Is Discussing Hijab Off Limits? Overcoming Sexualizing Muslim Women

“Maybe they don’t know—that there’s a soul beneath all these clothes.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah

By far, one of the most difficult experiences I faced in hijab was when I made the decision to wear niqaab (the face veil). As I discussed in my post “I’m Taking Off This Veil!” this decision exposed me to a host of confounding experiences, the most trying of which was the repeated assumption of what this decision represented about me.

One of the most offensive experiences I faced while wearing niqaab was receiving the repeated advice to cover my eyes due to the alleged fitnah men faced by seeing my eyes uncovered, while I was merely using my eyes to see where I was going. Amongst some Muslims who are deemed religious, a woman’s beauty itself is viewed as sinful, even if it involves no sin or wrongdoing on her part, hence my blog: “Is Beauty Evil?”

Repeated experiences of this nature, in which “naseehah” (religious advice) was given to me solely on the basis of what men might imagine about me, contributed greatly to my ultimate spiritual crisis which made me doubt my ability to even be Muslim anymore. The incessant harassment due to my hijab not being un-beautiful enough, my voice being heard at all in public, and any picture of me existing at all, made me actually fear for my soul if I continued to attend certain masjids or Islamic classes. It began to feel like “practicing Islam” (in the minds of these Muslims) was synonymous with following the faults of any woman who identified as Muslim. Till today, I feel (literally) sick when I read posts criticizing Muslim women who are covered in hijab but who inadvertently violated some manmade restriction on her behavior.

This phenomenon inspired this journal entry, which I shared in my book FAITH. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah:

SubhaanAllah.

Is following the faults of women now the sixth pillar of Islam? No matter how much some Muslims study this beautiful faith, they still come away with this bizarre manmade “principle of fiqh”: Any action by a woman that even has the possibility to involve the eyes or ears of men is by default evil and a sign of corruption and immodesty on her part.

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So now we have to read endless posts about the decision of a woman who wears hijab or a woman who wears niqaab to post a picture, to do an online hijab tutorial, or to even recite Qur’an!

By Allah, I’ve even seen some women change the required Salaah movements to appease the possible wicked thoughts of men.

Laa ilaaha illaAllah! What is wrong with us?

Even in the face of apparent wrong, we are taught to make excuses for our brothers and sisters.

Must we be taught the same regarding the apparent good of believing women, since we now twist nearly every public deed of theirs to be evil?

The Sexualization of Women in Hijab

I suffered my own emotional trauma from the repeated harassment by Muslims who equated fulfilling the conditions of hijab with achieving the humanly impossible goal of no man finding you attractive, even if only in his imagination. As a result, when I was struggling to hold on to my Islam, I couldn’t stomach any video, post, or lecture on the subject, especially if it was done by a man.

Naturally, this struggle of mine was nobody’s fault, and it certainly doesn’t mean that videos, posts, and lectures on hijab should not exist. I share this experience only to say that I understand on a deeply personal level why hijab is such a sensitive topic for so many of us.

Unfortunately, this generation has seen the tragic shift of hijab as a female-centered act of obedience to Allah to hijab as a male-centered act that women must do to curb men’s insatiable sexual appetites and overactive imaginations. As with any new concept introduced into the religion, the result of this un-Islamic shift is disastrous in ways that we cannot even imagine. In my post “Is Beauty Evil?” I reflect on one result of this shift in the section entitled Men’s Loss of Manhood and Respect:

“When the narrative of women’s dress consistently revolves around men’s sexual weakness and arousal, especially regarding the dress of women who are already covered, there is a significant loss of respect for Muslim men in many women’s hearts. As Muslim women, we are taught that men are our leaders in private and public life, and it’s difficult to reconcile this divinely assigned role of manhood with the helpless, sexually weak image many men paint of themselves.

“Though it is natural for any human being to feel attracted to the opposite sex and sometimes become aroused (often for reasons inexplicable to others), it is bizarre to be expected to listen to a public narration of this attraction and arousal—from a pulpit or Islamic scholar—and in all seriousness be expected to change one’s dress based on the inner workings of random men’s minds and hearts… In the ‘real world’ (in which we all live), there will always be a variety of people, and some of them won’t be Muslim; and still others (Muslim or not) won’t make even the slightest effort at being modest or obedient to God’s laws. But men still need to be men, and they still need to lead. And regardless of what others are doing or wearing, if men can’t handle their assignment of manhood, then they need to reassess their own hearts and behavior in front of God, not women’s dress and behavior in front of men.”

In my post “The Danger of Covering for Men” I discuss in more detail the harms of making hijab about men instead of Allah.

Playboy Da’wah and Redefining Islamic Hijab

By the time the infamous Playboy magazine decided to do an online photo shoot of a Muslim woman and subsequently print an article by her, I’d all but left the topic of hijab alone in my blogs, at least for the time being. I’d heard that the magazine had opted to minimally cover the private parts of the women whom they sexually exploited in print, but because the publication was of no interest to me, I paid little attention to this “news.” As a Muslim, I saw nothing praiseworthy in an immoral publication shifting from a “bare-all” approach to objectifying women to a “sneak peak” approach to objectifying them (by displaying just enough ‘awrah to imagine the rest).

So when I finally heard the news of a Muslim woman being featured in the new “sneak peak” version of the sexually exploitive magazine, it took some time for me to process what was actually going on. I’d seen some of the footage from the online photo shoot before I actually knew what it was, so I didn’t really know what all the fuss was about. It was only after I realized that the entire purpose of the shoot and article was to present “the first hijabi” in Playboy magazine that I felt physically sick. It was similar to the sickness I’d felt when I heard men speak about hijab as if it was ordained to curb their sexual appetites.

It was while battling the feeling of physical weakness and sickness due to the emotional trigger that the “first hijabi in Playboy” fanfare incited that I realized that the shifting of the hijab from female-centered to male-centered had taken on an entirely new level of harm. In this, I do not mean that the actual photo shoot and article was male-centered (though the publication certainly is). I mean that this shift made it possible for the hijab itself to take on an entirely new meaning in the eyes of practicing Muslims themselves—with very little room for respectful disagreement or varying views.

As we women sought to reclaim the hijab as rightfully ours, there was very little trustworthy guidance and support in this journey. Practicing Islam openly, especially in hijab, had become an experience of voluntarily opening yourself up to daily harassment and mistreatment by fellow Muslims, even if you were committing no sin. The harassment had reached the point where even justified discussions on the topic had become deeply triggering to so many of us (as I myself experienced).

As a result, any mention of Islamic hijab in public felt like one of two experiences (emotionally speaking): verbal abuse or supportive compassion. Any and all reminders about our souls (telling us to cover properly) felt like verbal abuse, and any and all kind words about not wearing hijab (i.e. disobeying Allah) were viewed as supportive compassion. And there was almost no in between.

It was in this spiritually confusing environment that the “first hijabi in Playboy” was announced.

Is Discussing Hijab Off Limits Today?

I don’t mention the Muslim woman in Playboy to rehash the whole debate about whether or not her appearance in Playboy was correct or incorrect from an Islamic perspective. I’ve heard the arguments of support that ranged from the most sensible (“She gave da’wah to a new audience”) to the most ridiculous (“She’s similar to Malcolm X”); and I’ve heard the arguments of disagreement that ranged from the most balanced (“It was very inappropriate, but she’s still our Muslim sister”) to the most despicable ([I’m not going to repeat the name-calling and character assassination here]).

