"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hijab's Role in Keeping Men from Harassing Women

Notes and my reflections as I read Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time by Karen Armstrong

Muhammad had his wives' apartments surrounding the mosque and in order to conduct business or get advice, people would often drop by whichever wife's house he was presently staying.  Apparently they often made nuisances of themselves by overstaying their visits and some men even started harassing Muhammad's wives.  Therefore some revelations were given in order to instruct the community on good manners as they pertained to their leader and his family.  Also it gave instruction about Muhammad's wives speaking to men from behind a curtain or hijab.  Karen Armstrong agrees that hijab has become a more controversial aspect of Islam especially among those who believe it oppresses women on one hand to the other spectrum that all devout Muslim women MUST wear a head scarf at the very least.  However at the time of the revelation it was only to keep Muhammad's wives from being under the prying eyes and scrutiny of the male members of Medina.  Although Muhammad's wives were now kept a bit more separate from the men (e.g. remaining in tents when going on military expeditions), other women still went around freely.  "The hijab was not devised to divide the sexes," Armstrong writes.  

I thought this part was interesting:  "The introduction of the hijab was a victory for 'Umar, who had been urging the Prophet to segregate his wives for some time -- a somewhat superficial solution to a complex problem.  Muhammad had wanted to change people's attitudes, and the imposition of this external barrier was a compromise, because it did not require Muslims to exercise an internal control over their actions.  But he gave in to 'Umar, because of the crisis that was tearing Medina apart."  (pg. 171)

The reason I found this of interest is because I often read on blogs how women are harassed in Muslim countries even while covering their hair, faces and so forth.  Some claim the men in Muslim-majority countries are the worst at catcalling and pinching and rubbing on women.  I've also heard people argue that one reason for this is the men are never taught to control themselves because they are, in some cases, segregated from all non-related females or they expect somehow these pieces of covering clothes to be the barriers needed to ensure godly behave.   You know ...so the men won't see something that they want to touch.  No seeing equals no temptation.  Where's the test of a good Muslim deciding between right and wrong there?  So it was telling that Armstrong mentions here "
it did not require Muslims to exercise an internal control over their actions."  Are men robots unable to control their actions?  Must there be a curtain (pieces of cloth) in place to discourage them from touching women?  And why for the most part is this not a huge problem among Western countries where women don't usually cover nearly as much skin?  Shouldn't one logically believe the more godly people would act, well, more godly?  



Lat said...

It was an eye opening lesson for me to learn that hijabi muslim women are harassed by men in muslim countries..This goes against the notions behind wearing the hijab.All along I thought people had good lives living by such standards.How wrong I was.

The word hijab is the only time taken to mean a veil in Quran regarding his wives.For other women the word hijab is not used.I think this word means more than just veiling.But now it's been literalised into just a piece of cloth.

But there's more to it,i think.The segregation thing,not referring to Quran,is a political tool for the radicals and is part of their religion.That's how they see women in Islam kept in their own space.
In the book Season in Mecca by Abdullah Hammoudi,he said that people there constantly invoked the need for absolute worship of God as a reason for insisting on gender segregation.'Women came to be seen as an external threat to the group that they became the other.' And 'thus the symbol of differentiation.'

It's part of their agenda to teach those who don't know the Meccan 'politics' on this.

For the 7th Century Arabians,I believe they were not ready for the internal change yet as seen from their social and political life.

And lastly hijab has evolved and will evolve to country to country.

Suroor said...

See, this is why I feel KA has an 'agenda' :-D No really I think that she generally presents a very pro-Islam and pro-Muhammad picture and then puts in these bits for the clever ones to pick and chew on and realise what religion could be from God if Umar was satisfied?!

She did that earlier with wife beating as well - Muhammad was giving in to so much that he couldn't give in and ban wife beating.

Well, at least we are clever enough to pick what she is getting at. LOL!

sanil said...

