women in Islam

Talking Gender in Kashmir – I

Almost a year ago, I was talking to some friends on Facebook one day about the BBC documentary “India’s Daughter”; indeed an amazing film which ought to be broadcast in every Indian household rather than having been banned. The very brutal and barbaric nature of the crime sends shivers across one’s spine every time it is described in detail. As the discussion ensued and people presented their perspectives, a Kashmiri poet and journalist friend of mine, referring to Kashmiri society, proudly responded: “We live in a very civilized society, where a woman is respected in all her shades”. The gentleman even went ahead with allegations against western societies being “immoral”. The statements triggered an unpleasant spurt of objections and disagreements. My friend was seriously offended when I claimed that Kashmiri men were no different when it came to harassment and sexual assault of women. In fact, I wanted to add that my personal experience with men from my homeland has been equally embarrassing.

While the discussion went on, I came across an online article by Anees Zargar about women commuters in Srinagar talking about their experiences in the public transportation vehicles. Clearly this is only the tip of the iceberg, but definitely an area where we need to break the silence. However, I believe women in general are not comfortable providing explicit details of the extent of the daily harassment they experience. So, I thought let me add a few lines to this discourse to tell some of my friends in Kashmir how ignorant many of us have opted to be. While there are horrendous and traumatic experiences, in this piece I will barely touch upon a few extremely very common examples but those that are quite displeasing for women. I will cite a few personal anecdotes as an illustration of exactly what young women in Kashmir go through on a day-to-day basis in public spaces. I will continue to write about some of the more gruesome cases that I have directly or indirectly witnessed in the next few weeks.

During my college days in the 90’s, sexually triggered violations were a routine for my peers and me every day while commuting between home and college in the over-loaded buses. Men – young, old, and middle-aged, pressing their bodies and their faces against those of young women, pushing their arms and elbows on their breasts, shoving their genitals against the women’s behinds or thighs, and some even grabbing an arm, a hip or another body part, while the poor girl would juggle for space in discomfort; with so many passengers in the bus, at times it was difficult to tell exactly who did it. With no better alternative, most of the times the girls stayed quiet, but at times they did speak. Yet, most often the men would simply deny any mischief and at times put the blame on the woman. At one such occasion, a man turned to a complaining woman: teli gotsh na hawaeyii jahazas khasun (‘You should have traveled in an airplane instead’). Many of us would be terrified of the young men waiting outside college premises to “follow” us and harass us on our way home. Thankfully, as I grew into an adult, I managed to be more confident, more vocal and less submissive. When need be, I even extended a blow on the back of a young man or slapped them right in their face when they tried to violate my personal space. I did not shy away from grabbing a young man by his arm and thrashing him down the door of a bus even as they pretended innocence. But it wasn’t always easy and caused enough discomfort.

Much more common than physical assault is the verbal assault on women, which may look harmless at the surface but often causes great emotional damage. Every time a young woman is walking down the street, a man or two will make a lucid remark about her looks, or her body, or simply pass a vague comment to harass her. During one of my annual visits to Kashmir, I was taking a walk on Srinagar’s Eid Gah road one day when a young teenager, barely sixteen years old, came forward and said: walay kushti karkhay mye saet (‘Hey, would you like to wrestle with me?’). I might have tried the adventure, despite my petite structure, had I not been five months pregnant at that time. So I kept quiet and carried on. The following day I was going out somewhere and encountered the boy again, this time on a motorbike. As he repeated the phrase and made a couple rounds on his bike trying to harass me, my husband, who was nearby, noticed. The event resulted into a scene with the entire neighborhood on the street. While getting a big thrashing and injuring himself in this commotion, the boy turned to me sheepishly: Sister, mye kyahaz kor? (‘Sister, what did I do?’).

There are numerous such cases where women have to put up with such harassment on a daily basis. But why do women choose to be silent even when an incident like this happens in broad daylight? Why don’t we confront such public demonstrations of uncivilized behavior vigorously? I think most of us know the reason why. Raised in a deeply conservative society which enforces strict gender segregation, women are brought up as submissive and subservient to men. While men of all shapes, sizes and ages could merrily ogle at you, girls are expected to lower their gaze. They are asked not to talk to or be seen by male strangers. They are even discouraged from talking to their male classmates in educational institutions. When men are passing by, they are told to not stand by or look out the window. Women cannot lie down in a public park or garden and relax like men do. You must keep your voice low at all times and not laugh out loud or you are not a shareif koor (‘refined girl’). You are reprimanded should you go out on your own. When our menfolk had no problem in wearing western outfits or using modern gadgets, these are especially banned for women as marks of “cultural aggression” and “immorality”. Ah, what hypocrisy!