I mention the Playboy incident because it brought up a question for so many of us that before then was just mulling around in our minds: Is discussing hijab off-limits today? Has the shift to define hijab as primarily a sexual-desire-blocking cloth for men made it necessary to leave the topic alone completely in public platforms, except to offer compassion and support to anyone who is at least trying to cover? Is the best approach to just have the information on Islamic hijab available to whoever wants it instead of speaking about the topic openly— especially in correcting “wrong hijab” or inappropriate behavior (or magazine appearances)?

When I ask the question, I’m not asking rhetorically. I really want to know how to deal with this topic appropriately today. Judging by the number of messages and calls I received after the Playboy incident (many from confused Muslim youth), I know complete silence is not an option (which was why I ultimately opted to post on my own social media page respectful disagreement with the Playboy feature).

I know that we cannot abandon teaching about hijab entirely, as this goes against divine instruction. But there has to be a better way than what we’re doing now. So many of us are hurting. And while our hurt is not an excuse to declare the topic of hijab off limits, I do believe there has to be a middle ground that helps us heal our wounds and save our souls at the same time.

And Allah knows best.

 

Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of more than fifteen books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the newly released self-help book for Muslim survivors of parental and family abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You, with contributions by Haleh Banani, cognitive behavioral therapist.

To learn more about the author, visit ummzakiyyah.com or subscribe to her YouTube channel.

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30 responses to “Is Discussing Hijab Off Limits? Overcoming Sexualizing Muslim Women”

  1. Nabeela says:

    Some women say that hijab is not mandatory! Since it is not mentioned in the Quran exactly to cover from head!

    Please guide how we can guide these kind of people

    • Umm Zakiyyah says:

      Nabeela, barakAllaahufeek.

      I too have heard this argument, but I don’t believe it is possible to guide people away from this argument unless they themselves wish to be guided. I say this because ultimately, religious guidance is rooted in the heart more than the mind. For those who are sincerely misguided due to wrong information, they can simply be pointed to the right information, as truth stands out clear from error.

      One place to start is with the principle that all religious interpretations are authentic only insomuch as they adhere to the understanding of the Prophet, sallallahu’alayhi wa sallam, his Companions, and the earliest Muslims; and no such authentic interpretation exists from those generations that the khimaar is not a head cover or that hijab permits uncovering the hair. It is well known that words in the Qur’an and Sunnah have both linguistic and religious meanings. Often those who make these arguments focus on linguistics more than divine evidences. If we are to use linguistics alone, we can logically argue that Allah is not One since He uses the supreme “We” in reference to Himself at times.

      My suggestion is to advise anyone who makes this argument to sincerely supplicate to Allah for guidance in the matter and to refrain from speaking about Allah’s commands except with certainty of knowledge based on the teachings of the Prophet, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam, and the understanding of the Companions; as there is no new Islam. The commandment of hijab has existed for centuries with no authentic claims regarding uncovering the head. Those making this argument should also be reminded that for everything they say, they will be called to account for on the Day of Judgment, and unless they want to meet Allah and “defend” this new interpretation of hijab, it is best to stick to what is well-known from the teachings of Qur’an and Sunnah historically.

  2. Inqiyaad says:

    The holistic conception of hijab in Quran and Sunnah is not at all female-centric, especially with regards to outcomes. The narrative of women’s dress and behavior (similarly for men’s dress and behavior) in Qur’an and sunnah, specific to the context of the article, does revolve around sexual weakness and arousal of random persons of the opposite gender. For example, 24:31 gives women one extra prescription in addition to those prescribed for men in 24:30. That is, prescription to cover. And it is explicitly tied to the ability of the opposite party of perceiving and actualizing sexual innuendo; to the extent that even the category of children is qualified. Not just mannerisms of dress but also those of conversation, and tone of speech (33:32). It is a category mistake to conflate and identify men drawing attention to this consequential relationship with the kind of men described in 33:32.

    Drawing attention to this consequential relationship is not responsible for sexualization of hijab. It is the gradual but persistent tokenistic approach of womenfolk to hijab while attributing to themselves immunity from criticism (by derisively referring to such criticism as the sixth pillar of Islam!), and in someways tolerance of Muslim families and societies to such wholesale vandalism of the intent of hijab, which are responsible for the sexualization of hijab.

    I will not challenge your observation about the perception of discourse being bipolar (because perception is individual). However, your attribution of the ‘first hijabi Playboy model’ to merely a “confusing spiritual environment” is problematic. How are we supposed to take women seriously when they are so easily swayed? Can we not attribute any agency to them? Phrasing it as you did, “We are taught that women have agency and are responsible for their own choices, and it’s difficult to reconcile this divinely assigned agency with fickle, clueless image women paint of themselves.”

    It is strange that the “first hijabi Playboy model’s” “dawah to new audience” constitutes a sensible argument but, any suggestion that men can and should enjoin the requirements of hijab is considered a catalyst for sexualization of hijab. We do live in spiritually confusing times!

    • Umm Zakiyyah says:

      Inqiyaad, thank you for taking time to comment.

      Regarding your disagreement with the piece, there are too many misconceptions in your comment to address them all. But let me start with the one concerning Islamic rules of hijab. Regarding hijab being “female-centric,” let me rephrase that so as to clarify the correct Islamic perspective: All commands from Allah are rooted in the believer protecting his or her own individual soul from harm, irrespective of the effect that this obedience has on others. Yes, the rules of hijab are definitely related to sexual arousal, but they are not dependent upon them. In this point is a very, very important and critical distinction. It is the difference between encouraging obedience to Allah and creating a culture of oppression and abuse. So this distinction is not small.

      For example, a woman can be covered in all black, niqaab, and wearing a single one-piece, loose abaya with her eyes covered, yet a random man can still find her sexually attractive. Is she is sin? According to the male-centered narrative, she is. But according to Allah, she is not.

      That’s my point regarding female-centered hijab. We do all we can to obey Allah. After that, it is not our problem what a random man finds physically attractive. Likewise, if a man covers himself modestly, does not interact inappropriately with the opposite sex, and lowers his gaze, can he be blamed if a woman finds him sexually attractive? Should he be banned from coming out of his home? According to the random-sexual-attraction theory, he’s in sin. According to Islam, he is not.

      I hope you see the point here.

      Regarding the Playboy incident, I did not say I believe the feature was da’wah. In fact, I said I didn’t agree with the feature. Because I don’t agree with the feature, I’m not the best person to explain the da’wah argument. However, the photo shoot aside, printing an interview with a Muslim in a major magazine can definitely be da’wah. That’s what I meant by “sensible.”

      • Inqiyaad says:

        If the contention is that the pleasure of Allah is the goal then it is not ‘female-centric’ as much as it is not ‘male-centric’.

        Allah does not provide us with hikmah for every one of His injunctions in the Qur’an and Sunnah, for some others He does. For example, alcohol is forbidden and its intoxicating effects are mentioned in the Qur’an. And in the Sunnah, by corollary, any intoxicating item is deemed prohibited irrespective of the quantities consumed and effect on an individual, as long as the intoxicating effect is demonstrable. Avoiding intoxicating effects is the intent, of course for the pleasure of Allah. Some argue that too much sugar has such an effect too! Some argue that a little beer does not have an intoxicating effect! Majority of Muslims of the past and (I hope) contemporary Muslims understand the distinction. We cannot abandon this clear principle about intoxication to the whims of either extreme. No, sugar is not haram! And, telling the latter party to dump that beer, even if not personally intoxicated, is not oppression and abuse. Yes, people can be confused but, when in doubt listen to the people of knowledge and do not tell them off.

        Similarly, the intent of Hijab is specified. Like I demonstrated in my previous comment, determining whether the intent is met or not does involve considering the perception of the audience (primarily men and even children) with regard to sexual innuendo. Also, it does involve aspects beyond just covering, including the mannerism of speech and behavior. So, someone who advises about the importance of aspects beyond covering is not necessarily off the mark. However, to focus on the minority (and awkward!) ‘sugar extreme’ of hijab is to overlook the multitudes of Muslims on the ‘beer is halal’ extreme with respect to hijab.

