Can women decide for themselves?
Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University
Feb. 22, 2022
This article is part of the series of responses from philosophers on the hijab row.
I have been following the long thread of the debate. I would like to present my views from the standpoint of a Muslim woman who chooses not to cover. There are diverging views on whether the Quran imposes any dress code like burqa, khumur, head scarf or jilbab (cloak) on Muslim woman. If we agree on a view that the Quran does not impose any universal dress code for women and that was a practice of the seventh century Arabia (read slave owning community) to distinguish between free women and slaves, the aim was to make it clear which woman was under the clan protection by the means of veiling. Still, I would not appreciate the measure of banning hijab/ burqa in the current context.
Most of the people don't get to read and write their religious texts, especially women. What they term as religious or associate with is most of the time imparted to them by religious scholars. I don't want to get into how religious scholars have created patriarchal interpretations of the Quran. We leave it for some other day. It would not be easier for these women and men to grasp in one go what actually their religion prescribes. The idea of modesty or haya embedded in Muslim girls from a very young age cannot be taken away with just one ban. What has taken so many years to imbibe will not go away in one single day. It is again then taking away their agency to choose. I agree the hijab or burqa are imposed too, however, the idea that all covered women need saving is also superficial and misleading. Covering then becomes just a cultural practice, other factors crucial for women empowerment are overlooked. ( Abu Lughod has written extensively on this.) Each case is different, we cannot generalize and call the hijab detrimental to women's growth.
As said by Sania, the ban on hijab will only stop women from going to educational institutions. They and their parents will prefer no education than sending them without coverings to schools or colleges. It is over glorification of the thought that religion (read conservative) will take a back seat with such bannings. Again, women who cover are in a dilemma whether to choose between a covering which has spiritual understanding, brings them closer to God/ gives them an idea of freedom (portable seclusion) and education which is also their right.
I believe instead of jumping to the final step, it is important to start with gender friendly readings of the religious texts in schools. Women should have access to diverse views of opinions on different matters which would help in making decisions for themselves. Earlier men decided that women should cover and uncovered women were looked down upon, now men have decided that women should uncover for covered women denote regression. Who is asking these women what they actually want? Can women decide for themselves?
Read other articles in this series:
Ariba Zaidi -- A Word of Caution to 'the Uniformist' and 'the Reformist’
Danish Hamid -- Back to Liberal Basics
Hina Mushtaq -- Can women decide for themselves?
Sania Ismailee -- The Karnataka Hijab row is about Right to Education...