Part 2: Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah on hijabs and headscarves

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Chairman of the Board & Scholar-in-Residence at the Nawawi Foundation, a non-profit educational foundation based in Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Abd-Allah offered me his insights into the growing phenomenon of Muslim women taking off their headscarves. The first part of the four-part interview can be read here. The second part of the interview follows:

 

 

 

 
When talking about the Muslim woman’s obligation to cover, I have heard community leaders stress that a Muslim woman should think of herself as an ambassador of our community. This places a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of our women.

It does. Especially at a time like this when Islam is so suspect and when ignorance about Islam and fear about Islam permeates many Western societies. Muslim women are often feared to be Jihadis and to be terrorists just because they have on an item of dress. If she goes for an interview for a job it may be very difficult for her to get that. If she’s a little girl in school, the other children don’t really know how to associate with her. So you’ve really put a big burden on her.

Now, if we lived in a society like 19th century Victorian America, a Muslim woman covering her head would have hardly raised an eyebrow. That was what a lot of women still did. And if you go back further than that, almost all women were covering their heads. But today because of the fact that in modern society women are often very much exposed physically in the way that they dress, when a Muslim woman begins to cover her body and put on a scarf she does stand out. She becomes a symbol for the community and that being the case, men should also do something comparable so that you can see this is the Muslim man and it is not just the woman who stands out.

Without stressing that our men begin dressing in a way that does identify them as members of our community, the burden that our women carry is way too heavy.

Without sharing this burden with our women, we are making our women’s lives outside the home very difficult. This is dangerous because we should be active in society, we need to be out there, we need to be at the table so to speak, because if we are not at the table then we are on the menu. We have to be at the table, and we should live in society as a group.

When our women are out there in their scarves, it becomes easy to wonder if this is a community of hidden males. And what is really interesting about this point is that because some of our men are concealing their Muslim identity in public and many of our women are exposing their identity by wearing a scarf, this becomes a violation of the basic principle of hijab because the woman is very private. The rules of hijab that divide our living space into public and private reflect that the woman, the baby and the child are the primary elements of that private sector. Let me be clear, of course she can come out in the public sector but she comes out wearing a scarf. And our men can come out in the public sector but they come out also dressing in a particular way. So when only our women come out dressed a particular way, then they are suddenly forced to become very public and the men who are not dressed a particular way can remain private.

When a Muslim woman in a scarf is coming out into public and she is totally exposed, the man is now in hijab. He is in hijab. She’s not in hijab. She’s wearing a scarf yes, but if we know what hijab really is, the man is in hijab because he’s hidden. You can’t see him, you don’t know if he’s a Muslim or Hindu, you don’t know if he’s an Arab Muslim, an Arab Jew, an Arab Christian or just white. The man is in hijab. That is what hijab means – he is hidden from the public eye. She is not. She is the one who is absolutely out there, everybody knows it, so that’s hard for her to bear.

Getting the men into the dress issue is extremely important; we should have items of dress that we want our men to wear too. And again, all of this must be done with style and beauty and finesse. But to the degree that any type of distinctive dress is a mark of identity in society, whether we intend it to be or not, then men have to also carry that mark. They also have to be a public expression of that identity. I think that if we do that then over 50% of the problem is solved; maybe the whole problem is solved because then it becomes much easier on the women.

I agree with you. When the duty of public representation of Islam is placed on our women, we are forced to deal with pressures and stresses that are often too difficult for us to bear.

This is something that the men should be blamed for because we are physiologically and psychologically different. We [men] are people who God created to be able to confront difficulty and to alleviate the public pressure off of our women and I think the reason this is so difficult for women is because they are out there by themselves.

Now, this is not the case for all women. There are women who are not broken by this pressure, and I think that this makes for women who are very strong. I know myself that I really admire any sister who wears the scarf in public and dresses in the proper dress according to Islamic Law. But I also know of girls and women who developed big psychological issues because of the fact that they feel so out of place wearing the scarf. So when a jurist, a legist, in Islam, comes to talk about this issue, he is nothing if he does not look at these problems that are associated with it and the lived experiences of these women.

And in acknowledging the fact that men and women are different and have different strengths, it is important to remember that men and women are equal in rights, men and women are equal in nobility, men and women are equal in spiritual capacity but we are very different. We are as different as night and day, we are as different as yin and yang. And that is the beauty and the secret of God’s creation. And the man is able to carry in public what he is supposed to carry. So if there is a burden you give me 90% and if you like you can carry 10. But for me to put 90% on you and to carry 10 myself, what in the world is that? How undignified, how shameful.

 

 

 

Rabea Chaudhry was an Associate Editor of Altmuslimah. This article was originally published on July 2, 2010.

