Posted on Feb 7, 2011. See more in In My Words

As I page turn the glossy pages of the art book, one photograph stops me. I look again. The image is of bolts of coarse, white cloth clean as a blank page “seated” on a molded bench in an ultra modern airport. I think – installation art. Cloth, dipped in plaster of Paris perhaps, shaped to suggest the slope of human shoulders, the diminutive round of a head. And jutting towards us, the prominent thrust of knees spread wide, offering a broad, almost welcoming lap.

If this were art, I could admire composition and balance. The angled ridge centered across the front suggesting an arm, the rounded protrusion that could be a hand clutching edges of the fabric, drawing it across what might be a face. Though the one aperture where eyes might be is too shadowed, too small, to offer evidence.

But she is not art. She is an Islamic woman, shrouded in a first century religiously mandated attire, patiently waiting for her twenty-first century airplane. I turn the page. But the image stays with me. Stays with me still.

****

I first saw women wearing hijab – a word meaning curtain in Arabic – while on tour in Egypt during the mid-80’s. Our bus was heading out of the central district of Alexandria on a route that ran along the Mediterranean Sea and a stretch of public beach. It was late afternoon. The beach was filled with men and boys escaping the torrid summer heat. Stripped to swimsuits, their bronzed chests bared, they were playing – kicking soccer balls back and forth or diving into the Mediterranean waves from which they emerged laughing, shaking their bare heads, flicking away the water in their hair, then striding back to shore.

Turning away, I looked to the opposite side of the road where I noted block after block of tall apartment buildings with narrow balconies overlooking the sea. Sitting on many of the balconies were women and young girls wearing full length, coarse and shapeless black dresses. And over their heads black shawls were drawn so that only their faces were exposed – pale moons in a night sky.

It was close to a hundred that day. The heat was oppressive. I assumed the reason the women and girls were sitting outside was that the apartments must not be air-conditioned. From the balconies they could easily watch the men and boys at play. They could watch, I remember thinking, but they could not play. I looked away.

* * * *

I didn’t want to be a girl – when I was young. I didn’t want to live the life my mother lived. I wanted to be like my father, who kissed my mother good-bye every morning and drove off to his law office, into a wider world. Though women in the 50’s had more rights and choices then they had even fifty years earlier, there was still the expectation that a successful man’s wife would be able to remain home with the children, providing a warm and welcoming nest to which he could return each day.

I didn’t want my mother’s life. I wanted to do what my father did – do legal battle with the system, defend the defenseless. I wanted to go to law school and said so. But whenever I mentioned the possibility, my father would discourage me cautioning, “The only women I know who are lawyers wear their nylons rolled down and smoke cigars.”

But it was the 1960’s and I wasn’t buying it. I saw myself as part of a long struggle to challenge what society thought women could and couldn’t do, could and couldn’t be. We would be lawyers, doctors and CEO’s, or drive front-end loaders and work in the mines if that’s what we wanted to do. We had minds capable of tending to more than

‘home fires.” Minds and talents the world couldn’t afford to over look.

During the sixties and seventies we believed we could change cultural prejudices. Both race and gender prejudices. With every foothold secured, every right written into legislation, we were sure no one could turn back the clock, take from us what we had achieved. No one.

Yet now, I am not as certain. Thirty years ago an ocean separated me from the hijab and the religion that required it. But today the United States has a growing Islamic community. I see more and more women in airports, in shopping malls and behind fast food counters wearing what symbolizes, for me, a step backwards, away from women’s equal rights. They wear an attire mandated by a religion that believes a woman’s testimony in court is worth half a man’s, that she deserves less inheritance than her brother, that her husband has the right to beat her if she disobeys. A religion that allows a husband to divorce his wife easily and keep custody of the children.

I speak as an outsider about this faith. I know that. A devout Islamic woman, a Pakistani tells me that some of the more lovely scarves, worn to cover the hair, can be an aide to devotion. She remembers her mother lifting the scarf to cover her head at each call to prayer, and so creating a space in which to be alone with God. Five times a day – pausing to remember God, to remember who she is in relation to God, to remember in the midst of a hectic day, the Source of all peace.

