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by Afra Jalabi  
November 2001

The Oprah Show did an introduction of Islam on October 5, 2001, which was called Islam 101. Oprah, whose program is broadcast to most of the world, wanted to introduce Islam to the American public. “Since our world was horribly shaken three weeks ago,” she told her viewers, “all eyes have focused on a part of the world and a set of beliefs that many of us know very little about. We're told that terrorism violates the teachings of Islam, but what is Islam? Who are Muslims? What are their practices?”

This was promising. Moreover, Oprah was friendly and open to what Muslims, who constituted the majority of the audience during that show, had to say. Even the expert she had asked to the show, anthropologist Akbar Ahmed, was Muslim. But did we discuss the meaning of being Muslim, or the problem of violence, or even the rage caused by American foreign policy in the region? No, the Muslim audience had more pressing things to discuss. The show proved to be a mirror of our intellectual bankruptcy, a mirror of our true obsessions and fixations, because after a quick discussion of what Islam was about, the show veered off to discuss women in Islam, particularly the dress code. The “after show” segment, which the program puts daily on its website after the live recording in the studio, was entirely about “Hijab.” This was both insightful and disheartening. It seemed that the gender question in Islam had become the central issue and what Muslim women wear the core of the debate on Islam, both internally and externally. It was disgraceful to see how our contemporary discourse as "modern Muslims” has become so focused on the scarf at the expense of the real paradigms that define Islam, its history and its universal values.

It is truly sad to see a certain culturally and historically specific edict --with
controversial roots and implications-- becoming the raison d'être for contemporary Muslims while the larger parameters of Islam and its challenges are rendered into obscure shadows in the background.

In a pervious show, a woman from Oprah’s audience, asked if Muslim women could take off their scarves, at least until things calmed down. Oprah had to apologize in this show for that question after a big amount of mail from Muslims was sent to her (When did Muslims start writing so much mail? If it is about the Hijab, I guess, we will write). But, Oprah did not have to apologize for something the very religious establishment in the Middle East had raised in the last few weeks. This was a legitimate question, although it was received with hostility, even when it came from Imams in the form of affirmative fatwas in the larger community, --published in Al Majalah magazine a couple of weeks ago-- allowing women to remove their scarves in the wake of recent events.

I understand Muslim women’s sensitivity regarding the recent fatwas or the question on Oprah’s show. They feel this is who they are and they are not about to quit when the going gets tough. They perhaps even feel somewhat betrayed by such fatwas, since wearing the Hijab has not always been easy anyway in a society which has equated it with gender oppression and fanaticism. But for Muslim women living in North America, keeping the Hijab in the current crises has also represented a spirit of defiance against racism and ignorance. This shows the contextual nature of Hijab, which could be a symbol of oppression or courage and independence, depending on the circumstances. In fact, an American women organization called for American women to cover their hair on October 8th as a sign of solidarity and protest against racial harassment.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that the scholars acted out of concern and open mindedness. But I also find it interesting how, for the first time since the Hijab has become central to our identity in the last few decades, the scholars suddenly realized the relativity and conditional nature of the verses dealing with covering, and the principles of recognition and safety implied in them. --In the case of early Islam, free women were asked to cover to be distinguished from slave women while slave women were not allowed to. I do not think the well-meaning Muslim women in Oprah's audience knew anything about this or even wanted it aired in front of Oprah.

I have always hesitated to discuss the issue of Hijab in public, or its controversial historical roots I had come across in my reading of classical Islamic texts for fear of falling into
the same hole of centralizing this marginal edict of Islam. I also did not want to associate myself with an issue that I consider marginal, yet so sensitive to the entire Ummah. In fact, I adopted a culturally specific code of dress for myself. I cover in Muslim circles and the Middle East and do not in the West. If I do otherwise, I will put too much time into having to explain why I am not wearing it or why I am wearing it, depending on where I am. By adopting a chameleonic way of dressing, --and not a chameleon character-- I have reduced the amount of time and energy spent discussing the scarf while creating a different context to discuss things other than what I am wearing. I also did this because, while I believe in modesty, I do not define myself through the scarf, nor shy away from it. It is simply a way of dressing that can be beautiful, empowering and protective but also, at times, limiting, misleading and impractical. In addition, I felt, by discussing the juristic and historical facts, which informed my decision, I would be digging out some trivial nuance while invoking tremendous opposition from the community.