        The internal contradiction within the argument that ‘the feature was wrong and not dawah but, interview with a Muslim in a major magazine could be dawah and hence the dawah argument is sensible’ is reconcilable only by decontextualizing.

        • Umm Zakiyyah says:

          Inqiyaad, every point you make can only be applied to the heart and mind of the woman wearing hijab (if it is to be fulfilled according to Allah’s commands). In other words, it is upon the one who is fulfilling Allah’s command of hijab to engage in jihaad al-nafs (which is a life-long struggle), not for onlookers to seek to do it on her behalf. We can argue semantics, but principles are most important. And no matter what word you prefer for this issue, where the issue of hijab is concerned, in practical application, this obedience is female-centered because the female is the one Allah commanded to do it (irrespective of whom she considers in her heart and mind while covering). While every obedient act is indeed rooted in the pleasure of Allah, all acts of obedience require a human being to fulfill them, and in the case of hijab, it is the woman. Thus, this “for the pleasure of Allah” act is female-centered.

          Personally, I have gone thru many stages in this topic, and the one I find healthiest for my soul is to focus on my own heart and intentions in front of Allah as I wear hijab and leave men to do the same for the commands that are uniquely for them. To protect my emaan, I don’t focus on the struggles men have. I focus on my own. This focus is actually what Allah asks of all of us, whether male or female.

          We can use logic to argue anything, and if we focus on women’s struggles with being harassed by men, there are a host of “Islamic” arguments we can use to police the behavior and lives of men. But you won’t find this in Islamic circles today because most are run by men, a group that genuinely imagines it is the job of women to make their lives easier. Meanwhile, many of us women live in fear for our safety as we frantically try to find ways to protect ourselves from our “protectors.”

          May Allah help us.

          • Inqiyaad says:

            In my understanding, you made these major points through your article, which I found problematic:

            1. Advising women to do hijab by stating male sexual proclivities is inappropriate.

            Allah (swt) Himself introduces this subject by stating these facts, which the western, liberalized Muslims find problematic. Sure, it is not the only wisdom that could be derived. However, like I stated in my previous comment, Allah (swt) does not provide wisdoms for most of His commandments, and expects obedience. It follows that when He does state the wisdom and intent explicitly then, (a) it is an important and high priority reason that should not be overlooked, and (b) definitely should be part of the discourse surrounding the subject.

            2. Discussing the sexual proclivities surrounding this subject is responsible for the sexualization of Hijab.

            Since it is clearly demonstrable that Allah (swt) mentions these proclivities at the outset when introducing these concepts, it should eliminate any bizarre thesis of causal relationship with the sexualization of Hijab. You have repeatedly overlooked the role of women in undermining the purport of Hijab by using it as a means of embellishment instead of covering.

            3. Advise by men on this subject is undesirable, constitutes harassment, and contributes to sexualization of Hijab.

            Barring extreme and awkward cases like that of random strangers walking up to women in random places to offer advice, there is no Islamic mandate for disqualifying men from offering advice on this subject. There is no valid contention against the Islamic sanction to admonish and advice out of fatherly love and authority, brotherly care, manly protectiveness (gheerah), (male) scholarly insight, and (male) responsibility toward society. I hope scholars and leaders take note of this subtle erosion of Islamic values by invention of bizarre ‘principles of fiqh’ sourced from the alien religion of feminism. No, screaming patriarchy will and should not negate this sanction.

            Finally, pure intentions are necessary and do help in preventing the defacement of the spirit of laws and regulations. However, as is evident from the ‘beer is halal and sugar is haraam’ example above, they are not sufficient.

          • Umm Zakiyyah says:

            Inqiyaad, Let me be clear: At this point, any response I post to your statements is for the benefit of the readers of this comment section, and not for you in particular. I say this because it is clear to me that regarding you personally, there is nothing I can say about this blog or myself that will make you see the Islamic urgency, necessity, and sincerity in what I wrote; or even the possibility that my position is more aligned than yours with the religion of Islam as understood by the Prophet, sallallaahu’alyhi wa sallam, and the earliest Muslims. However, I am used to this sort of interaction on this topic, as it is the norm in circles of Muslims who, even after being given naseehah and pointing out the very real harms of this thinking, wish to focus on men’s sexuality instead of women’s souls (while claiming they are one in the same when it comes to hijab).

            Given the context of your statements, it is clear that it hasn’t occurred to you that you are the one who could be mistaken about this topic, not only in my view, but in front of Allah. Because surely, any woman who wishes to sincerely obey Allah while removing the focus from male sexuality and onto protecting her soul is introducing “the alien religion of feminism” and “screaming patriarchy.” Though neither of these claims are true regarding me, I will not refute those points specifically because, ultimately, true understanding is rooted in the heart more than the mind. And I have no hope of convincing your heart to understand that which you imagine it already does. So at this point, I leave your affair to the Master of the Day of Judgment, as I do not have the human ability to help you see the error of your ways since you imagine that you are on the side of Allah as you disagree with me.

            But here’s my advice to those reading the comment section and might also share Inqiyaad’s faulty (even if sincere) beliefs regarding my post. If you (male or female) are sincerely concerned about the topic of hijab, here are my suggestions:

            1. Supplicate to Allah that He removes preconceived notions from your heart regarding His religion, and that He purifies your heart from any negative views of His servants, no matter how righteous, misguided or sinful they appear to you.
            2. Supplicate to Allah that He grants you hikmah (wisdom) such that He guides you to put everything in its proper place, especially regarding the commandments in His Book and the Sunnah of His Messenger, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam.
            3. Supplicate to Allah and beg that He allows you to have empathy, love, and mercy toward all believers, such that your focus is on seeing the best in the them, even when they are struggling (instead of fixating on their faults and sins).
            4. Supplicate to Allah and beg Him to allow you to make every concern, every advice, and every analysis regarding any spiritual subject, about Him and Him alone, firstly for the sake of your own soul and secondly, for the soul of the one whom you are advising.
            5. After you have made these prayers, consider the very real possibility that you are the one in need of guidance, advice, and better understanding more than the person with whom you are disagreeing (or advising).

            Regarding the views Inqiyaad made about my piece (that may be shared by other readers), I say this:

            1. Though hijab definitely includes within Allah’s commands consideration for male sexual proclivities, ultimately, the hijab is centered around the woman’s own soul and proclivities, and her need to sincerely obey Allah and engage in continuous jihaad al-nafs in her interactions with the opposite sex. What is often lost in these hijab discussions is the fact that woman have their own sexuality, and much of it is directly linked to her natural and acquired beauty in the presence of men, with some exceptions (hence the list of this group of exceptions to observing hijab in the Qur’an). Just as Allah has created men to desire woman’s beauty, He has created women to enjoy this admiration of beauty (hence His very wise commandments on hijab that speak to the very fitrah of women’s modesty and sexuality, which is connected to men’s desires but more firmly rooted in her own; and therein lies the female-centered command of hijab). In His wisdom, He also understands men’s sexual nature, which remains present even when women are fully covered, hence His commandment to them to lower their gazes, even when a man can see nothing of woman’s physical body. (This divine commandment alone should highlight the inherent problem in making hijab about men’s desires, as these desires don’t ever disappear, even when women are fully covered! As Allah says in the Qur’an: “No soul shall bear the burden of another.” Thus, women do not bear men’s sexual burdens, no matter how beautiful they are in hijab).

