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.