Daniel Martin Varisco: Hijab, Raw Meat and Catnip
[Daniel Martin Varisco is Chair, Anthropology Department at Hofstra University.]
Many non-Muslims assume that Islam is a far more sexist religion than Judaism or Christianity, usually under the assumption that only the latter two faiths have been secularized into acceptable moral modernity. Media images of women covered in full-length chadors or wearing a solid niqab (face covering) with only slits for eyeholes, the legality of having four wives, Quranic passages torn out of context, misogynist traditions and medieval male musings: all of these suggest that Muslim women have few if any rights. Muslim women in most cases feel otherwise. Many are bemused that their sisters from other faiths are so unaware of the rights Muslim women have enjoyed (at least in legal theory) since the very beginning of Islam. But a problem still remains and that is the unflinching, culturally-induced male chauvanism that crosses the boundaries of established religions. A prime example from down under has recently surrounded a major Muslim figure in Australia.
The man in question is Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, Grand Mufti of Australia, who is no stranger to controversy in the Australian media. In a recent Ramadan sermon the sheikh decided to discuss the moral problem of adultery. As quoted in The Australian his remarks are less than uplifting:
In the religious address on adultery to about 500 worshippers in Sydney last month, Sheik Hilali said: “If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it … whose fault is it, the cats or the uncovered meat?
“The uncovered meat is the problem.”
The sheik then said: “If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”
He said women were “weapons” used by “Satan” to control men.
“It is said in the state of zina (adultery), the responsibility falls 90 per cent of the time on the woman. Why? Because she possesses the weapon of enticement (igraa).”
Ramadan is supposed to be a month of fasting, reflecting on Allah and his creation, but Sheikh al-Hilali apparently thought his congregation needed a lesson on fast-and-loose women. The problem is that he makes the victims into the instigators, suggesting that women who do not wear hijab are asking to be raped and in league with Satan. Theologian, heal thyself.
Some background is important here. In 2000 a gang of callous youths, led by a Lebanese “Muslim” named Bilal Skaf along with his brother, brutally gang-raped a number of women in Sydney. Bilal is currently serving a 32-year prison sentence for his role. Sheikh al-Hilali is not condoning rape, and he has spoken out against the criminal actions of Bilal and his cohort, but his embarrassing rhetoric from the minbar perpetuates an attitude that some men cannot stop themselves from raping when they see female flesh. Was his purpose to frighten women into wearing hijab and staying home whenever possible or does he really think some men should have a reason to excuse sexual predation?
The mufti’s ignorance of what psychology has to say about the motivations for the crime of rape is only confounded by his selective reading of the Quran. I did not hear his sermon and at this point what he actually said has become a moot point. The fact is that many Australians, no matter what their faith, are shaking their heads at yet another incident that makes Islam look like it does not belong in any contemporary society.
Beyond shaking heads, it is better to go back and read the Quran in context. There are several relevant Quranic passages on the subject of the “veil” (ably analyzed by Fadwa El Guindi, Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance, Berg, 1999) and these have been widely interpreted over time and across cultures. The overall point of wearing clothing, stemming back to the Garden of Eden, is modesty. For example, both men and women, following the example of Adam and Eve, are commanded to cover their private parts:
“Children of Adam, We have given you garments to cover your nakedness — and as adornment for you; the garment of God-consciousness is the best of all garments — this is one of God’s signs, so that people can take heed.” (Surat al-A‘râf 7:26)
As the passage makes clear, it is not Godly to go around naked, but no instructions are given as to how much of the body needs to be hidden from view. The Arabic word here for “nakedness” is ‘awrât, which literally refers to the genitalia. Indeed many of the traditions on the subject are concerned with men who expose their genitals during prayer due to the type of clothing or the way they are sitting. As a mundane rule for going about in society the idea of covering certain private parts would hardly be a novel revelation at the time. The devout might go beyond the obvious to a deeper spiritual meaning. Rather than arguing about what can be shown in public apart from the sex organs, the emphasis in the verse is on the best kind of clothing and this is being wrapped in a constant awareness of Allah. If a man or woman wears this figurative leaf, there will be no thought of sexual allurement, nor of rape. We might say that the Quran teaches rape is in the eye of the beholder not in the flesh of the victim.
There are other Quranic passages that go beyond the basics. Probably the most cited is a long passage in Surat al-Nur on what believing men and women should do when faced with the possibility of sexual excitement. Here is part of this, but it is best to go and read the entire surah.
“[Prophet], tell believing men to lower their gaze and guard their private parts: that is purer for them. God is well aware of everything they do. And tell believing women that they should lower their gaze, guard their private parts, and not flaunt their charms beyond what [it is acceptable] to reveal…” Surat al-Nur 24:30, first part of 31.
That issue of what is acceptable for view is open to wide debate and is always determined from cultural hindsight. Some translators, like M.A.S. Abdel Halim (whose recent and readable version I am using here) proceed to talk about letting a headscarf fall to cover the neckline. But older translations tend to say something like “cover their bosoms.” The debate is over what the Arabic term for the covering, which is the plural khumur here, meant at the time of the Prophet and deciding what is the English equivalent more than 14 centuries later for Arabic juyûb, which in classical Arabic could mean several things, from bosom and breast to the neckline of a piece of clothing.
Fashion questions aside, a major theme in the passage is that both men and women are given the same advice. Yes, it is important not to flaunt one’s beauty, but the bottom line is that Muslim men or women should simply avert their eyes if they see more flesh than they think they should. If a woman sporting a bikini is walking down the street or across the stage of a beauty pageant, no matter what her religion or lack thereof, she is not rape bait. Nor is she catnip-style raw meat setting a trap for men who will resort to any flimsey excuse to uncover their private parts. If you as a male (or female) think too much is being revealed, stop looking.
Sheikh al-Hilali claims he was offering advice to Muslim women on how to avoid rape or leading men astray, but his words betray a deeper problem with his almost pathological view of gender differences. Men rape for different reasons, but they are still men, not cats or dogs, no matter how much they may act like animals. To claim that women are 90% to blame in adultery or illicit sex is pure bull—-, not the red meat at all. This is like saying that we should not blame the car thief, but only the car, or let the jewel thief go because how could anyone not be enticed by diamonds and rubies.
Sheikh al-Hilali might do better to remind his flock what the prophet Muhammad did when he came upon his adopted son’s wife Zaynab not properly covered. The Prophet did not jump on the beautiful woman, but turned and went away asking for God’s help. And the next time the Australian mufti reminds women that they should cover their head-to-toe bosoms, he should first back up a few verses in Surat al-Nur to the following warning”
“Those who accuse hounourable but unwary believing women are rejected by God, in this life and the next.” Surat al-Nur, 7:23
Let Muslim women wear what they decide Allah wants them to wear and cover the body parts that they believe the Quran tells them to cover. If a man of any faith thinks human flesh is red meat, I suggest he consider becoming a vegetarian for his spiritual health’s sake.
[Note: There are many fine resources on the issue of veiling in islam, but a good place to start is “The Veil and Veiling” by Judith Barr, India Clark, and Melissa Marsh at Skidmore College.]
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