But I want to caution her. And I want to caution the young women who so willingly submit to the mandates of a patriarchal religion. I know about women being seen and not heard, wearing head-coverings, submitting to their husbands. I didn’t become a lawyer, but I did become an ordained Christian minister. I fought centuries of precedent to obtain that right, arguing that those biblical mandates were actually a contradiction of core Christian truths. I believe those same arguments apply to the Islamic veil. That the tradition of women living beneath a “curtain” appears to have originated for reasons more pragmatic than spiritual. Something men needed, not God.

Gwendolyn Brooks, a prize winning foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, reports in Nine Parts of Desire, that Mohammed’s wife was never veiled and was never required to live in seclusion. Khadija, a wealthy widow ten years Mohamed’s senior, had been the one to propose marriage to Mohammed. He was a laborer she had hired to manage one of her trading companies in Mecca. It was after they had been married hey some fifteen years that Mohammed first heard the voice of an angel speaking to him in the night. Fearful that he might be going insane he sobbed in Khadija’s arms. According to Brooks, Khadija was at first alarmed, fearing her husband might be hallucinating. But when he returned night after night with the same dream she encouraged him to write down the words he was “reciting.” Hence Koran which means “recitation.”

Khadija was Mohammed’s only wife during her lifetime. But nine years after her death, and after several Muslim wars with area tribes, Mohammed received further

“revelations” from Allah. Men, Allah told him, should be permitted up to four wives. At the time this may have been a compassionate response to the plight of Muslim widows whose husbands had died while fighting for the faith. However Mohammed, himself, would later be exempted from that limit (by another revelation). This was necessary it was thought to ensure alliances with defeated enemies through marriage. A common ancient practice.

Yet there were unanticipated consequences to Mohammed having more than four wives. Political intrigue ensued when family members and others used the women to gain influence. A solution came via another revelation, “O Prophet! Tell they wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them. That will be better, so that they maybe recognized and not annoyed.” (Surah XXXIII, v. 59). Or as the Hadith (traditions relating to the words and deeds of Muhammad and considered important in determining how to live out the Muslim way of life) has it: “O Allah’s Apostle! I wish you ordered your wives to cover themselves from the men because good and bad ones talk to them.” (Bukhari, v.1. bk 8, sunah 395).

So began the seclusion of Mohammed’s wives, who would now live within the walls of his compound. Should they need to travel to the market or beyond, they were to be completely covered, rendering themselves unrecognizable to those who might have approached with whispers or pleas.

Though a curtailment of their freedoms (some of his wives had accompanied Mohammed into battle, had served as nurses, were royalty or accomplished in their own right) the veiling was initially a mark of prestige, identifying the women as wives of the prophet. But gradually, regulations meant to protect the prophet’s wives, were applied to other Muslim women as well. Over time, Khadija’s freedoms were forgotten. [1]

****

A woman who spent many years in Africa doing mission work once said to me gently, “Have you ever heard that some women see the covering as a protection?”

I know she is right. Beyond the specific crises that prompted Mohammed’s first century revelation, there are other reasons why women might even now, choose to wear the veil. A professor at Vanderbilt and an ardent feminist was amazed that many of the American born Muslim women in her classes still wore hajib. When she asked why, their answers surprised her. They weren’t enthralled they said with our feminist freedoms. Date rape didn’t happen when women were chaperoned. And men treated them with greater deference when they were wearing hijab, appreciating their minds rather than their bodies, refraining from inappropriate sexual innuendos, conversation and jokes.

I hear that. Women have long known the differences between come hither fashions and dress that is simply self-expressive. But I am uneasy with a tradition that absolves men from controlling their behaviors. And is there not a certain irony that hajib provides young women protection during courtship and yet beating is allowed within marriage?

Our sexual urges and drives are potent and can be difficult to control. Yet when the sexes are rigidly segregated, when men and women cannot learn through casual exchanges as they play, study or work together what is appropriate behavior towards the opposite gender, we risk the kind of sexual repression that results in unhealthy and imbalanced relationships.

