The latest storm in the kahwa cup about the ‘Islamic’ veil seems to be about ownership of religion, really. Do Muslim women and progressive Muslim men have no say at all within the religion they choose to live by? Do the Arabs own it? Do Muslim clerics (male, of course) own it? The Sura an-Nur of the Holy Quran, section 4, verse 30 says: “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them; and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do.”
Then, in the critical Verse 31, the Quran says: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves whom their right hands possess, or male attendants free of sexual desires or small children who have no carnal knowledge of women; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments.”
The notes on this verse in the edition quoted from are fascinating. Footnote 2984 (on verse 30) says: “The need for modesty is the same in both men and women. But on account of the difference of the sexes in nature, temperament and social life, a greater amount of privacy is required for women than for men, especially in the matter of dress and the uncovering of the bosom.”
Footnote 2985 says, of Verse 31: “The woman is asked not to make a display of her figure except to the following classes of people…” and re-lists the above. Of slaves, male and female, it says, “…but this item would now be blank, with the abolition of slavery…”
Follows Footnote 2986: “It is one of the tricks of showy or unchaste women to tinkle their ankle ornaments, to draw attention to themselves.”
Three interesting observations emerge from the original and from this interpretation. One, nowhere is it said that the head and face should be covered. Two, the interpretation accepts that times and social conditions change when it acknowledges the abolition of slavery. Three, the interpretation that anklets are for “showy and unchaste women” does not appear to be a Quranic opinion. Indeed, Verse 31 says — not commands — that women should not draw attention to their ankle ornaments. It does not say: “Women should not wear ornaments on their ankles.”
It seems to come down, then, to ownership. It is an established fact that India has the world’s second-largest Islamic population after Indonesia. Do Indian Muslims have no right to interpret and apply a Quranic recommendation as co-owners of Islam? Do Indian Muslim women have no right to intelligently interpret and apply a recommendation — not a command — in a manner that reflects their racial and cultural identity as Indian women? These questions are not intended to provoke this cleric or that, but ask themselves as axiomatic queries to any observer and certainly, one hopes, to Indian Muslims.
An Indian woman, Hindu or Muslim or anything else, has cultural rights. If Muslim, it is obvious that she is not a seventh century Bedouin Arab. She is a 21st century South Asian and empowered to access everything her country offers, from education to inheritance to anklets. Here, some people like to point out that the Quran’s injunctions on women’s rights were unique and humane back then. That is absolutely correct.
But the world has moved on since. If this Quranic interpretation* can accept that slavery is abolished — to do otherwise is against the spirit of the time — then surely there is interpretative room for Muslim women to choose whether or not they wish to wear the hijab. Say at a dargah or at a mosque (even their entry there is an issue in India). Or not wear it to work or to a social occasion. In today’s world, most people agree that a woman is the best custodian of her own modesty.
Going by religious logic, all things of beauty flow from God and it is God who made women. But a lustful, predatory eye cannot be God’s creation; it is obviously the handiwork of Shaitan. Let men take heed, then, to control their gaze and not force women to bundle up and shut up.
Beyond the veil and more, the point about social change acquires new edge now in Quranic terms. In the Surat-An-Nissaa, Section 6, Verse 34, it says of husbands and wives: “As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly).”
By Indian law, domestic violence is now a crime and the first case against it has already been registered last week in Chennai. What would the Shahi Imam and his ilk recommend now for an Indian Muslim woman? A humane interpretation that this is inadvisable in 21st century India though it was permissible in seventh century Arabia? Or will they say that wife-bashing is the inalienable male right of a particular community, irrespective of its country’s law? Or that only male clerics have a right over women’s bodies, their social and professional choices? The time seems ripe for a Raja Ram Mohun Roy to manifest in Muslim India, to take on his own orthodoxy. No Hindu woman could swing it either, until enlightened upper caste men first fought her case.
*The Holy Quran, English translation of the meanings and commentary, issued by the King Fahd Holy Quran Printing Complex, Al-Madinah Al-Munawarah under the auspices of the Ministry of Hajj and Endowments, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
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