I kind of think hijab makes it worse. I always used to give the argument that hijab de-sexualizes women and encouraged men to take them seriously as people instead of objects...but actually it teaches that a woman's body is only sexual, and that if she's showing it it is to showcase her sexuality. Insisting on "modesty" by covering our bodies just sexualizes us more. In cultures that don't wear clothing like we think of it (think National Geographic), is it immodest for a woman to show her chest? No, because that's not how they think of it. Breasts are recognized as having a function that is not sexual, and the body is not something to be shamed and covered up. That's not quite related to your post, but it's come up a lot in other places and you reminded me of it.

More related...No, men are not robots. :D I think all or most of us reading that here know that. I actually sort of like the original, curtain form of hijab, but don't see it as sexual. Does it say anywhere that that is what kind of harassment they meant? I always read it as people coming over to talk to the prophet, and then while they were waiting annoying and possibly criticizing his wives, who were not prophets and had not asked to be showcased to the community and have people barge into their home on a regular basis. But that might just be me reading into it when it's not clearly defined at all. But anyway, if it only applied to his wives, it obviously wasn't a "men can't control themselves" thing, or it would have been all women.

Sarah said...

I completely agree with Sanil that hijab (and I mean the practice of strict covering, not the dress itself) "teaches that a woman's body is only sexual". It really just makes the problem worse in the long run. I'm pleasantly surprised to see Karen Armstrong note this point too!

As far as I recall, in addition to the injunction for Muhammad's wives to speak to men from behind a curtain, the Quran asks believing women in general to cover their beauty, in two separate verses. One had to do with being out in public, the other was about hiding themselves from non-mahrams. Whether it meant hijab as understood today, I was never convinced, but the ethos definitely seemed to me to be about avoiding provoking men's lust.

sanil said...

(and I mean the practice of strict covering, not the dress itself)

Just wanted to clarify I also did not mean the dress style. :D Thanks for pointing that out, Sarah! I love the look of hijab and still occasionally cover my hair. I just don't like the idea that people should cover their hair and bodies, as if this is somehow more moral.

Susanne said...

Lat, I enjoyed the topics you raised in your comment. Do Muslim women in your area get harassed at all for covering? I'm thinking you aren't in a Muslim-majority country and maybe SE Asians don't do this to their women like some Middle Easterners and North Africans do. I'm curious now if this harassment of hijabis is prevalent in Indonesia for instance. Hmmm.

Yes, I think hijab was initially a curtain, right? Not pieces of clothes on a woman's body. It was more to give the women privacy (much as we used blinds on our windows now)than to cover them as they went to and fro in the public square.

So does that author think if women were added to the mix, men would stop worshiping God and start worshiping women's beauty instead? Sounds like an interesting book!

Thanks for all you shared!

Susanne said...

Suroor, ha, ha....you made me laugh! Well, maybe I am just good at being nitpicky about such topics that she hopes most people will simply gloss over. It's just that phrase was so much like things I read on blogs about making women cover gives or teaches men they have NO reason to control themselves from within. Like they don't have to learn self-discipline and saying no to self and delayed gratification because women will cover almost everything so you won't be tempted. Where is the "this is a test from Allah..I must choose to stay moral and remember each woman I see is a sister or daughter or mother and I want to treat them with respect just as I wish my own family members to be respected by other men."

Thanks for that comment! :)

Susanne said...

Sanil, related or not, I LOVED that point you made in your first paragraph as it makes so much sense! I've also heard similarly about some countries. You would be perfectly fine going around with no shirt since breasts are seen as functional for feeding babies, but it is scandalous, on the other hand, to show maybe above the knee as the thigh area is very sexual. That's just an example. I think your point about covering making sexual creatures makes a ton of sense. I wonder if we could have a happy medium on the modesty scale, but of course that would be subjective too. :)

I do think the original hijab was as you said - a curtain so his wives would have their privacy when community people came to ask Muhammad for advice or talk. It evolved into much more.

Sarah, Karen Armstrong didn't really get into the other verses about covering that you are referring to. I'm glad you mentioned that as those verses I'm sure are what has been debated as to what all is considered an adornment of women that must be covered in order for men to have any chance at self-control! ;)

I enjoyed all the great comments - thank you!