Liberation lies in choice.
The hallmark of a ‘liberated’ group of individuals: though absolute freedom is not possible [Can you fly? Can you become queen of the world in the next few minutes?] the closest we, in our limited capacities, can come to it is through the vessel of choice.
It would be wrong to look at a group of bikini-clad women and say, with conviction, that they are more ‘liberated’ than a group of women who are wearing the Niqab. How much autonomy did they each have over this decision? The extent of choice may vary immensely between each individual woman being studied.
No doubt, there are issues on both ‘sides’. Our heavily consumerist society injects women – from very young ages – with the absurd idea that their worth as human beings is contingent upon how lustfully strange men will look at them. There is nothing wrong with having a passion with fashion, nor with enjoying putting makeup on one’s face. And it is – well, should be – up to you to decide if the underlying ideologies of your apparel-based choices is worth actively adhering to, and propagating.
And, with religion, in Islam, we frequently overlook the fact that the Qur’an states that there is to be “no compulsion in religion” [2:256]. Ours is a religion whose fundamental bases rely on individual choice: this is where the balance between free will and determinism is to be found. A person may wish to strive in the way of the Deen, and towards God; a person may choose not to. But there should be no compulsion with religion. Unfortunately, it would seem as though national governments such as the Iranian one have skipped over certain passages of the Holy Book, while having chosen to adhere to some – a select few.
Personally, I find great beauty in the notion of the Hijab – when it is a choice, at least. If it is a (relatively) free decision, there is space for a person to cultivate a strong love for it, as well as for the wisdom that underlies it.
See, Islam is a religion that encourages sacrifice, and the overcoming of oneself and one’s desires. ‘Selbstüberwindung’ is the German term for this; ‘Greater Jihad’ is its Arabic (Islamic) equivalent [and, yes, alarm bells do seem to go off whenever someone employs the term ‘Jihad’. It has, as a result of the ongoing current political climate, devolved into a term that is widely misunderstood, and feared].
Now, with regard to the Hijab: what does it actually mean? Well, Arabic is a language in which all words (save for the word meaning ‘[The] God’ – and this is lexically reflective of His Oneness) stem from a three letters – a trilateral root. The trilateral root of word ‘Hijab’ (Hā-Jīm-Bā / ح ج ب) means, simultaneously, the following: ‘to conceal’, ‘to intervene between two things’, ‘to protect’.
In the Qur’an, as part of the famous verse that speaks of it being preferable for Muslim women to cover themselves, there is an additive statement: “so that perhaps they may not be harassed”. Here lies the ‘protective’ element of the wisdom behind the Hijab. It also covers other sub-facets such as the ‘Evil Eye’ element, which I will analytically deconstruct in a later piece of writing, Insha-Allah.
Next, the element of concealment: some argue that it is sexist to ask a woman to cover herself in line with a religious moral framework. Well, what about men?!
You see, in Islam, we do differentiate based on gender. Male and females are equal in terms of worth; in terms of the nature of our souls; in terms of the fact that we both have rights and responsibilities. But they are different.
Biologically, we are different. Hormones, genitals, essence, ways of thinking… As aforesaid, the Islamic moral framework is built atop the idea that each person has an essential nature, which may be informed by things like gender, and by past experiences. We also have knowledge and reasoning faculties; we can satisfy these through learning about Islam, and about what its moral guidelines are. This should, in turn, inform how we use the third part of this trilateral system: how we come to act.
Women: it is in our nature to love being beautiful. We also feel impulses to display our beauty. A person who chooses to observe the Hijab is actively overcoming these gendered desires.
Men: it is in your nature to love looking at [beautiful] women. You feel impulses to do so. A person who chooses to “lower [his] gaze” [Qur’an, (24:30)] all the time is actively overcoming these gendered desires.
And I will never understand why some misogynistic men who hide behind the guise of religion act like women are…subhuman. Do you not know that your Lord is genderless; that He [the masculine pronoun, in Arabic, is also the neutral one] created us, through His wisdom, in pairs? Do you not know that he placed immense amounts of mercy into the womb of a woman [the trilateral roots of ‘mercy’ and ‘womb’ are the same]. And, do you not know that your Lord has stated that He has taken a Hijab to a) conceal Himself, b) protect us from being destroyed by the magnitude of His light, and c) to act as a point of intervention between our material realm, and His existence? Our Creator has chosen to take a Hijab; he has also encouraged women – his beautiful creations – to do the same. How very cool indeed.
And, ultimately, To Cover or not to Cover may be a question that many Muslim women – and, indeed non-Muslim women – find themselves, rather justifiably, asking. But to disrespect a woman, or to deeply respect her merely by virtue of her being a woman? There is no question to be asked, here.
Sadia Ahmed, 2020