(To be continued)

© Sadaf Munshi, April 18, 2016.

(Note: An edited version of this article was published in the daily Rising Kashmir on April 18, 2016, available at URL: http://www.risingkashmir.com/article/talking-gender-in-kashmir-new/ )

Unveiling the Hijab: a Socio-historical Overview

Does Qur’an mandate a specific dress code for Muslim women?

Hijab has been a topic of much debate and controversy both within and outside the Muslim world. In Islamic countries where a Shariah (Islamic) Law is enforced, women are required to follow a strict dress code. There are also many countries where millions of Muslims live and where women are not obliged to follow the Shariah dictates, yet many of them are forced into a strict dress code owing to social compulsions. Many women, however, do tend to wear a certain type of outfit as a matter of personal choice, believing that they are mandated or required to do so by the Holy Qur’an and that they might go to hell if they show their hair or their body to a stranger (mahram). Here, it is important to distinguish between cultural practices and the tenets of Islam, which are not really, strictly defined anywhere.

Critics argue that hijab (interpreted as a dress code) is a symbol of oppression. Some western countries have even imposed a ban on its use. But many people claim that it is a matter of personal choice. Both of these statements are true and false depending on various factors. Advocates of hijab will claim that it is mandated by Qur’an for Muslim women to wear a piece of cloth over their head and cover their body in a certain way – a position unattested by historical evidence. Many Muslim women are forced to wear hijab against their will because of the legal repercussions in countries where hijab is enforced by law, or because of the constant pestering by family or by the self-appointed moral police in the society. Many women, however, wear hijab as a fashion statement or style, or simply under peer pressure. In a recent trend, some young Muslim women in western societies have resorted to donning headscarves over sexy western outfits as a political statement against racism and Islamophobia.

Many people erroneously associate the wearing or not wearing of hijab with the oppression or emancipation of women (respectively). But not wearing hijab does not automatically entail women’s emancipation. There are educated hijab-wearing Muslim women who are able to integrate seamlessly in different cultures, work in public spaces in mixed gatherings, and take no gender-driven nonsense. And there are hijab-less (Muslim and non-Muslim) women who are victims of gender-discrimination, domestic violence and constant abuse at the hands of their male partners but do not have the guts to stand up for their rights regardless of where they live. As far as women’s rights are concerned, sexual objectification of women is no better than the obsessive urge to protect women into invisibility. Gender-based discrimination is not limited to clothing; it is expressed in a number of different ways.

Often the distinction between the tenets of Islam and cultural customs is lost when we are faced with a world of ignorance and misinformation. Socio-historically speaking, there are a number of contexts to the use of a head covering. In many societies, a headgear (e.g., a scarf, a turban, a cap, or a hat), was used by both men and women simply as a protection against extreme temperatures, viz., heat, cold, or other climatic changes. In a number of cultures, however, since head was considered to be the most important and perhaps sacred part of the body, a special headgear was used to cover or adorn it. You couldn’t imagine a bride or a groom without a special headgear at the wedding ceremony. In many cases, headgear was a mark of one’s social class, an indication of a privileged social background. Thus, in many societies men and women of higher social status would (partly or completely) cover their head in formal situations or in public. These include members of royal families, religious figures (e.g., priests and nuns), etc. Often people of lower status would follow suit in their quest for upper social mobility and acceptance in the elite classes. This trend is still in practice in many societies where a certain type of headgear is symbolic of one’s status rather than a religious binding. Often adorned with decorative trinkets, a headgear in such a situation has little to do with the concept of morality or women’s oppression and more with social superiority. Pulling a person’s headgear off could be the most disdainful and disrespectful of an act one could commit against anyone irrespective of gender.