            2. Regarding men advising women on hijab, as I mentioned in the blog itself, just because it has become a sensitive topic for us (myself included) doesn’t mean that lectures and advice should not be given, whether it is by a male or female. The entire purpose of me mentioning this sensitivity was merely to say, “I’m human too, so I understand how this is difficult,” not to say it is inherently wrong. The Prophet (saaws) taught us that “The religion is naseehah (sincere advice),” and certainly no one should be barred from giving advice to anyone, whether men to women or women to men (or to each other).
            However, what I find very troubling is that when a woman gives advice to men that remind them that ultimately Allah’s commands toward her are about her own soul (and not about him), her Islam is called into question, she is labeled a “feminist” (in the negative sense), and she is accused of introducing an entirely new faith tradition (as occurred right here in the words of Inqiyaad). But I am glad Inqiyaad voiced this in public because it demonstrates in black-and-white the very issue at the root of so many women suffering spiritually. Often, it is not due to our desire to disobey Allah, but due to our desire to in fact obey Allah, but while coming from a place of self-accountability to our Creator instead of female-accountability to men. And to some Muslims, this concept of female accountability to Allah alone is so unthinkable that they imagine it is a new religion or bid’ah.

            3. Regarding me not addressing the problem of women themselves undermining hijab, all I can say is, SubhaanAllah, The entire purpose of writing this blog was to start a discussion on the wisest and most sensitive way to address this very problem. Otherwise, there was no need to write the blog at all. My discussion of the un-Islamic fixation of men making the hijab about their sexual weakness (vs. women’s own needs) was to openly acknowledge that “We have to do a better job” in commanding the good and forbidding the evil.

            Lastly, it is very important to note that the definition of hijab has two major differences of opinion historically (the obligation to cover the face, and the permission to display the face and hands). In both opinions, many scholars have stated that some beautification (natural and acquired) will be apparent, like henna, kohl, rings. etc.; and this beautification is not in violation of hijab. Thus, it is incorrect to state or imply that any beautification contradicts hijab. While the strictest view of hijab does seek to teach this, the other points of view (including the view that obligates the face to be covered), are rooted in the actual lives of female Companions and early Muslims and make it clear that some beautification is natural and generally accepted as per custom and what is normal.

            But back to the topic at hand: I emphasize again: Hijab is about women protecting their own souls from harm (before it is about anyone else’s life being made easier), and my post was meant to redirect the conversation to this focus so that we (male and female) can better encourage each other in our efforts to meet Allah in a state that is pleasing to Him.

            If you wish to focus on male sexuality when it comes to hijab and you genuinely believe this focus is most pleasing to Allah, then carry on and do what you believe is best. For those who wish to come from the perspective of female accountability to Allah first and foremost (irrespective of men’s sexual desires), then this brainstorming discussion is for you. My hope is to help create an environment wherein we regain each other’s trust as believers, especially as women, so that we can do a better job at encouraging each other to protect our souls from harm before we are lowered beneath the ground.

            May Allah forgive us, have mercy on us, and take our souls as believers. May He remove from our hearts the diseases that divide us from Allah’s pleasure and from each other, and may He fill our hearts with empathy, compassion, and understanding, but most importantly emaan and taqwaa until we meet Him. Yaa Rabb, Ameen!

  3. Bayaan says:

    Just some advice from an older sister to the younger ones:

    If you have an opportunity to be more modest, then do! Modesty and humility are characteristics that Allah (swt) loves, so always try to come closer to them, in order to please Allah, the Most High.

    Western society right now, in general, does not value modesty or humility, unfortunately. It seems obnoxious behavior is in, and you can see it on the Net, where women of all shapes and sizes post half naked pics of themselves online trying to prove to everyone that they don’t need anyone’s approval!!!!

    When there is a shy child in the classroom, the teacher calls in the parents so they can work on a strategy together to try to make the child “less shy”!!!

    Lastly I just want to say that Hijab is not just cloth that covers our body. It is in our manners and the way we present our self when out in public which should be humble, polite, courteous, delicate, gentle, non-flirtatious, etc….this is all a part of HIJAB.

    May Allah, taalah, protect us all in these difficult times.

  4. Edelweiss675 says:

    Salaam. Male here. I’m totally sympathetic to your problem.

    In my community, the discussion is effectively off-limits. But I don’t think it should be. My perspective is simple – it’s not about what the hijab is supposed to DO, that’s for the hijab-observer to determine at a personal level. It’s that Allah has prescribed it. And what Allah has prescribed for Hijab is very clear (even at it’s loosest interpretation in terms of what to cover).
    My wife’s duty is to observe the hijab. My duty is to lower my gaze when I go out.

    When I see articles of this nature I wonder how widespread the problem really is. In my community I have seen the opposite of what you describe. Namely that the discussion of women’s dress, women’s prayer area in the masjid, women’s anything, is completely outside the realm of discussion.

    One of the reasons for this is because of this widespread belief in my community that people over-focus on women. I’ve been here two decades, I can’t remember a single sheikh talking about Hijab, either locally or at any conferences that I have ever been to. Despite this, I’ve heard khateebs talk at length about how we over-focus, how women have it hard, and that men need to change. I’m sure it’s pleasant to hear for some people, but Islam advocates for balance between rights, and their associated responsibilities.

    So, again, I’m extremely sympathetic to what you describe. It’s wrong, and no one should make you feel like you need to do your hijab because men are some overly-sexual creatures. I think that’s horrible, and creates really terrible insecurities that no one should have to live with. Your hijab should be done for the sake of Allah, not because of men. Islam expects more of men, exactly like you say. Men are expected to master their base carnal instincts.

    On the other hand, I think we need to frame the discussion correctly – this is a local problem within some?/half?/most? (dont know) communities. What you face isn’t the case for all communities, but by creating the impression that it is, we end up inventing a problem for other communities that doesn’t exist (such as the case with mine).

    • Umm Zakiyyah says:

      Wassalaam, Edelweiss675. Thank you for your comment.

      I too have seen the other experience as you mentioned in your community. This is why I stated in my blog: “As a result, any mention of Islamic hijab in public felt like one of two experiences (emotionally speaking): verbal abuse or supportive compassion. Any and all reminders about our souls (telling us to cover properly) felt like verbal abuse, and any and all kind words about not wearing hijab (i.e. disobeying Allah) were viewed as supportive compassion. And there was almost no in between.”

      Although I know your community doesn’t fully represent the other extreme, I wanted to openly acknowledge that other extremes do exist. As you stated, “One of the reasons for this is because of this widespread belief in my community that people over-focus on women.” I would imagine that they have this belief because it is actually the case in many communities, as I myself experienced in many different communities.

      Regarding this discussion in general, I think we all have the same goal, regardless of our individual communities’ experiences: To create a spiritually and emotionally safe environment such that we (male and female) can help each other in our striving to please Allah and enter Paradise. In that, we all have to come from the perspectives and approaches that are most practical for our individual situations.

      From that angle, I don’t think it’s necessary to analyze how common this situation is that I wrote about. The most important focus is to come up with practical solutions to reclaim the proper place of Islam (and obeying Allah) in all of our lives and communities, regardless of the specific problems or circumstances we face in implementing this.

      And Allah knows best.

      Again, thank you for commenting. BarakAllaahufeek.

  5. Saman says:

    Salam dear sister,
    I wanted to propose a possible answer to your question based on my own experience in my community.
    I think you are absolutely right that when men talk about Hijab it creates an unhealthy men vs women debate and it shifts the focus from “for Allah” to just “one” of the reasons that Allah swt Prescribed it for us.
    That is why hijab is a topic that women should speak to women about. In my personal journey of studying religion in the past decade, none of my male teachers gave any talks or lessons about hijab. When we studied Surah Nur and Surah Ahzab we did so with female teachers… So alhamdulillah I do not have that negative association of hijab being done for men.
    May Allah swt Grant wisdom to us as an ummah and may we facilitate each other to truth and patience, ameen.