 

Photo Credit: Celebrate Mercy.

28 Comments

  • cancairo says:

    “There are women who are not broken by this pressure, and I think that this makes for women who are very strong. I know myself that I really admire any sister who wears the scarf in public and dresses in the proper dress according to Islamic Law. But I also know of girls and women who developed big psychological issues because of the fact that they feel so out of place wearing the scarf. etc…”

    This is an offensive paragraph. It makes women who do not wear hijab sound weak and pathetic. I know that in many Muslim communities around the world and in the West, the hijab has become a symbol of being a “good girl” that many women are psychologically broken by NOT wearing it, and end up taking the headscarf on because they are sick of being outcasts. It takes a lot of strength to BE a Muslim woman with or without hijab.

  • I think you’re absolutely right Cancairo, it does take a lot of strength to be a Muslim woman.  But I think it’s important to take Dr. Umar’s quote in the specific context in which it was delivered – he was speaking specifically about the struggles of Muslim women in the West in headscarves – not because their struggles are more important than the struggles of women who do not wear the headscarf, but because this is the particular topic that I interviewed him about.  He was not talking about the difficulties in self-identifying as Muslim in this society or globally, he was talking just about the difficulties of publicly looking “Muslim” here in America.  And just because he is acknowledging that American Muslim women in headscarves deal with a great deal of social pressures because of their very public display of identity does not mean in any way that he is saying that women who are not in a headscarf are weak.  Supporting sisters who wear it does and acknowledging the strength it takes to wear it does not mean that he is not supportive of women who do not wear it.  In fact, quite the opposite I think.

  • *The last sentence should read:
    Supporting sisters who wear it and acknowledging the strength it takes to wear it does not mean that he is not supportive of women who do not wear it.  In fact, quite the opposite I think.

  • zainhusain says:

    cancairo truth is west thinks muslim womens are weak and they live under pressure of their family .They think our women hate our religion and its rituals actually 30 to 40 percent think like this and banning hijab is just a part of long going crusade its not over ..hijab is banned in france because they dont want muslims to folllow their religion. one muslim woman in france was assaulted in a market by a female lawyer because she was wearing scarf .One was stabbed to death in a court of germany and nobody dis domething and police even shot his husband who ran towards her wife to save her .They are doing brain washing of their population nobody know whats cana nobody knows how many civilians were killed in gaza by a terrorist nation israel.They(goverment of europe and america) simply hate muslims truth is this you cannot hide from this fact . They dont want islam to gain strength in europe at all .They made turkey their ally because they want to impose all of these stupid and non sensical rules in a muslim country .. why they dont stop jews to wear their caps . muslim women just wear scarf and they think this is violating the rights of a women come on she is wearing it because she wanna wear it …then comes drawing mohammed what about this they just want to disturb the peace actually they do the sins and after doing that they blame every single evil deed on muslims ..muslims fight muslim this muslim that .shut up cant you show freedom of speech by speaking against your goverment who is killing and killing civilians in palestine and middle east .they say hamas is firing rockets in israel on civilians and a american marine who was in flotilla said in bbc “how many people can you kill by a home made rocket and they are firing rockets in illegaly settled israel and in retaliation israel fire jdams on them which kills at least 200 civilians and they is no ones or when ever it makes it to news you just see in the closing lines that there were some civilians who also came in radius of the bomb”.open your eyes open it please

  • zainhusain says:

    The Catholic Church in France has warned against government plans to ban full veils on Muslim women in the country, urging mutual respect between faiths.

    “If we want Christian minorities in Muslim majority countries to enjoy all their rights, we should in our country respect the rights of all believers to practice their faith,” Bishop Michel Santier, the top French Catholic official for inter-religious dialogue, was quoted as saying by Reuters and the UK’s Daily Mail.

    He said very few women in France wore full veils and Muslim leaders agreed it was not obligatory in Islam, according to the Mail.

    A parliamentary commission last week urged the National Assembly to pass a non-binding resolution condemning full veils and then work out a law banning them.

    If Paris passed a law, Santier said, “the result could be the opposite of what is desired and lead to a reaction that increases the number of women wearing this garment.

    “A dialogue in truth among believers will help us go beyond mutual mistrust. The path will be long and hard,” he said.

    French Jewish leaders have also expressed concern about a veil ban, the report said. Santier regretted that the parliamentary commission did not invite Christian or Jewish leaders to give their views during the six-month-long hearings, which ended in December.

  • Zumar says:

    So a woman is no longer in a state of hijab when she goes out in public wearing the head scarf?

    It seems, according to Dr. Umar, that a woman wearing a headscarf is drawing more attention to herself by putting on this garment and as a consequence she is not living in privacy but is “out there” for everyone to look at, both as a Muslim and as an attractive female. What then is the purpose of a head scarf?