The concept of a face veil, such as, naqāb, burqa, or ghoonghat in the Middle East or South Asia, as also observed in the conservative western societies of the yore where women would draw a net under a hat over their face, could be viewed as a special extension of the headgear. Historically, women have often been concealed in closed-door cabins and carried over by male escorts from place to place (c.f. pālki in northern India, or zāmpān in Kashmir). In a socio-cultural context, such a covering could be perceived as an extreme form of protection of the sacredness of a woman of higher social status where the rest of the world is barred from even looking at her. But the same does not apply to women of lower status who were often taken as “slave girls” or concubines by men of higher status. In a purely religious context, however, it could be experienced as an extreme form of protection of morality where a woman must completely conceal herself lest she should attract attention in a sexual way. Thus, whereas man is some sort of a powerless character incapable and absolved of being in charge of his own chastity, a woman is entitled with an extraordinary power to seduce or corrupt a man, and must, therefore, be disempowered.

Thus, Hijab becomes a symbol of oppression when it is associated with morality, when a woman’s character is evaluated by the society on the basis of whether or not she covers her head (besides her body) in a piece of cloth. It becomes a symbol of cruelty against women when they are punished – either physically or psychologically – should they violate the practice. In the most bizarre cases, some people will argue that the hijab “protects women against lustful men” – a claim that is not supported by any empirical evidence. Many Muslims, especially the menfolk, will argue that the Qur’an makes hijab mandatory for women. Little girls are tortured into believing that they will go to hell and that their bodies will be covered with snakes as they burn in hell fire if they do not “cover”. Such radical positions are based on ignorance and misinterpretation of certain verses of Qur’an and are rubbished by many scholars and experts of Islamic thought.

Historically, the term hijab is not found in the Qur’an or Hadith in the context of dress code or women’s hair. The word hijab, as it is used in the Qur’an, means a ‘screen’, ‘partition’, or ‘barrier’. It appears in a total of about five instances in the text. In a loose sense, it is closer in interpretation to a ‘curtain’ than anything else. The word is used to mean a ‘screen’ or ‘barrier’ in a number of instances, e.g., between Muslims and non-Muslims (Chapter 7 Al-A’raf: verse 46, and Chapter 41 Ha-Mim: verse 5), between Maryam and her family (when she “withdrew” from them and conceived Jesus; Chapter 19 Maryam: verses 16-17), and between the wives of the Prophet and the nāmahram male visitors of the family (Chapter 33 Al-Ahzab: verse 53). It is also used to refer to a ‘veil’ or ‘screen’ from behind which “Allah could speak to a human” (Chapter 42 Ash-Shura: verse 51).

The words that do refer to ‘(type of) covering’ and ‘headdress’ are jalabib (Singular jilbab) and khumur (respectively), independently used at two separate instances in the Qur’an. The words are pre-Islamic; while khumur was used by both Arab men and women as a headgear (to protect the head from weather and dust/sand), jilbab was probably only used by women to cover the body. The occurrence of jalabib is found here (Chapter 33 Al-Ahzab: verse 59):

“O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their jalabib close around them; it is more suitable that they should be known (recognized) and not harmed (annoyed). And Allah is ever forgiving, and most merciful.”

If we pay attention to the words “known (recognized)” and “harmed (annoyed)”, it is very clear from the verse cited above that being “known (recognized)” is “more suitable” (than not being known (recognized)). Therefore, a face veil or naqab is simply out of the question as far as the Qur’an is concerned. Further, women are advised to cover their body so men are unable to (physically) harm them (i.e., touch or grab on their naked bodies). There is no mention of hair or hell-fire in this verse or the adjacent verses. Both men and women are advised to “reduce their gaze (or cast down their glances) and guard their private parts” (Chapter 24 Al-Nur: 30-31). Women are further advised (not necessarily mandated) to “draw their khumur over their bosoms” and “not display their zinat (beauty/adornment)” to strangers (i.e., men other than their “husbands, fathers, fathers-in-law, sons, husband’s sons, nephews, male attendants having no physical desires, and children”) (24:31).