    • Umm Zakiyyah says:

      Wassalaam, Saman

      Thank you for your insightful input and encouragement. And Ameen to your beautiful du’aa. May Allah make easy for us the Path to Paradise.

  6. Inqiyaad says:

    @UmmZakiyyah

    I did not intend to follow up after the last comment but, just as you feel that I have misrepresented your position, I believe that you have misrepresented some of my positions and statements. Therefore, a few clarifications are in order.

    1. “Because surely, any woman who wishes to sincerely obey Allah while removing the focus from male sexuality and onto protecting her soul is introducing “the alien religion of feminism” and “screaming patriarchy.”

    This is a straw man, non sequitur argument, which I believe I did not propose. Just as you advise me to reconsider the validity of my viewpoint, I request you to revisit my comments without any assumptions arising out of your previous interactions with others on this topic. I would suggest that you reconsider your statements in your previous comment,

    “But you won’t find this in Islamic circles today because most are run by men, a group that genuinely imagines it is the job of women to make their lives easier. Meanwhile, many of us women live in fear for our safety as we frantically try to find ways to protect ourselves from our “protectors.”

    I wonder if it has occurred to you that this is standard feminist discourse wherein religiously mandated restrictions on women are attributed to patriarchy. No, active subscription to alien ideologies is not necessary, mere osmotic conditioning is sufficient. So, at least afford me the courtesy of not attributing to me an impropriety like hurling accusations of feminism at you for sincerely wanting to obey Allah.

    2. I never stated that it is a woman’s job to make the lives of men easier in fighting their sexual proclivities by wearing hijab. But, I guess, creating straw men helps expose nonexistent deviousness! I request you to point this out and I am willing to apologize and rephrase my viewpoint, because that is not what I believe.

    3. “And to some Muslims, this concept of female accountability to Allah alone is so unthinkable that they imagine it is a new religion or bid’ah.” And, “Regarding me not addressing the problem of women themselves undermining hijab…”, I would urge you to revisit your original post and examine if your original post speaks to this.

    4. If you feel that my tone has been accusatory then, just as you advise me, I would request you to reconsider the content, tone and rhetoric of your original post and follow up comments.

    5. Concerning the fiqhi opinions of hijab, I hope you appreciate the difference between what is normally visible vs an embellished hijab or hijab being used as a tool for embellishment, or making up for the covered by enhancing what is visible.

    6. Just as I cannot know the reality of your intentions, you cannot know the reality of my intentions and the state of my heart and emotions when I wrote those comments. I do believe that you have insinuated through a passive aggressive tone that my comments are rooted not just in an incorrect understanding but also in my desire to dominate and control women because I (or other men) cannot control my (their) desires. While our arguments are here for others to read and come to their own conclusions, my intentions are private. But, Allah is my witness and He knows the du’a I have made for you (even before your latest comment), and also whether I made that du’a for you in a patronizing tone and from a sense of superiority or from genuine love and concern.

    7. Ameen to all your dua’s and since it is Friday, I pray to Allah that He does not make any of us of the kind of people He mentioned in Suratul Kahf 103-104.

    قُلۡ هَلۡ نُنَبِّئُكُم بِٱلۡأَخۡسَرِينَ أَعۡمَـٰلاً (١٠٣) ٱلَّذِينَ ضَلَّ سَعۡيُہُمۡ فِى ٱلۡحَيَوٰةِ ٱلدُّنۡيَا وَهُمۡ يَحۡسَبُونَ أَنَّہُمۡ يُحۡسِنُونَ صُنۡعًا (١٠٤)

  7. Siraaj says:

    Can’t say I have an answer the problem, and I know some men are focused on the topic excessively for cultural reasons.

    However, for me personally, I feel particularly driven at least in the context of home to drive these points of dress and modesty among other topics related to Deen because the concept of qiwaamah we’re taught not only encompasses teaching and even enforcing hayaa, but threats of punishment on the DoJ for not caring.

    And then there are particulars like wearing certain kinds of make up and people’s insecurities, and that tension between wanting to look and feel good and a man’s responsibility when a wife does more than she should out of such a weakness, even if they wear hijab, abaya, and even niqab.

    • Umm Zakiyyah says:

      Siraaj, Thank you for your insightful comment.

      When it comes to the responsibility of husbands, and even parents, in the home, I think of that as a different challenge than the one I’m discussing in the blog because ideally, we have established a relationship of trust, love, and empathy with our spouses and children. However, this trust, love, and empathy, is often not there within the wider Muslim community, unfortunately. So when we are “corrected” based on our dress at a masjid, Islamic event, or online, it doesn’t feel caring or loving. In fact, many times it isn’t, which makes this topic that much more sensitive. As an African-American, I can attest to the lack of care and love many of us receive from the general Muslim community, but when it comes to something they think we’re doing wrong (i.e. improper hijab, music, etc.), then all of a sudden they express their concern for our souls and their own responsibility to command the good and forbid the evil to protect themselves from punishment on the DoJ, lest they be in trouble with Allah for not caring about “their brothers and sister in Islam.” I often wonder why so many of us are only “brothers and sisters in Islam” when it’s time to point out our perceived faults and sins (or wrong fiqh opinions), but we’re no longer “faith family” when it comes to our individual, personal needs and rights to be treated as fully human on earth.

      However, when it comes to blood family or marriage, like you mention, it’s a different reality because those roadblocks are (prayerfully) not there as much, so how you handle the tension and sensitivities will be more effective, inshaaAllah. Even if it’s hard to deal with, when it’s someone we know loves and cares for us, we are generally more open to hearing their perspective, even if it’s a point of view that would deeply hurt or offend us if it came from other than our husband or trusted parent.

      And Allah knows best.

  8. AbuIbraheem says:

    @Umm Zakkiyah, would you consider it permissible for a woman in Hijab or even niqaab to address a mixed gathering of adults at events? While I appreciate your viewpoint that women should abide by the commandment to observe hijab for their own sake, I think you should also understand that Islam has made men guardians and protectors of women even though this is ridiculed in the west by feminists and those who want to re-interpret islam. Another thing I want you to consider is that the Rasul(Salallahu alayhi wasallam) informed us that women are the greatest fitnah for men. He said this at a time when niqaab was the ‘normal’ way of dressing. How much true are those words in our highly sexualized secular society where nudity is the order of the day ? In conclusion, men are much weaker than u think and a niqabite could still be a source of fitnah. May Allah guide us to His Pleasure

    • Umm Zakiyyah says:

      AbuIbraheem, Ameen to your beautiful du’aa.

      Regarding your question and concerns, if I thought my point of view would really matter here, I would give a detailed explanation to your specific concerns. But after the back and forth here with Inqiyaad (and other men of this mindset offline), I think I’m pretty clear: My female obligation (in the eyes of “weak” Muslim men) is to put them before my own soul and even before the commandments of Allah. To them, even if I’m committing no definite sin in front of Allah, I’m still in the wrong if they sexually desire me. I get it. But it is so sad to see this level of self-emasculation in Muslim men.

      My heart goes out to you all. It really does. However, I can’t help you overcome your personal problems. That’s a burden you carry alone.

      As for hijabi or niqaabi women speaking to audiences of both men and women, it really doesn’t matter what you or I think. What matters is whether or not Allah and His Messenger (peace be upon him) have forbade it. And even in this, there will be varying valid opinions. So now what? Can we learn to live in a world of believers who are not clones of each other, yet who will all enter Paradise in the end?

