By Nur Sufi
Feb 25, 2018
For many people of the current millennium, an understanding of the term ‘Islamic feminism’ is limited to the long-drawn out battle for female driving in Saudi Arabia. While the recent breakthrough was an iconic victory for Islamic feminists of the modern age – not only resulting in the lifting of the driving ban but also symbolizing the beginning of female public mobility in the heart of the Muslim world – the widespread work of Islamic feminists in fact reaches back to the late 19th century. Earlier issues consist of equal human, property and education rights for women. More recent ones include the replacement of Muslim patriarchal family structures with egalitarian ones as well as the introduction of women into the public arena. This may seem strikingly similar to secular feminist movements, but what separates the two is the grounding of Islamic feminist arguments in the Quran and other religious texts. It is especially interesting to note the Islamic feminist discourse on modesty and subsequent dress codes.
One must come to terms with the fact that for decades, Muslim women have been restricted to a drawn out set of ideals that more often than not is upheld by their “Mehrams” (male guardians) on a micro level and the Islamic state on a macro level. More specifically, the history of dictation of female conduct in the public sphere, in regards to dress codes, is a rich one. Endless teachings of what to and what not to wear plague the world of the Muslim female, sexualizing her if she refuses to abide by these rules.
The clearest example of this oppression is present in Ayatollah Khomeini’s compulsory hijab policy of 1979. Since its implementation, the women of Iran have increasingly and consciously been chipping away at this policy by engaging in ‘small acts of resistance’ such as taking off their headscarves in public places. However, this enactment gave way to a wider formation of the Iranian morality police as women were harassed and questioned on the streets for not adhering to both Islamic principles and the law. Recently, 29 Iranian women were arrested for protesting this law. The very fact that they do this at the risk of being arrested or harassed speaks volumes on how strongly they feel about this choice being snatched from them.
Where in the Muslim world, communities and politicians are complicit in their oppression of women by dictating that they cover up, the western world is increasingly fighting to “liberate” women from this oppression by ironically forcing them to shed religiously symbolic clothing such as the veil and hijab. The French bans on face covering in public places by François Fillon in 2011 and Manuel Valls’s municipal ban on body covering ‘Burkini’ swimwear for Muslim women in 2016 are stark illustrations of this movement. French lawmakers argued for this on the basis of them protecting an integral French principle: the equality of women. Islamic feminists critique this view as inherently anti-feminist as its consequences are parallel to the very subjugation to a certain ‘ideal’ that they are claiming to free Muslim women from. ‘Unveiling’ a Muslim woman from whatever her conception of modesty is can again be seen as a violation of her right to dress in a manner of her choosing. For many, the hijab is a garment that they choose to wear in accordance to their own will and perhaps feel most comfortable and safe in.
This begs one to question the very definition of female liberation itself. In my opinion, the answer is far from complicated. Let women choose for themselves whether to cover up or not! Free will is a God given right. It should not be in the nation or a man’s power to tyrannize a woman into any particular attire. Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist, critiques this very view of men dictating what is correct and modest by calling for a re-interpretation of Islamic texts. Specifically, one that removes the patriarchal lens and biases that dictate the popular historical Islamic narrative. Only then can society rid itself of the singular patriarchal definition of modesty and its forceful imposition through community shaming on a local level and Islamic authoritarian political regimes on a national scale.
The creation of a traditional understanding of modesty as compulsory and its direct relation to a physical form i.e. the veil (covering of the face) or hijab (covering of the hair) displays how a singular textual interpretation can be oppressive in its imposition on unwilling participants. This understanding of outer dress being a symbol of modesty is both protected and protested against by Islamic feminists under different situations. I find myself agreeing with the viewpoint of Islamic feminists and their emphasis on the importance of consent when it comes to modesty. Valuing a woman as an equal also comprises of giving her the sovereignty to make her own decisions.
“There is no compulsion in religion.” (Shakir, Quran 2:256).
Nur Sufi is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in English at LUMS.