In this context it is very important to draw one’s attention to the type of clothing that Arab women wore during the Prophet’s time in the early 7th century Arabia. In absence of properly stitched clothing, the idea of “drawing the khumur over the bosom” or the “jilbab around the body” is to cover a woman’s nakedness as opposed to wrapping herself in an all-concealing (black) shroud or the modern-day abaya – a word that does not appear in the Qur’an. The word hijab as a ‘screen’ is used in the Qur’an to cater to the sense of privacy in a society where it was very common for male visitors to show up any time uninvited and violate the private space of the hosts, especially women (and more specifically the women of the Prophet’s household in the context of the Qur’anic verses; See Chapter 24; 27-29 where men are advised to “not enter houses other than their own without permission”, to “go back” when asked, and not linger around unnecessarily). During those times, houses had very little privacy, with no separate compartments. There were no covered toilets and no specific means of sanitation. With utter disregard for women’s personal space, menfolk would often indulge in socially undesirable activities and harass women. Oftentimes, during the night, when womenfolk of the Prophet’s tribe went out to relieve themselves (away from the household), they would be attacked by men of other tribes. Furthermore, in the absence of modern facilities and sanitary napkins, menstruating women, had to be temporarily “screened” (separated) from the rest of the people with limited interaction with the public. Thus, for instance, when they hesitated to come out even after his invitation one day, the Prophet advised the screened (menstruating) women that they could have themselves “covered” by jalabib and participate in the upcoming Eid elebrations; one of the (screened) women who did not possess a jilbab, was asked to “borrow one from a companion.” (Sahih Bukhari, Book 8, #347).

Here I would like to make a note of an account of the 13th century Arab women in Tarikh-al-Mustabsir by Ibn-al-Mujawir, a Persian traveler to Mecca. The upper class womenfolk of the sacred city, Mujawir notes, “wear bonnets” (perhaps akin to khumur). In an account of the poor women in a town about two miles from the sacred city, Mujawir writes: “the woman takes two pieces of leather and stitches them together, cuts a round hole in it and puts it on. When she walks, the whole of her body can be seen, above and below” (quoted from Sardar 2014: 157). In such a context, going backwards to the 7th century Arabia when fewer women would know how to stitch clothes in absence of the modern tools, it makes perfect sense to have to “draw” the jalabib “around the bodies” or the khumur “over the bosoms” to cover the nakedness. Note also that none of these verses indicates the use of both khumur and jilbab at the same time.

To conclude, the primary question that I wanted to delve into in this article was whether or not the Qur’an mandates any specific dress code for Muslim women and whether they are entitled to wear layers and layers of certain type of clothing as a religious binding. As revealed by the available historical evidence, it turns out that that is not the case. The recommendations in the Qur’an are clearly contextualized and ought not to be interpreted in the extreme sense as a strict dress code observed in the modern day, as many people would erroneously tend to believe or argue. The imposition of hijab in its more recent connotation as a strict religious dress code for Muslim women is an innovation; it seems to be an outcome of the puritanical canonization of the Islamic tenets that occurred centuries after the death of the Prophet.

© Sadaf Munshi, December 28, 2015.

Male hypocrisy and the lies about Islam

Given the touch-me-not attitude one experiences in Kashmir, I have observed that many rational voices steer clear of indulging in talking about controversial topics, especially those related to religion and politics. Several months ago during my annual visit to Kashmir, I had expressed an objection to the extensive use of loud speakers for broadcasting religious sermons or Qur’anic recitations at night, at which occasion I was dubbed as an “anti-Islamic” and “westernized” non-resident Kashmiri by a friend without giving an explanation of as to why it was necessary to do so. The primary reason for my objection being my two-year old daughter who was unable to sleep, not to mention the inconvenience this might have caused to many other people wanting to sleep for various reasons. Since religion and politics have become so intertwined, if not synonymous, over the many years of political turmoil in Kashmir, it is extremely challenging to talk about these topics in the public domain without apprehensions. One is bound to face extreme amounts of criticism even when there is a compelling need to question and respond to matters of social injustice and oppression. I am writing this article keeping in view the risks of disappointing certain conservative schools of thought.

An article recently published in a Srinagar-based daily (November 20, 2013, Rising Kashmir) cited a mufti objecting to the visit of a noted Muslim women’s rights activist Amina Wadud to the Kashmir valley. Wadud, an accomplished scholar and social activist of international repute, was condemned for her advocacy for the Muslim women’s right to lead prayers in mixed gatherings in mosques. Indeed, what a blasphemy! The mufti had further stated that, “such people should not be allowed to visit the masjids, khankahs and shrines in Kashmir”. As a woman of Kashmiri origin, who was brought up in a fairly conservative Muslim family, and who has repeatedly suffered the male-dominated oppression of many kinds back home, I took the opportunity to respond and register my protest in the form of this article.