      Regarding men being the guardians and protectors of women, this is a commandment of Allah that I genuinely wish men would fulfill. But in these conversations, men continuously ask women to be their guardians and protectors, specifically with respect to men’s sexual weaknesses and spiritual frustrations. If men truly understood this divine assignment of being guardians and protectors of women, I wouldn’t even need to have this “hijab is firstly for women” conversation (at least not constantly).

      But I won’t waste time detailing what I mean because in addition to the self-emasculation of Muslim men, there is the problem of religious narcissism in this ummah (among both men and women). In this, there are two extremes: One is the abandonment of Islamic principles altogether and thus the view that authentic Islam is patriarchal and extreme. The other is that only the strictest interpretations of Islamic rules (especially for permissible disagreement surrounding women’s dress and behavior) are valid…and all others are labeled “Western” or “feminist” or “new Islam.”

      May Allah help us.

      With respect to this topic in particular, I’ll share something I wrote after I went thru a period of doubting I could be Muslim, which was due at least in part to the tendency of even many scholars to teach that Muslim women are required to keep adjusting their clothes and behavior until men’s sexual desires disappear:

      Men, I have my own soul to fend for, so please leave me alone to do it. Excuse my bluntness, but I couldn’t care less about any fitnah you face as a result of my speech or actions when I am doing nothing displeasing to Allah.
      So here’s my advice: Be a man.
      Can you do that?
      Men lower their gazes and focus on their own souls.
      If that’s too hard for you, then at least keep quiet about your personal problems. They have nothing to do with me.

      —from FAITH. From the Journal of Umm Zakiyyah

      • AbuIbraheem says:

        Thanks for your clarification. I believe a continuous reminder about our obligations, first to Allah and then our fellow muslims will lead to a better society. I asked ur opinion on those matters bcos ppl like u are a role model for other sisters who might take what u do or propagate as a reference without checking (or having the ability) to find out the most correct opinion. We should also make it clear to people that , though differences of opinion may exist in many issues, we should strive to follow the stronger evidences and the opinions closer to taqwa not our convenience. I am ashamed to see our sisters advocating or happy with what FIBA calls hijab on the basketball court . The word ‘Hijab’ has been misused and abused. Why do our sisters want to play basket in public and feel cool they are representing islam on the court or at the beach with a burkini? Allah’s refuge is sought. Sisters should leave BBall, sprint and swimming competitions for the non muslims. We should not compete with non-muslims in each and everything. We have our deen and values, they dont. To be honest, we have to agree islam is strict when it comes to women participation in the society outside the home. This is largely to protect them from being a source of fitna or a victim of evil men and we have to submit wholeheartedly to this. The type of role islam has assigned to women is entirely different from what the west propagates. Remember the commandment of Allah to the Mothers of the Believers not to soften their speech even when the companions come for religious verdict so that the one in whose heart is a disease will not be tempted. This commandment was addressed to the best women of this ummah, then how much more women of our generation? Allahu a’alam

        • Ismail says:

          AbdulRaheem
          until you recognize the gravity of the catastrophe we are in just by virtue of the fact that our Muslim women are forced to provide for themselves primarily and that you have nothing for them but criticism while they face persecution from both inside and out then you won’t realize how silly it is for men to be concerning themselves with why Muslim women are playing basketball.

      • Mohammid says:

        May allah protect us from the twin poisons of feminism and individualism Which have entered our community and even now, spreading fitna amongst the muslims.

  9. Ismail says:

    Dear men,
    Here’s the simple and plain truth
    Our sisters are out in this world mostly fiending for themselves because we have failed to be the maintainers and protectors Allah required us to be.

    It is a blessing that we still have a sister deflecting their attention away from us and to Allah whom they ultimately have to return to when she could also be pointing out the obvious that WE have failed! It is far better that sisters put their hope in Allah than on the whims , weaknesses , opinions and attitudes of men who give no value but still love to criticize.

    But instead of support and working to fix this obvious failure we still need to nitpick on how they need to pay attention to us.
    Fear a day when Allah will not ask you about how a sister dressed but instead on how you protected her and and how you responded to your own weaknesses.

    We are in BIG TROUBLE with respect to responsibility to our women and what we haven’t done.
    So when you see a believing sister who’s dealing with the repercussions of our failures…. can you look past your own little feelings.

  10. Ismail says:

    Dear men,
    Here’s the simple and plain truth.
    Our sisters are out in this world mostly fiending for themselves because we have failed to be the maintainers and protectors Allah required us to be.

    It is a blessing that we still have a sister deflecting their attention away from us and to Allah whom they ultimately have to return to when she could also be pointing out the obvious that WE have failed! It is far better that sisters put their hope in Allah than on the whims , weaknesses , opinions and attitudes of men who give no value but still love to criticize.

    But instead of support and working to fix this obvious failure we still need to nitpick on how they need to pay attention to us.
    Fear a day when Allah will not ask you about how a sister dressed but instead on how you protected her and and how you responded to your own weaknesses.

    We are in BIG TROUBLE with respect to responsibility to our women and what we haven’t done.
    So when you see a believing sister who’s dealing with the repercussions of our failures…. can you look past your own little feelings.

  11. Umm Ahmad says:

    In my opinion, there is a struggle between covering up and still portraying a certain appeal.
    The whole point of covering up and modesty is to screen your beauty.
    If the covering up involves appearing more attractive or seductive then the person may need to re think their intentions and actions.

    For example, if you will wear an Abaya to cover up, then striking poses like the models in the Dolce Gabbana shoots are counter productive.

    Sure you’re covered up, but should you be pouting lips and posing like you’re on the runway? On Instagram, fb and in public?

    As for the Playboy shoot, its her decision. What bothers me is that this is a speaker at MSA’s and has a fan following of young muslim women. Probably a role model for many. What are our young women’s aspirations? I hope those aspirations are not limited to breaking boundaries.

    • Umm Zakiyyah says:

      Umm Ahmad,

      Jazaakillaahukhairan for taking time to comment. I agree that there is definitely an ongoing struggle with us as women since Allah created us to naturally want to be beautiful but at the same time required us to cover in hijab. May Allah help us in this and forgive us our inevitable faults and sins.

      As I’ve mentioned in my own reflections on this topic, I’ve gone thru many stages and different understandings of what is required minimally by Allah (from covering the face to displaying the face and hands). But one consistent experience I had, no matter what I was wearing, was the external harassment by others regarding my covering. And I intentionally use the word “harassment” bc it was not commanding the good and forbidding the evil by any stretch of the imagination. It was harassment, and it never stopped. Even when I followed the strictest opinion that didn’t even allow normal adornment like rings and kohl, while I covered my face and wore a one-piece all-black abaya, I was constantly bothered because people felt my eyes (with no kohl or any makeup) was a fitnah to men.

      I mention this to say this: At what point do we as Muslims accept that beyond covering what is required to cover, most of this issue is a personal jihaad al-nafs for the woman and not a subject we should feel comfortable criticizing her for if she’s making efforts to obey Allah? At what point do we focus on encouraging each other’s relationship with Allah and trusting that this relationship will naturally help us overcome the inclinations to delve into doubtful or problematic behavior in hijab? (And here, I’m talking about interacting with average Muslim women, not in speaking about Playboy appearances and the like, as this is naturally public and warrants discussion and disagreement).

      Personally, I believe the priority today is creating spiritually and emotionally safe environments of sisterhood such that we can trust and love each other for the sake of Allah. This of course is not mutually exclusive to encouraging correct hijab, but my concern is that much of this topic is about behavior control vs. sincerely and patiently cultivating our sister’s spiritually healthy relationship with Allah.
      And Allah knows best.

