In an e-mail headed “Distortions,” a friend and Chicago resident sent me a link to CAIR (Council on American Islamic Relations) Chicago’s ‘About Islam’ page. The plight of many Muslim women is one we’ve corresponded about before so he knew I would find this part, which he specifically pointed out to me, interesting:
What about Muslim women?
Under Islamic law, women have always had the right to own property, receive an education and otherwise take part in community life. Men and women are to be respected equally. The Islamic rules for modest dress apply to both women and men equally. (Men cannot expose certain parts of their bodies, wear gold or silk, etc.) If a particular society oppresses women, it does so in spite of Islam, not because of it.
Well that’s all right then! <— Sarcasm alert. Again. What is it about religion that always brings out that side of me? “Distortions” is the perfect word to describe this passage.
While there are Muslim-majority societies that had misogynistic cultural practices that were standard before the advent of Islam and thus Islam itself cannot be blamed for instituting them, the religion has come to support those practices. Female Genital Cutting, for example, was standard in many societies before Islam, but it is only Islam that has adopted and supported it as part of the religion. (See here.) FGC is not supported by the religions of non-Muslim societies that continue to practice it. To blame the particular society rather than the religion is disingenuous at best.
Like most religions, Islam does not treat men and women as equals. To a greater or lesser extent, women are treated as second-class citizens by religion. (In Vanuatu, women come in third – it’s pigs that are second, but that’s another story.) To me, the fact that Islam so often tries to pretend otherwise is patronizing and insulting. Just on the page linked to above, we see that CAIR Chicago apparently considers that because there are Islamic laws relating to modest dress for both men and women, this creates a situation of equality. Their definition of equality though is completely warped. It’s like saying, “Yes, we pay men and women different rates for the same job, but we pay both the legal wage rate so we are treating them equally.” This type of reasoning is common amongst religious apologists.
As the CAIR Chicago website specifically focuses on dress, I will too. In order for men and women to be treated equally, the rules applying to them must be equal, so we need to look at the rules that apply to both men and women for dress within Islam.
There are only three verses in the Qur’an that relate to clothing (via United States Muslim Women’s League):
From Yusuf Ali or Muhammad Asad translations:
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 all that they do.
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their zeenah (charms, or beauty and ornaments) except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their khimar (veils) over their bosoms and not display their zeenah except to their husbands, their fathers …. and that they should not strike their feet so as to draw attention to their hidden zeenah (ornaments). (24:31-32)
O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should draw over themselves their jilbab (outer garments) (when in public); this will be more conducive to their being recognized (as decent women) and not harassed. But God is indeed oft-forgiving, most merciful. (33:59)
And know that women advanced in years, who no longer feel any sexual desire incur no sin if they discard their thiyab (outer garments), provided they do not aim at a showy display of their zeenah (charms or beauty). But it is better for them to abstain (from this); and God is all-hearing, all-knowing. (24:60)
CAIR Chicago mentions the three things that men are required to consider when it comes to their clothing according to Islamic law:
Men cannot expose certain parts of their bodies, wear gold or silk, etc.
Islam.org, in their Rules related To covering, discusses all the appropriate verses from the Qur’an and the various hadithat [plural of hadith], and provides guidance to help people properly apply them to ensure they are Good Muslims. The rules for men, similar to those for women, are around not providing a sexual temptation to women who are not your wife, especially ghair mahram (women with whom it would be considered incestuous to have a sexual relationship). Silk is okay if it is just thread, smaller than the width of four fingers, or just a handkerchief, but silk clothing of any type is out. Wearing gold is also haram (forbidden), and if it is worn while praying it voids your prayers.
But this is Rules For Men, so there are a few outs:
84 – Rule: If a type of clothing is made of a mix of silk and something other than silk, then in the event that the term 100% silk can not be applied to that clothing, it is not a problem to wear it.
91 – Rule: It is not a problem to beautify or decorate one’s self with something that is gold coated, in the event that in reality it can not be considered as gold.