    This item of clothing almost seems, according to the interviewee, to pull one away from the state of privacy prescribed by Allah…could the writer please clarify?

  • safiyyah says:

    i like that Dr Faruq is giving value to women’s experiences and women’s narratives!

  • Revertive says:

    Men already have an item that sets them apart from the unbelievers.  It’s called a beard.  If more of them wore a traditional beard, us sisters wouldn’t have to bear the burden.

    Now I know some brothers simply can’t grow much of a beard.  But there are plenty who can but choose not.  And those who do not grow a beard, do not waste your time telling me if there is some deficiency you perceive in my wardrobe (and yes I do wear hijab).  I will not listen until you grow a beard.

  • @Zumar:
    You asked:
    “So a woman is no longer in a state of hijab when she goes out in public wearing the head scarf?”

    It does seem that given the public/private distinction that is at the heart of the hijab, a woman in a headscarf, who is put in the spotlight given the current sociopolitical situation, is no longer in private.  Thus, Dr. Umar suggests that men step up their role as public representatives of the community by publicly identifying as Muslims in their dress so that women in a headscarf can be shielded from the scrutiny. 

    You also ask:
    “It seems, according to Dr. Umar, that a woman wearing a headscarf is drawing more attention to herself by putting on this garment and as a consequence she is not living in privacy but is ???out there??? for everyone to look at, both as a Muslim and as an attractive female. What then is the purpose of a head scarf?”

    What is clear from the interview is that the purpose of the head scarf is NOT to put a woman in harm’s way, but to protect her. So if the head scarf functions in a manner that will put her in harm’s way, it is no longer serving its function and the community must respond.  Here, Dr. Umar advocates for Muslim men to begin identifying as Muslim in their dress to provide support for the women. According to Dr. Umar, the headscarf is mandatory according to the four imams. I’m assuming that the rationality of the head covering stems from the desire to maintain adab and humility amongst the sexes.

  • katseye says:

    “Men already have an item that sets them apart from the unbelievers.  It???s called a beard.  If more of them wore a traditional beard, us sisters wouldn???t have to bear the burden.”-Revertive

    Several non-Muslim religious men sport beards-examples would be Orthodox Jews or Amish Christians among many others. Beards are not obligatory in Islam. They are encouraged but are not requirements of faith.

  • Revertive says:

    As I understand it, one cannot follow the Qur’an without the Sunnah.  The Sunnah says to grow a beard.  Therefore, a beard is required.

    But if a beard isn’t enough, men wearing highwater pants should be.  This is also Sunnah.

  • OmarG says:

    >>advocates for Muslim men to begin identifying as Muslim in their dress

    HOW exactly am I supposed to do that? By adopting someone *else’s* cultural dress, just because those clothes are from a so-called Muslim-majority ethnicity?? Really? Didn’t Dr Jackson who spoke alongside Umar at the RIS last month also assert that converts should not have to commit cultural suicide just to be considered good Muslims? I see this as merely yet another attempt at foreign Muslim cultures trying to imperialize and colonize us. The same old crap in another garb. BTW, I love almost everything Umar says and writes, but the responses to this specific suggestion simply irritates me.

    Listen, I’m tired of hearing about women who complain about having to wear hijab while we don’t have to be identified as they are. Listen, its YOUR choice. I sympathize with women who jog in a scarf in the summer, but she CHOSE to do it; nothing more I can do there. Personal choice is personal choice, not the burden of someone else, let alone a stranger who happens to be the same religion as her, but not connected in any other way. The Quran itself asserts that no soul can bear the burden of another. You made your seat, now sit in it and take it like an adult!

  • OmarG, I completely disagree with your statement that a woman’s choice to wear a scarf is always HER choice.  As Dr. Umar very eloquently stated in part I of the article, because a woman’s head covering has been conflated with so many other issues – such as identity, a woman’s worth, modest, etc. – the element of choice is slowly taken away.  A man’s choice to wear the beard or not wear the beard is arguably much more of a choice – there is an established narrative that the beard is “just Sunnah”, that shaving the beard for job interviews is acceptable because we have to be a part of this society.  But where is this established narrative when it comes to a woman’s choice to wear a scarf?  I have been looking for it for about three years now and I haven’t found it!

  • Revertive says:

    Obviously, if we are ordered to draw our head coverings over our breasts we have to be wearing a head cover in order to fulfill the command.

  • OmarG says:

    But, that’s an inference. And, if its that important, where is the explicit order for it?? I can’t recall anything important in our religion which is left purely to inference. Not being mean is a pretty common sense inference, but its mentioned explicitly over and over again in both the Quran and the sunnah. Yet, something so important as covering a woman’s hair is just left out?? I find that hard to believe.