      I understand your concerns about the “sexy hijab” culture, and it disturbs me also. But given that a lot of my da’wah work is with youth and Muslim women on the verge of leaving Islam (and that I myself once felt like I couldn’t be Muslim), I can testify to the fact that not everyone interprets “inappropriate hijab” the same, and we really need to accept this reality and make peace with it. Allah has decreed that beyond the clear instructions regarding what is minimally required to be covered, not every woman will understand the complexities and subtleties of hijab the same, as this is a life-long developmental process that must be respected and not rushed. Also, it’s very dangerous for women (spiritually speaking) to continuously hear about the external wrongs in their dress while not addressing their spiritual struggles and personal needs as human beings. It really does become confusing when there is little balance. And those of us who contribute to the spiritual distress of others (myself included) will answer to Allah for this on the Day of Judgment. May Allah forgive us and help us become more merciful, patient, and empathetic to others’ levels and understandings.

      I’m just brainstorming here, not necessarily under the assumption that you are guilty of any of this, or that you have an answer. I just want to put out there how complex this topic is.

      May Allah guide us and preserve us as we strive to please Him and enter Paradise in the Hereafter.

      Again, thank you for taking time to comment. BarakAllaahufeek.

  12. Ahmad B. says:

    Assalamu ‘alaikum,
    [Part 1 of 3]
    A bit of a latecomer here. Just a few reflections on the article and ensuing discussion. It is correct, as someone pointed out, that Allah specifically ties the decorum prescribed in Surat al-Nur (24:30-31) to sexual attraction and desire, as becomes explicitly clear through the list of those in front of whom a woman does not have to veil, which includes “men who possess no desire for women” and “children who are not yet aware of female ‘nakedness’.” It is also common knowledge that human beings, as a rule, are attracted to the bodies of the opposite sex, and furthermore, that: (a) men are much more visually stimulated than women and (b) that much more of the female body is sexually enticing to the male gaze than vice versa. This makes sense of the fact that covering requirements for females in Islam is more extensive than for males (true even in the West, where a man can walk topless on a beach but a woman cannot). So it is undeniable that at least part–indeed a substantial part–of the *reason* behind the command for women to cover does, in fact, have to do with reducing sexual temptation / titillation in the public sphere, specifically the opportunity for temptation posed to men by exposed female bodies.

    Having said that, I think Umm Zakiyyah is spot on with regard to two points. First, though the *reason* (‘illa) behind the command for women to cover clearly has something to do with men, the command is nevertheless Allah’s command and female compliance with it is, absolutely, obedience *to Allah* and not obedience to men. The sister calls this a critical distinction from the psychological and spiritual perspective of the Muslim woman, and I agree with her 100%. Muslim women worship God, not men, and therefore when they cover themselves, they do so out of obedience to God alone. (It is true that women are also commanded to obey their husbands, but the specific commandment to cover is Allah’s command, not the husband’s. Even in the case where a father, husband, etc. enforces–or strongly encourages–compliance with the dress code, it is still, ultimately, a question of obedience to Allah and of the man encouraging those under his care to obey their Maker. When I wake my daughter up for fajr prayer and I insist that she wake up to pray rather than letting her sleep through, her prayer is nevertheless to Allah. She is worshiping Him, not me, although I, as her father, am playing an active role in molding her character and habits such that she learns eventually to make them conform, of her own accord, to the will of Allah.)

    The second point the author (Umm Zakiyyah) brings up which I agree is also important to stress is the female-directed aspect of modestly covering up. We know that haya’ is a very important value in Islam. Indeed, the Prophet (saas) said in the well-known hadith, “Every religion has its signature character trait (khuluq), and the signature trait of Islam is modesty (haya’).” This means that modesty is a virtue in and of itself, a quality that inheres in the modest person and beautifies his/her soul, enlightens the heart, and ennobles the character–just like any other virtue such as sincerity, truthfulness, reliance on Allah, forbearance, etc. From this perspective of haya’ as an independent virtue, it is clear that female covering cannot be reduced to the sole utilitarian purpose of reducing male sexual temptation. It is not acceptable simply to “proof-text” the verse in Surat al-Nur (24:31) while ignoring related Islamic teachings regarding modesty, virtue, etc. as spiritual states and qualities. (In addition, haya’ is as much a spiritual virtue for men as for women. The Prophet (saas) was praised for his extremely modest nature, being described as “more shy than a virgin in her bed chamber.” He certainly wasn’t one to strut about and flaunt his machismo.)

    The sister also stresses that, since females are naturally more inclined to locate their sexuality in their bodies, seek male attention, have a natural inclination to dress up and beautify themselves, etc., learning to overcome these tendencies towards vanity and “m’as-tu vu”-ism by practicing an ethic of modest dress and behavior plays, once again, a morally and spiritually educative role with respect to the woman herself, for her own benefit and the growth of her own soul and spiritual reality. A woman’s modesty is hers, not ours (as men). It’s her virtue, her character, and her obedience to Allah. I think if these two points were stressed a lot more–that a woman, in covering up, is obeying Allah not men, and that her covering up, in addition to reducing temptation for men, is very much a part of her own spirituality and independent virtue–this could help relieve some of the tension and sore feelings that currently plague this issue.

    [cont’d below]

    • Ahmad B. says:

      [Part 2 of 3]

      Going back to Surat al-Nur, remaining very close to text, it is interesting to notice the order and priority of the commands. Allah *first* addresses men before women, and He addresses them with two commands, the *first* of which is for men to *lower their gaze* (followed by, “and guard their private parts (from illicit acts)”–no surprise here since it is often, especially for men, a wayward gaze which gets things started). Only after instructing the men to lower their gaze does Allah proceed to direct the same two commandments to women (to lower their gaze and guard their private parts from illicit acts), and only then, in a fifth and final stage, does He command women specifically to cover certain parts of their body, accompanied by a listing of ten categories of males in front of whom this doesn’t apply. So, Allah’s five commands in order: (1) Men, lower your gaze. (2) Men, avoid illicit sex. (3) Women, lower your gaze. (4) Women, avoid illicit sex. (5) Women, cover your bodies and dress modestly. Given this ordering and sequencing, I think it is perfectly fair to expect more balance in the way we discuss these issues, and the differential stress we often lay on female covering versus male lowering of the gaze.

      It is also important to point out that the effect of women obeying Allah’s command to dress, speak, and act in a certain way is to *substantially reduce*–not entirely eliminate–the random erotic signals that may assault men in the public sphere. It is not possible to eliminate these entirely (which is why men are *commanded to lower their gaze*!), and I’m not sure where the idea came from that this was supposed to be the goal. We are sexual beings, and part of our challenge and moral growth assuredly lies in our learning to master and control this aspect of our being. This includes inculcating in ourselves an ethic of chastity and, also, dealing with our sexual temptations by learning how to resist, tame, and command our urges rather than letting them control our behavior or our hearts.

      As Umm Zakiyyah has said, women are required to take reasonable measures to dress and act in a modest way (and even minimum Islamic norms here are already very strict compared to practically any other human society), but the rest is on men. It cannot be women’s responsibility to make sure that nothing about them is in any way attractive to or tempting to any man. We are sexual beings, and if we do not discipline ourselves as men into an ethic of chastity, then, as the sister says, we can get to the ridiculous point of sexualizing absolutely anything. One-piece black ‘abaya with the a niqab? But I can still see her eyes (and those are the most beautiful and alluring part of a woman)! Eyes covered too? I can still see her form, can tell whether she’s heavy set or thin, etc. I’m with the sister here 100%: Dude, get a grip. If you really have no more control over your sexuality than that, and fear that merely seeing a woman’s form while totally covered might lead you into uncontrollable levels of sexual arousal that will precipitate your falling into sin, then you really have a problem. I mean honestly, a man criticizing a woman dressed in full niqab, as the sister reports, simply because he can discern some kohl around her eyes (which he wouldn’t have noticed if *he* had followed Allah’s command to lower his gaze!–the first command out of the five, the last of which pertains to female clothing requirements) borders, in my view, on the pathological. That is learned behavior from an environment which unjustly and artificially oversexualizes women to a risible degree. If women dressed modestly in hijab are too hot for someone to handle, then that person has some serious maturing to do.

