India and in France. There is a passing reference to Iran and Algeria to complete the international picture.
Repetition of ideas
Since the book was conceptualised and produced in record time, it suffers from repetition and a somewhat incongruous mix of essays, some by writers, but mostly by academics—professors and assistant professors. This could have been an interesting mix, but it is stymied by the vast differential in the writing style, which imposes a burden on the reader. While some chapters demand pause, others flow like a river.
Yet, since different academics are commenting on the politics of the hijab in the wake of the Karnataka row, linking it with the overall persecution of Muslims in India, there is both repetition and overlapping of ideas. After all, how much can one say on the hijab if the critical eye is cast only on the oppressors outside the community and not on debate within it.
Moreover, in the last one year, so much has been written on the hijab issue that most of the arguments have existed in the public domain for a while now. For example, the notion of imposing victimhood on Muslim women so that the Hindu right-wing politicians could assume the role of knights in shining armour rescuing these hapless women from their cruel men.
Despite these limitations, it is to the credit of the editors, Yasser Arafath and Arunima, that they conceptualised and structured the book in a manner that it encapsulates both the geography and the politics of the hijab. The lived experiences of Muslim women, their compulsions, conditioning as well as compromises were both interesting and illuminating to read.
Personally, I found the chapter on “hijabophobia” in Kerala an eye-opener, probably because the writer used the hijab as a lens to showcase how deeply caste- and faith-ridden Malayali society is despite its communist politics.
In a similar vein, the chapter focussing on the Malabar coastal region is equally informative, combining concepts with the narrative style of writing, weaving in experiences of different women. Perhaps, because the book was inspired by the events in Karnataka, there is greater focus on the southern part of the country, especially Kerala. No problem with that, except that I wish there was a review of the growth of conservative Muslim organisations in the Kerala-Karnataka belt and their influence on the young, especially women.
That Hindutva is victimising Muslim women over the hijab, restricting their access to public institutions and constitutionally guaranteed rights, is only one side of the story. The other side is that more Muslim women are digging in their heels on the hijab. What is the source of their commitment to the hijab? Is it only faith or are there elements of security, identity, and politics in it?
The book only skims the surface of these issues. In fact, in some respects it resorts to obfuscation of context and sequence, especially when narrating the Karnataka hijab event and the subsequent restrictions imposed on it by the High Court. This overlooking of minority politics casts a shadow on the essence of the arguments offered by some of the essayists.
Having said that, the three standout essays are written by Noor Zaheer, Ambarien Alqadar, and Dina M. Siddiqi. They have an immediacy to them and are bold in their assertions. I may be biased here, but I immediately warm up to writing which expresses opinions fearlessly, without a balancing act. Or without hiding behind complicated constructions.
Muslim women of India deserve a book of their own. A book that gives them a private, perfumed garden to share fears and confidences. Perhaps, Ghazala Jamil, who has contributed an interesting essay in this volume and has done comprehensive work with Muslim women, can helm that.
The writer is editor, FORCE. Her recent book is the award-winning Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India.