Part I. Afghanistan
For decades, the concept of female protectionism in Islam has garnered much attention from the Western media. As a symbol of the “clash of civilizations” phenomenon – the Muslim woman’s dress code has often led to eruptions of emotion from the West and the East, with each party absolutely convinced that it holds Muslim women’s rights in the highest regard. Within the sacred doctrines of Islam – The Quran and the Prophetic teachings (Sunnah) – there are codes of living that serve to protect the female role in society. These codes range from dress criteria to limitations on movement. In the West, these regulations which are found within the divine sources of Islam have been ridiculed by feminist groups as forms of female oppression. Yet, Muslim states have not done much to assuage these fears; on the contrary these states have the worst track records when it comes to women’s rights. As a result, laws that were intended to protect women became instruments to contain their role in society.
It is first critical to ask several questions. Why have protectionist laws in Islam, such as veiling, which were initially intended to protect women in societies such as Afghanistan, been transformed into a symbol of patriarchy? Concurrently, why have headscarves been banned in public French institutions under the pretext of protecting female liberty? It is critical to explore the extent to which the rationale of protection is used as an excuse to provide rights for Muslim women in Afghanistan and France, and how these claims actually end up crippling those rights. First, an understanding of the origins of veiling and its significance in Islam will help to demystify this conflict. Followed by an examination of veiling in Afghan society. And finally, I’ll conclude with an analysis of the contentious and ongoing debate over the role of the veil in France and its implications for women’s human rights.
Although the veil is commonly ascribed to the Muslim community, the advent of the veil predates the coming of Islam. Originally, the “first reference to veiling is in an Assyrian legal text which dates from the 13 century BC, which restricted the practice to respectable women and forbade prostitutes from veiling” (Hoodfar 1993: 6). Historically, veiling signified status and “was practiced by the elite in the ancient Greco-Roman, pre-Islamic Iranian and Byzantine empires” (6). The hijab (i.e. veil) became a distinct facet of Islamic identity after veiling was revealed as a divine mandate prescribed for Muslim women by God. Several verses in the Quran speak to the command of veiling, one of them (Surah Al-Nur, verses 30-31) stating that women “not display their beauty and adornments “but rather to “draw their head cover over their bosoms and not display their ornament.” The other verse (Surah Al-Ahzab, 59) states “O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over themselves, that is more convenient that they should be known and not molested.” Defining what constitutes hijab is often subject to cultural norms of dress and varies around the world (Hoodfar 1993: 7). But, through the interpretation of the Quran, there have been differences of opinion concerning this commandment.
Regarding these critical Quranic verses, there has been great dispute among scholars – non-Muslim and Muslim alike – about the interpretation of these verses. One example is Fatima Merssini, a prominent Muslim feminist who vigorously challenges the notion that veiling is explicitly commanded in the Quran. According to Merssini, “the veil represents a tradition of ‘mediocrity and servility’ rather than a sacred standard against which to judge Muslim women’s devotion to Allah” (Read & Bartkowski 2000: 401). Anti-veiling Muslim feminists such as Merssini also cite “the historical fact that veiling is a cultural practice that originated from outside of Islamic circles” (401). Feminists also question the scriptural interpretations used by Muslim scholars to justify the veil, “call[ing] attention to the fact that the Qur’an refers cryptically to a “curtain” and never directly instructs women to wear a veil” (401). Obviously, the arguments on both sides go beyond some of the feminist grievances selected here, but this debate is beyond the scope of this present discourse. As a matter of historical perspective though, it is critical to understand that a contentious debate over the very legitimacy of the hijab has existed and this debate offers a backdrop of how the veil is implemented in different societies.
Prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, many Americans became increasingly concerned with the plight of the Afghan women under Taliban rule. One instance of this intrigue was demonstrated by Laura Bush who declared that “because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment…the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” (Abu-Lughod 2002: 784). In western eyes, the burqa (the enveloping garment worn by many Afghan women) was often portrayed in the media as a symbol of oppression that “women in Afghanistan have had to bear” (Noelle-Karimi 2002: 3). Yet, in light of the theological underpinnings previously discussed in this discourse that serve to protect Muslim women, how is it that the West has come to deplore Islamic covering in Afghanistan? One undeniable answer to that question lies within the Taliban’s wielding of power in that country. In order to understand why the Taliban came to impose the female covering as a hallmark of their rule, it is first important to understand origins of their ideologies.
The Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islam helps to explain why the group’s imposition of a strict form of Islamic dress has limited the role of Afghan women in society, despite the protectionist intentions of Sharia law. Prior to its consolidation of power in Afghanistan, Ahmed Rashid argues that “since the Taliban were orphans of war, who in their long hard battle against Soviet occupational forces had little or no interaction with women and their company, they retreated into a male brotherhood compared to that of the Crusaders of the Middle Ages” (Misra 2002: 582). A majority of the Taliban followers grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan, where they experienced harsh poverty and as refugees “they were encouraged to espouse the idea of revenge in countless madrassas sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the CIA” (582). Rashid not only argues that the Taliban’s strict actions against women were “designed to reinforce the tribal patriarchal order” (582) but also that Taliban ideology is rooted in the Quran – “which explicitly presents a male-dominated society where women only play a secondary role” (582). But is this the case? As discussed earlier, the orthodox doctrines in Islam codified a set of rules for women that were intended to protect rather than hinder. Laila al-Hibri discusses this matter in depth in the article “Islam, Law and Custom: Redefining Muslim Women’s Rights.” Al-Hibri argues that the egalitarian mandates of Islam, particularly those concerning women’s rights, were executed fully during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammed and the successive generations. Yet al-Hibri claims, these reforms for women were masked by the interpretations of many male religious scholars, as Muslim female scholars were pushed to the background. As evidence of gender equality in the Quran, al-Hibri states that “[the Quran] articulates a basic general principle about proper gender relations; namely, that they are relations between mates created from the same nafs [soul], which are intended to provide these mates with tranquillity, and are to be characterized by affection and mercy. Such relations leave no room for Satanic hierarchies which result only in strife, subordination and oppression” (al-Hibri 1997: 15). In relation to this present issue, it can be concluded that the Taliban strictly interpreted women’s rights in Islam in order to maintain patriarchal dominance over the Afghan women. And there is evidence that documents how the Taliban executed their extremist ideology with regard to female covering.
According to Jurgen Kleiner in the article “The Taliban and Islam,” with the Taliban’s creation of the Department for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue in 1996, “squads from this department tour[ed] Kabul and ensur[ed] that rules for conduct and dress [were] followed” (Kleiner 2000: 27). As evidence of these strict mandates, in December 1996, “225 women who did not observe the dress code were punished” (27). Kleiner goes on to state that “all this [was] done in the name of Islam – stamping out everything which might detract from the ‘right path’” (27). But not only was the Taliban’s reinterpretation of Islam limited to forcefully enforcing women’s dress code, they also adopted measures that excluded women from education and employment. Ironically, it was the very religion that the Taliban claimed to safeguard which endowed women with equal participation in society, since its advent. Although the Taliban insisted that that their enforcement of the burqa “award[ed] women a position of ‘dignity and honor’” (28), they end up reducing women to no more than just clothing. For instance, the Taliban’s ban on education for women was a far cry from the realities that existed in early Muslim generations. The Quran clearly mandates that education is a duty upon both males and females (al-Hibri 1997: 23). Some of the most well-versed individuals in the Quran and the prophetic tradition were women and al-Hibri mentions that “there were also hundreds of women who were among the Companions of the Prophet” and that “the religious education of women in early Islam proceeded hand in hand with that of the men” (22). Even beyond the Taliban, looking broadly to the entire Muslim world, al-Hibri questions the decline in the representation of Muslim women’s scholarship. She attributes this absence to the patriarchal systems which have dominated Muslim lands, and by extension Muslim scholarship in the generations after the Prophet. In the twenty-first century, the most compelling factor that can explain the Taliban’s harsh dealings with women is their strict misinterpretations of the protectionist laws for Afghan women, meant to preserve their male-dominated society. Besides the Taliban, Western democracies are also capable of infringing upon women’s rights to dress freely, and France is a country that has been at the center of this debate in recent years.
Part II will continue with a look at France’s historical struggle with Muslim women’s dress code…
Abu-Lughod, Lila (2002) “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?: Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others,” 104 American Anthropologist 783-790.
Al-Hibri, Aziza (1997) “Islam, Law and Custom: Redefining Muslim Women’s Rights,” 12 The American University Journal of International Law and Policy 1-33.
Hoodfar, Homa (1993) “The Veil in their Minds and on our Heads: The Persistence of ColonialImages of Muslim Women,” 22 Resources for Feminist Research 5-18.
Kleiner, Jurgen (2000) “The Taliban and Islam,” 11 Diplomacy and Statecraft 19-32.
Misra, Amalendu (2002) “The Taliban, Radical Islam and Afghanistan,” 23 Third World Quarterly 577-589.
Noelle-Karimi, Christine (2002) “History Lessons: In Afghanistan’s Decades of Confrontation with Modernity, Women Have Always Been the Focus of Conflict,” 19 The Women’s Review of Books 1-3.
Read, Jen’nan G., & John P. Bartkowski (2000) “To Veil or Not to Veil?: A Case Study of Identity Negotiation among Muslim Women in Austin, Texas,” 14 Gender & Society 395-417.