      Also, someone mentioned the Prophet’s (saas) saying, “I leave behind me no fitna greater for you (men) than women.” This comment is directed to men, not to women, and should be taken primarily as a warning from the Prophet (saas) to men that they must beware of falling into temptation, be extra cautious of the volatility of their sexuality and therefore take means–through their behavior, inculcation of virtue, and spiritual struggle–to steer clear of the temptations of the flesh, etc. It cannot be read as an excuse to erase women’s presence from society. Many things are a temptation to us on various levels: money, power, success, influence, etc. Some of these can be really deadly, but in no instance do we ban and eliminate the very source of the fitna itself. No one has suggested banning private wealth just because money can be a great fitna. We take the warnings we have been given about these fitnas as an instruction regarding how we should mold our own character and fortify our moral personality against falling into their traps. Why shouldn’t the hadith–directed specifically to men–be understood in the exact same spirit? Turning it into an excuse to put more burdens on women, or to despise them, or to eliminate them from being present anywhere is an entirely inconsistent approach to take. Once you start despising money, fame, status, and all the other fitan we have been warned about in the same manner, and rigorously proceed to eliminate those from your life, maybe that can be taken more seriously. Until then, I would agree that there is some type of deep-seated misogyny informing one’s understanding and application of that hadith if it’s read to demean, despise, or erase women from our existence.

      Finally, one brother very correctly pointed out that Islam is about balance and about giving each party, and even each thing, its due rights. We should strive to uphold, implement, and call each other to Allah’s guidance comprehensively. Surat al-Nur (24:30-31) includes five commands, beginning with men lowering their gaze and ending with how women should dress. If we can stress all five commands in a balanced manner, and with the understanding that each command has not only a utilitarian purpose but also a spiritual benefit that rebounds upon the one submitting to the command and enacting the virtue it calls forth–we can reach an agreeable solution to this problem.

      [cont’d below]

  13. Ahmad B. says:

    [Part 3 of 3]

    Much of my comments above have been directed against excesses in male expectations of and attitudes towards women, a seeming renouncement of men’s responsibility for their own sexuality and overburdening women with the task not just of dressing the way they are commanded (an action they are commanded to take), but of somehow ensuring an unachievable result, namely, that no sexual temptation exist for men whatsoever in any circumstances. But lest this end up sounding like an unbalanced critique of men, sisters should also–as Umm Zakiyyah herself points out and strives to uphold–not neglect the duty that Allah Himself has placed upon them to dress and act modestly–according to standard Islamic understandings of these concepts, not just personal whim or what a given society might consider “decent dress” or “modest enough” at a given time or place.

    So, while it is wrong to oversexualize women and put upon them burdens they have not been made to bear, it is also wrong for women to “undersexualize” themselves–or to disingenuously act like they’re unaware of the effect they can have on men–as an excuse to dress and act immodestly in their presence. This whole “My body is mine and I can do what I want with it” and “You don’t own my sexuality,” etc. is all nonsense from an Islamic perspective. Our bodies were given to us by Allah, belong to Him, and we are to comport ourselves and our sexuality and cover/ uncover our bodies the way He has commanded, not the way we want based on some false notion of individual autonomy. In that respect, I disagree with the school that says, “A woman has the right to dress however she chooses.” Says who? Certainly not Allah and certainly not the religion of Islam! Just like women have the right to expect decent and respectful treatment from men, men also have the right not to be constantly subjected to overt sexual titillation every time they go out the door. A man can lower his gaze all he wants, but when women are walking by in mini-skirts, what good does that do? In fact, there’s nowhere to look, since you’re bombarded with flesh, cleavage, etc. from all directions. The command to lower the gaze becomes perverted and, in fact, impossible to fulfill under conditions of extreme female immodesty (as in the modern West). At a bare minimum, I should be able to see less when looking down than I do when looking up.

    In Islam, men are certainly required to lower their gaze, but women are also *required to cover up*. Women are not responsible for men’s sexuality, but they shouldn’t also underestimate the power that visual stimuli have over men, or the generally greater strength and urgency of the male sex drive compared to the female. I have read at least two separate accounts by so-called transgender “males” (i.e., women who have taken male hormones to try to make themselves look like men), and both said something along the lines of, “I thought my sex drive was strong before, but once I started taking male hormones, it went through the roof and I thought, ‘This is unreal! This is what men have to put up with every day?'” This is not to deny that women also have sexual needs and urges, but the urgency and constancy of it are not the same, and it is not sexist to point that out (simple biology, common sense, and every society’s lived reality over millenia).

    I have already stated that it I find it pathological for a male to get worked up over a woman’s *eyes* showing (or even face), and that such a person has a problem that he should deal with. But on the other hand, women should not feel that it’s okay to dress immodestly (which, as we said before, hurts both men *and themselves*, since if their modesty is *their* virtue, then their immodesty is equally *their* vice) and then turn around and make fun of the male sex drive, belittle men for being “little better than animals,” etc. Allah created men with that level of drive, and He commanded both men and women to comport themselves in a manner that is for the mutual benefit of all, with respect to each other and with respect to themselves. Wallahu ta’ala a’lam.

    I end with the verse from Surat al-Tawba (v. 9:71), where Allah says:
    والمؤمنون والمؤمنات بعضهم أولياء بعض يأمرون بالمعروف وينهون عن المنكر ويقيمون الصلاة ويؤتون الزكاة ويطيعون الله ورسوله أولئك سيرحمهم الله إن الله عزيز حكيم

    “The believing men and the believing women are protectors of one another, enjoining right and forbidding wrong, performing the prayer, giving the alms, and obeying God and His Messenger. They are those upon whom God will have mercy. Truly, God is Mighty, Wise.”

    There is no talk here of “gender wars,” mutual recriminations, and the like, but only of mutual support and protection, and mutual cooperation in advising each other and helping each other adhere to the commands of the Mighty, the Wise, for the benefit of all in the dunya and the akhira.

    Wassalamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatullah,
    Ahmad B.

    • Umm Zakiyyah says:

      Wa’alaiku mus salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh, Ahmad B.

      JazaakAllaahukhairan for your comments. Reading them was a blessing and a rahmah from Allah. I agree with everything you’ve said 100% and it gives me encouragement and hope to hear these sentiments coming from a man, and to see each point backed by Qur’an and Sunnah as well as spiritual common sense. BarakAllaahufeek. May Allah bless and preserve you and write you down amongst those whom He loves, and may He grant you Jannah without account.

      Thank you again.

      • Ahmad B. says:

        Asslamu ‘alaikum Umm Zakiyyah,

        Jazakumullahu khayran for your beautiful comment and beautiful du’a. Your writings are very poignant, honest, and Islamically principled. You are not afraid to discuss difficult issues, but always do so within the framework of Islam’s true teachings. So many either go beyond Islam in trying to seek justice or else sweep aside uncomfortable topics in favor of discussing doctrine without calling out faulty implementation.

        May Allah preserve and increase your iman, continue to inspire you with wisdom and courage, and make you a guide and a model for us all. Ameen!

        Wassalam,
        Ahmad B.

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