As I write this piece I am reminded of many incidents of Kashmiri male hypocrisy and misogyny but I will cite only one here: an incident that happened around February 2013 when three young Kashmiri Muslim girls had decided to pursue music as their career and a fatwa (‘a religious decree’) was extended by the afore-mentioned mufti about music being “un-Islamic”. Hordes of young Kashmiri netizens, mostly males, had come out in severe criticism and condemnation of the young girls in the name of Islam. Amidst all the controversy, the girls eventually decided to quit for “the happiness of all”. What their critics failed to recognize was that if music were actually harām (‘prohibited’) in Islam, it should be equally so for both men and women. It is no news that there are scores of men’s musical groups and bands in Kashmir thriving and performing for millions of Kashmiris who regularly listen to and enjoy different kinds of music. No such religious decrees were extended to these men. Incidentally the same mufti had, at a later point, been spotted on camera at a musical performance.

As far as the question of whether music is harām in Islam is concerned, there has been a long debate over this subject over centuries. In fact, many extremist Muslims may say that the increasing popularity of music “poses a tremendous danger to Islam”. Interestingly, there are a number of references in historical texts, which claim that Prophet Muhammed and his wife (Ayisha) had, in fact, at various occasions, enjoyed, encouraged or expected musical performances. Different kinds of music were part of the festivities of various kinds even during those medieval times. The best ever music that we enjoy and appreciate today originates from some of the important Islamic countries and Muslim cultures of the world. From the best recitations of the religious scriptures to the qawwāli and na’at (songs of devotion), poetry and music have been an important and intrinsic part of the Islamic cultures of the world. Yet Muslim women of Kashmir are largely deprived of this blessing on the basis of unsubstantiated claims in the name of religion and Islam.

Now, going back to the earlier question of whether women can in fact “lead” prayers in mosques. For those who subscribe to such patriarchal and outdated views, it needs to be clarified that there is neither such a theological restriction in the Qur’an nor any attested statement made by the Prophet where women have been particularly prohibited from leading prayers, or where men have been specifically prescribed to do so. Such restrictions were placed about 300 years after the death of the Prophet when Islamic law was encoded, depriving Muslim women from this position by a majority rule that was put to practice for centuries up until this date. As also maintained in many important Islamic texts, praying is perceived to be a very direct and personal relationship between an individual and (his/her) God; there is no requirement for any third person to intercede between the two. Thus, a Muslim woman is entitled to a direct relationship with God as much as a Muslim man is. In other words, the question of “leading” does not even arise. However, the act of “leading” is a mere functionary practice of organizing the prayers and not a leadership role per se. The latter of course is another controversial issue in the context of the women’s role in social and religious practices in the public domain, as well as the their role in the fiq’h, the Islamic jurisprudence, which again, is based on consensus, and which in turn is male-dominated, not surprisingly.

To conclude this article, I would like to barely touch upon the notion of taqlid (lit. ‘unthinking imitation’) as being propagated by the Muslim Ulema all across the world (including Kashmir) and blindly followed and adopted by the general masses as opposed to any emphasis whatsoever on the concept of Ijtehad which should rather be highlighted as the need of the time. Ijtehad, which literally means ‘to strive to make efforts to solve a problem’, or more broadly, the concept of change and reform in organized religion, has unfortunately taken a backseat in the development and evolution of Islamic thought and thus led to various decadent and deteriorated practices which are not only old-fashioned but oppressive in character. There is an imminent and increasing need for a feminist re-interpretive schema that revisits the scriptural sources in an effect to address the gender-based discrimination in social and political rights vis-à-vis Islamic law, or Shari’a.

About the author: Dr. Sadaf Munshi is an associate professor in Linguistics and an affiliated faculty in the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute at the University of North Texas. For feedback email the author at smunshi2002@yahoo.com.

(This article appeared in the daily Kashmir Observer, Dec. 20, 2013. URL: http://kashmirobserver.net/news/opinion/male-hypocrisy-and-lies-about-islam )