92 – Rule: If something is a mixture of yellow gold and another metal, and if the yellow gold has become mixed such that in reality it is no longer considered as yellow gold, then it does not have the ruling as gold.
And exceptions to the Rules For Men are taken one step further. There are two more rules relating to the wearing of gold and silk:
85 – Rule: It is not a problem to wear clothing if one is in doubt whether it is 100% silk or something else.
93 – Rule: If a man doubts whether an item is made of gold or not, then the usage of it for him is not a problem.
So anytime a man is caught wearing gold or silk he just has to say, “I didn’t know,” and all will be forgiven. There are no rules like that for women.
I don’t know about you, but If I was a man dedicated to Allah, Muhammad, and Islam, not wearing silk boxers and pure gold cuff-links wouldn’t be much of an imposition. And maybe your brain undergoes some kind of mysterious transition when you utter the words, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger,” but whether or not a man is wearing those things makes absolutely no difference to whether I find him sexually attractive.
And so we come to men’s clothing. Islam.org records several rules relating to men’s clothing, but there is some repetition and they can be summed up by these two:
96 – Rule: Men must cover their private parts from other men and those women that are his Mahram, however it is not Wajib [obligatory] to cover the rest of their body from them.
97 – Question: Is it sufficient for a man to (only) wear swimming trunks or other types of under clothing which show the shape of the private parts, but do not show the skin, in front of others?
Answer: If there is no fear of falling into sin, then it is not a problem.
The conclusion at Islam.org is that it’s only the dangly bits that must be covered. However, men must be very careful about exposing any part of their body, even their ankles, which may tempt women into lust. They must be especially cautious if younger women may see them. They specifically state though that there is no requirement for covering the head, face or hands at any time.
Islam.org has 29 rules for men related to the wearing of gold, silk, and various clothing and as we have seen, they are not particularly onerous. For women it’s completely different; there are 43 rules just for women’s clothing, and they are extremely restrictive.
The verses from the Qur’an above are normally interpreted as women needing to wear a long, loose dress or coat with their head, hair, neck, and all parts of their body covered except their hands. Some interpretations consider a women’s face, and specifically her eyes are also part of her zeenah and therefore also needing to be hidden from all men except her husband. This is common in Afghanistan for example.
There are also interpretations that say that if a women plucks her eyebrows or wears make-up her face should be covered, if she shapes her fingernails and wears nail polish her hands should be covered, and she shouldn’t wear rings in order to beautify her hands.
Amongst the 43 rules for women’s clothing at Islam.org are these:
111 – Rule: It is not permitted for women to reveal or expose the part under the chin, the neck, the ears, the chest or the forearm up to the upper arm; and therefore one must ensure that these parts are also covered from non-Mahram men.
112 – Question: What is the extent of the Islamic hijab for women? For this purpose, does the wearing of clothing that is long and loose fitting, with pants and a scarf suffice? Essentially, what are the basics in the clothing and covering that a woman must observe in front of others?
Answer: It is wajib that the entire body of a woman, with the exception of the face and hands up to the wrist, is covered from non-Mahram men. The clothing that has been mentioned, if it covers that part which is wajib, then it is not a problem; but it is better to wear a chador.
110 – Question: According to the laws of Islam, is it allowed to expose the sole, top, malleolus and the heel of the foot, in front of non-Mahram men?
Answer: It is not allowed.
Therefore: Women are not permitted to go in front of non-Mahram men without socks on their feet, or with their feet showing, go to a nearby store to buy even just one item. Also, if there are non-Mahram men in the house, then it is not permitted to come in their presence without having socks on, even if it may be one’s husband’s brother, a sister’s husband, or any other non-Mahram men.
So in the middle of summer a Muslim man can don his Speedos and take a dip in the nearest river, lake, ocean, or pool. Women have to keep everything on, including their socks.