I know we can press our freedoms too far. And I know that is why religious fundamentalists (of any faith or even cult) can be appealing, beckoning even young people back to an earlier modicum of decency.

Gwendolyn Brooks tells the story of a young woman she met while working at the Wall Street Journal’s Cairo office. Sahar was a twenty-seven year old bureau assistant who had spent a year as an exchange student in the U.S, graduated at the top of her class from the American University in Cairo and dreamed of going to Harvard. She loved fashion, Brooks noted, and no matter what story they were covering, Sahar appeared on the scene dressed for a party, her make-up thickly applied, her hair arranged dramatically. Then, one morning, at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Brooks opened the door to the office to find Sahar attired in the hijab of a Muslim fundamentalist. It was, said Brooks, “…like watching a nature film run in reverse: she had crumpled her bright wings and folded herself into a dull cocoon.” [2]

Why? Sahar told Brooks she had been attending a women’s study group at a local mosque and the young, veiled instructor showed them the passages where the Koran mandated they should be covered. It seemed wrong suddenly to have her arms bare in public, her hair exposed to a man’s gaze. And that other way of dressing was too western. It was better to dress in “our own way,” the instructor told her.

Sonia Beydoun, who was two years old when her family immigrated to the United States in 1977 also wears the full covering of hijab. When interviewed for an article in The Detroit Free Press (Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit has a large Muslim population) she acknowledged that growing up she saw very few women in the American Muslim communities wearing even head scarves. But when Beydoun’s five year old daughter came home from their local mosque saying , “You don’t listen to God….You don’t wear hijab.” she began wearing the garb because she said, she did not want her daughter to question that she believed. Her daughter, now 10, “put on” hijab a month before her ninth birthday. [3]

In that same article there was this statistic: At Dearborn High School in Dearborn Michigan, 85% of the student population is of Arab descent. In 1990 only 7 female students, 5% of the female seniors, wore hijab for their yearbook pictures. In 2006, 78 are pictured wearing hijab, 40% of the female students. [4]

America has long been a melting pot of cultures and traditions and faiths. I cherish that, champion that. Sahar, above, to a certain extent follows in the footsteps of Ghandi who wore his native Indian garb to assert the value of his indigenous culture as well as to protest British Colonialism. And I understand that Sonia and her daughter are not so different from the Amish who choose to dress in ways that distinguish them from the larger culture, or even Christian nuns and priests whose manner of dress is meant to bear visible witness to their faith.

But for me, when the rubrics and strictures of our faith, which have been constructed by fallible humans over centuries, primarily men, require something only of women, I am suspect, believing it is either an intentional or unintentional means of keeping women

subjugated and oppressed.

****

My office window overlooks a local public beach. On hot summer days I can see men, women and children, mingling, playing. They cluster at the water’s edge; beach towels spread helter-skelter on the sand, their bright colored umbrellas warding off the sun’s wrath. All of them baring enough skin to allow water and breeze to give respite from the heat and humidity.

But not long ago a Muslim family appeared on the beach. They sat apart, further down the shore, away from the crowd. A woman I assumed was mother and wife, sat on the sand, covered in black hijab while father and children splashed and played in the water. I have not seen them there again. I suspect they felt out of place.

I do not want anyone to feel ostracized or rejected because of their race or color or gender or religion. I believe that is wrong. But this I also believe is wrong – for women to be constrained by religious law and in some countries civil law that prescribes that women be shrouded, peering out into the world through small slits of freedom.

I cannot believe that this is what God desires. What I do believe, is this:

Whenever morality is based on theology, whenever right is made dependent on divine authority, the most immoral, unjust, infamous things can be justified and established. – Ludwig Fuererbach, philosopher (1804-1872)



[1] Gwendolyn Brooks, Nine Parts of Desire, Anchor Books, 1995, for this history of Khadija and Mohammed’s subsequent revelations. (do I need page numbers?)

[2] Ibid, p. 7-8

[3] Detroit Free Press, June 12, 2007, “A Return to Tradition,” by Niraj Warikoo

[4] Ibid, p. 7A