  • Revertive says:

    Brother, it’s in the Sunnah. Also, covering the hair is found in Judaism and Christianity, so it’s not like the concept is alien to Islam.

    Regardless it’s not inference.  Inference is assuming the ears and neck are also covered. But the order specifically says to pull our head coverings so that they also cover our bosoms. The order is not just to cover our heads, nor is it to cover our bosoms, but to do both at the same time with the same article of clothing.

  • cancairo says:

    @revertive, actually the order is to use the covering of the head to cover the bosom, so the INJUCTION is to cover the bosom. it is ASSUMED that the head is covered as was the norm at the time of revelation – for men and women.

  • cancairo says:

    @Rabea: HEAR, HEAR! “But where is this established narrative when it comes to a woman???s choice to wear a scarf?  I have been looking for it for about three years now and I haven???t found it!”

  • OmarG says:

    @cancairo: Right, its assumed, but not mandated. I think there is a big difference, yes? It was the custom and convention (urf wa aadat) of that place and time, just as it is many places.

  • OmarG says:

    You can simply not wear it. In America, it is much more of a choice than in many other countries. Sure, there may be social consequences with or without family support.

    There is also the canard that Muslim women are increasingly “choosing” hijab and such women write articles about how they chose to wear hijab without male pressure.

    Yet, my point stands true: women can choose to stand up for themselves and make their own choices, or they can choose to concede to social pressures, real or perceived (depending on which mosque community one belongs to). Its their choice to do either, and I’m not really concerned with either. I just won’t be bullied by the hijab brigade into dressing with alien clothes just to make life easier for them. I already make their lives easier by fulfilling my obligation to support the ones I’m related to. I’m not going to make my own life any more difficult than it already is to satisfy females I’m not even related to. They have to do that on their own.

  • Revertive says:

    It’s not optional for me to stop wearing hijab. I cannot break an order of Allah, any more than I could stop making salaat.

    But it’s ok if you see me as a burden OmarG. That attitude I am used to.

  • OmarG says:

    There is no order from Allah about head scarves. The only order in the Quran is for women to drawl their shawls over their chests so they don’t show their cleavage. Head scarves are mentioned, implied actually, in a hadith where the Prophet is purported to say to a woman that she should cover everything except “this and this” pointing to his face and hands.

    People are burdens only when they refuse personal accountability and won’t carry their own weight. I know nothing about you and you should not take it personally.

  • OmarG says:

    BTW, prayer and head scarves don’t even come close to being in the same category. That’s a big problem.

  • cancairo says:

    @OmarG, exactly. Indeed, at the end of each writing the scholars would write regarding their definitions of awra, they would add a disclaimer _ this is according to the urf and aada of this time.
    Regarding the choice: we are fooling ourselves if we think it is a woman’s choice to wear hijab. So according to how we are usually taught Islam, a practicing Muslim woman actually has two choices: 1/ Choose to be obligated to wear hijab, 2/  Choose not to wear hijab but therefore be in masiya of Allah. These are not real choices, and they basically say that if you don’t want to wear hijab you are basically in a state of disobedience to Allah all the time _ which is something horrific to a pious Muslim woman. THUS we need more choices _ we NEED the choice that the HAIR is not obligatory for it to be a REAL choice, and we need it to be mainstream scholars to take the time (like Khaled Abou El Fadl), be brave and say that there IS nuance in the definitions of awra and that it needs to be revised.

  • ma2010 says:

    @ Omar G Thank you couldn’t agree more! “Didn???t Dr Jackson who spoke alongside Umar at the RIS last month also assert that converts should not have to commit cultural suicide just to be considered good Muslims?”

  • OmarG says:

    @Cancairo: yes, so although we can prove head scarves are not a Quranic mandate and that covering cleavage is a mandate, however, we are still left with ahadith which quite clearly show that a woman’s hair should be covered. Why, I do not understand. Thus, for any scholar to claim its a choice, he/she must show that these ahadith have enough of a defect, either in the narration chain or the text, to justify not making it mandatory because of its possible doubtfulness. Are such hadith criticisms being attempted?

  • muqarnas says:

    @omarg: contrary to popular belief, the hadith you are referring is actually considered weak, according to an islamic studies professor friend of mine. this is something muslims don’t want to discuss, because they have invested so much in the hijab and to let go of that is paramount to suicide for them.

  • OmarG says:

    I’m not necessarily advocating we must follow the purported text of this hadith. I’m merely saying that it is a commonly quoted one which must be dealt with in any attempt to de-emphasize the current central -position of head scarves among us.

    Has your friend published his/her findings on this? Any even-unpublished article I can read for my own education?

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