In 2013 the Pew Research Center surveyed some Muslim majority countries about what was the appropriate dress for women with the following response:
There are obviously many Muslim women who don’t follow these rules, especially in the West, but the fact they even exist is a problem. If we go back to the original statement about women on the CAIR Chicago website, it included the phrase:
If a particular society oppresses women, it does so in spite of Islam, not because of it.
It’s great that there are Muslims who are working on reforming their religion, and all power to them, but Islam cannot just blame a particular society when the justifications for women wearing particular clothing rely on the Qur’an and hadithat. Like all religions, Muslims feed their children the tenets of their faith along with their mother’s milk. What behaviour is expected of women, including their dress, is part of that. The idea behind dress codes for both men and women is modesty, but the message is mainly directed at women. There are no campaigns directing men to dress more modestly, but there are multiple crusades directed at women:
The message for women is that to be a Good Muslim they are required to wear a particular type of clothing, and that it is only women who wear the prescribed dress that are deserving of respect. Their bodies are for their husbands – they are a possession of their husband and not a person in their own right. The Qur’an says, “There is no compulsion in religion,” but millions of Muslim women would disagree with that. Indeed statistics show that, a majority of women in many Muslim-majority countries accept that they should obey their husbands at all times at that he has the right to decide what she should wear.
Shagufta Omar, a lecturer at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan did, a presentation in 2014 called ‘Gender Equality in Islam.’ (See her paper ‘Marriage in Islam: Life Partnership or Discriminatory Family Set up?’ here.) To the right is one of her slides. It again shows that it’s the whole attitude towards women that is the problem. As per her second point, it’s true that Islamic law gave women rights that their sisters in Christendom either didn’t have at the time, or were taken away by Christianity. However, those rights have not changed since, and women’s rights were, and are not, equal to those of men.
As we can see from the third point on the slide, womanhood was reinforced “… by providing respect as a daughter, sister, wife and mother. (My Chicago friend will be pleased Omar didn’t use the Oxford comma, but it makes me cringe!) What was reinforced was a woman’s identity as an appendage of a man, not a person in her own right. She’s not a woman, she’s a “… daughter, sister, wife and mother.”
About thirty years ago I had a look through an abandoned (Christian) cemetery at a place called Morere on the east coast of New Zealand. There was a century-old headstone that read:
Mrs John Clarke
Mother of David Clarke
I’ve never forgotten it. This woman had no identity outside of being the wife of one man and the mother of another. That is how I see many women within Islam today. They are not in a position to make their own decisions. As Omar says in her article linked to above, women are “allowed” to work as long as it doesn’t impinge on their role as wife and mother. The whole modesty of dress thing is about not providing a temptation to men and protecting women. That, of course, makes women at least partly responsible if they are raped or otherwise sexually abused. The truth is that a glimpse of elbow does not tempt a man to rape. Rape is about power, and enforcing dress codes on women is about controlling them. That makes women more vulnerable, not less. How about teaching children to respect one another, boys and girls, men and women, from earliest childhood? You do not rape people you respect.
Wise words from the United States Muslim Women’s League:
Among Muslims, the division and intolerance expressed regarding women’s dress is one factor that impedes our growth and development as a meaningful presence in the world today. All Muslims struggle with matters of faith, identity, and community. With the pressing issues facing the Ummah [disapora] today such as poverty, illiteracy, violence, warfare and other ills, we must ask ourselves if we want to be consumed and paralyzed by the issue of women’s dress. Placing the burden primarily on women without calling for the accountability of men to control themselves and their sexual appetites is in violation of the spirit of the Qur’an which is about self-control and self-restraint.
In addition, the extremely negative attitudes which consider women who do not cover as somehow unchaste are most egregious and unjustifiable. Wrongful accusations against a woman’s honor are met unequivocally with severe consequences as mentioned in the Qur’an (24:4-20).
Only together, through cooperation, tolerance and forbearance, as exemplified by the Prophet (pbuh) can Muslims overcome the obstacles to success in this life and the hereafter that often are expressed in our attitudes towards women.
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