But after the Oprah Show last Friday I was so disturbed that I realized this issue, at least regarding its centrality in our contemporary discourse, has to be questioned. Muslim women are still forming their identities and no one should have the final word on how we should come to terms with being Muslim in this age.

It was interesting to see the Muslim women in Oprah’s audience appeal to the ideals of pluralism and civil liberties in defense of their visibility and difference. However, when Queen Rania of Jordan appeared via satellite, there was a murmur in the audience and some of the Muslim women said that the Queen should be covered. Is it possible that Muslims think it is acceptable to use civil liberties to practice their truth, but if given the power to decide, they will coerce others to wear and do what Muslims want? These kinds of questions are far more pressing. We have to create internal debates about liberties, democracy and the need for various efforts of interpretation within the Muslim communities. Such debates should replace the non-issues of dress codes and small edict matters in mainstream Muslim communities.

We can no longer afford to have the scarf as the core of the debate on Islam, nor as the symbol by which the level of a Muslim woman’s piety or commitment to Islam is measured. We can no longer afford to have every opportunity and discussion about Islam turn into a conversation on dressing, nor can we afford as Muslim women, in our communities, to be judged and awarded degrees and ranks of religiosity according to the level of the dress code we abide by. The darker the color the better, the bigger the garment the more pious. The race of ranking morally high through fabric has no end in a path where the Taliban model seems to be the only logical conclusion. It makes more sense to judge women on matters relating to the basic tenets of Islam: regular prayer, fasting, paying alms. But even such things were not acceptable to the Prophet as criteria for assessing a person. When one of his companions praised another companion, the Prophet said to him it was not enough to see him going up and down in prayer at the Mosque. The Prophet asked him: Have you traveled with him? Have you seen him angry? Have you dealt with him in matters of money?

When people are not noble enough to resort to the Prophetic method of assessing a person, I try to bring them back to the basic requirements, without getting lost in juristic and historical details, by citing the story of the Bedouin man who came to the Prophet and asked him what makes a good Muslim. The Prophet then listed for him the five tenets of Islam, while the Bedouin was saying, at each tenet, he would do it, but would not do more, nor less. After the Bedouin left, the Prophet said, “The Bedouin will succeed if he is truthful.”

Interestingly, an African American woman in the “after show” segment asked precisely about this, how the list of the basic commands and prohibitions of Islam, which the show presented at the beginning, did not deal with the scarf, and I guess for her, did not reflect the level of Muslims’ obsession with it. But it is not enough to have such questions thrown at us from others. Muslim women need to start thinking for themselves and learn the difference between a command and what a social practice open to different interpretations.

The challenge, however, is that most Muslim women are not equipped to stand up and provide an alternative juristic view of the matter, and the scholars who do are not willing to discuss it in public out of concerns of inflaming Muslim sensitivities about an issue which they, and rightly so, believe is not a pressing one. Even those who are brave enough to dissent like Jamal Al-Banna face rejection and opposition from mainstream Muslims, despite being a scholar whose views are rooted within traditional Islam.

The centrality of the scarf reduces Islam to a piece of garment and places Muslims perpetually on the defensive explanatory panel. De-centralizing and de-romanticizing the scarf, I am afraid, is fast becoming increasingly urgent and necessary. The recent fatwas are revealing. The scholars would not ask Muslim women or men, to compromise easily in something they believed to be a core command of Islam. The events of the last week have, it seems, started to urge us to rethink our priorities and what defines being Muslim. This is in itself a big step.

However, for the moment, until those who are politically and juristically mature and sophisticated want to discuss this matter openly without getting bogged down by the many implications and problems it will raise, we will remain hostage to the centrality of the scarf. And until something is done, we will be stuck with the rosy and romanticized views of the sweet Muslim ladies on Oprah's show and forever caught up in the centrality of the scarf.

For eternity the question will not be for us, Muslims, why our young men are turning themselves and others into bombs, or why we do not have democracy in Muslim societies, or whether American foreign policy is based on principles of equality and liberty for all. The question will be, it seems, for a long time: To veil or not to veil.

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