In the past few weeks I have read at least two well-written articles on the whole hood and hijab issue, or the choice to cover and how that head-covering can lead to many conclusions: freedom, oppression, discrimination, objectification, and in two recently unfortunate cases, even death. The topic to cover or not to cover, to cover partially, to cover completely, to uncover partially, to uncover completely is a hot and debatable one – clearly, because there are at least five options to answer this elusive MCQ. Everyone seems to look at this question with an objective stance, but strangely so, objectivity is a slippery slope, and somewhere down the journey to the summit of being purely reasonable, one slips into subjectivity. That is normal for everyone has a bias. A choice indicates a bias. But when it comes to answering that MCQ, something more than a choice is needed to motivate any of those five options. And this is where the fallacy of the argument lies. To cover or not to cover (and other branching shades of opinion) is really not a matter of choice. It is a matter of belief.
Anything that is a matter of belief, quite simply put, cannot be and should not be evaluated through logic, although many people believe that all beliefs are logical, or should be proven through logic. Belief, however is something purely emotional, and through the certainty of that emotion it might ascend to logic, or rather logical justification, but that in itself begs the question. An argument between an atheist and a theist is doomed to fail. They cannot be objective about their claims. An atheist believes that there is no God; a theist believes otherwise. And then they build their house of cards in which logic is appealed to, to justify and substantiate their beliefs. It is a matter of belief that God had a conversation with Moses. It is matter of belief that Jibrail had, and continued to have conversations with Muhammad (pbuh). It is matter of belief that Holy Scriptures are not just stories written by idle minds and eloquent hands. It a matter of belief that for someone they are just stories written and read to be inspired, or to inspire fear or love, that angels and God don’t exist and it is all a huge delusion of comfort and convenience. But even the delusionary are now questioning the authenticity of their claims, and so are recruiting to the idea of agnosticism, not either-or, but neither-here-nor-there. It all boils down to belief, and the conviction of that belief. It’s interesting to mention here that sociologist, Frank Furedi, in his latest book, “On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence”, has analogized atheism, particularly New Atheism, with religious zealotry as both have followed and continue to follow the same strategy: to use and express their reality through doctrinaire language and sentiments. So the principle behind each belief-system is essentially the same. Only the mechanics vary: one accepts and affirms, the other rejects and negates.
Now the argument for the whole covering up issue is that it is professed as a matter of choice. Some can best define it as a moral choice. But then again who defines morality? Those who don’t do it think that it gives them liberation. Those who do it think it’s liberating. I came across a cartoony rendering of this idea on Facebook: there are two women, one is dressed in a burqa with only her eyes showing, the other in a bikini, with her eyes covered by sunglasses, and each looking at the other feeling sorry, the burqa-clad saying, “nothing covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated world”, and the bikini-clad saying, “everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated world.” The choice therefore is an either-or, and the denomination, as claimed by one writer who wrote vehemently against covering up (while thinking all along how objective the analysis was): it’s a cruel, male-dominated world that motivates or compels a woman to cover. Well, no doubts about that that the world is cruel and male-dominated. But the motivation and/or compulsion felt by a woman to observe purdah is what really needs to be analyzed. In actuality for those who believe in the idea and/or the act of covering up, it’s not a matter of choice, even though it is now construed as such due to convenience (on part of the construer). It might become that, but the choice is rooted in a belief in the idea that morality is not secular, that morality comes from some direction, that direction has to be perfect, and that perfection cannot come from man who is fallible and is known to err, but from the Divine that is infallible, and is known to forgive.
I am not going to present elaborate and innumerable religious citations to justify this point of contention. But I will present a secular maxim that is quoted often enough: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Now if we are to extend this maxim to a metaphor, and equate the idea of Rome to the faith Islam, then the principle that becomes operative is to do as the Muslims do. And those who believe in the idea, ideology and idealism that Islam has offered, achieved and sought would agree that the best and real Muslims were those when Islam actually came into being, historically speaking. And as it’s best to lead and easy to follow by example, we had Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) demonstrate the faith in every way and form. And just as some things never change, we had a cruel, male dominated society even back then – that’s why it was called the Age of Ignorance that the ‘new’ faith sought to enlighten. But it was not the male voice of that enlightenment that asked the women to hush up their individuality, sit in a dark corner and cover up. The commandment, however, was just the last bit: to cover up. Hence it was not, and never a matter of convenient choice. The women heard not the voice of the man who forwarded this commandment, but the commandment itself. The women never followed the man in action; they had their own models and examples to follow and be led by: his wives. What their husband was and is for all men, they were and are for all women: examples. So this current claim that covering up should be contextualized as being historically relevant with no place in current times and therefore should be shelved should be shelved itself at least for those who believe in Islam, and the application of the Roman maxim.
Many also resort to the idea that covering up is an example of pervasive Arabisation that is slowly invading this part of the Muslim world. This is obviously linked to the historical contextual assumption. Islam was an Arab religion. The Prophet (pbuh) himself was Arab, by origin and identity. But he was never sent as an indigenous messenger whose job was to localize the message – a credential that was known for all his predecessors who professed faith to their communities alone. The message and the mission were and are for a universal audience. And so was its demonstration. It is true that in Saudi Arabia the general preference for the burqa is to have it in black – a color and a choice linked to their Bedouin culture. The Bedouins are denizens of the desert, and for them black is a commonsense choice. The burqa is now necessarily equated with the color black, but the color has nothing to do with the rationale behind the veil. Just as wearing mehndi on Eid is a Pakistani expression to celebrate the religious occasion, the black burqa is an Arab outfit. The woman’s covering garment, however, need not be the ubiquitous black burqa that has in some cases has become a fashion-statement for the bourgeois begum as claimed by another author who wrote on this issue. Black has become a convenient and popular choice. The color or its choice is not part of the command. The command is to cover, and cover modestly.
And now comes the troubling and ever-elusive subject of modesty – the rationale behind covering up. One of the authors expressed her disapproval by stating that modesty cannot and should not be achieved through covering up. I cannot agree more – at least with the former claim. Modesty is a state of mind, a humble mind. But that state of mind is purely subjective, like a bias. A woman from a Muslim nation can put up naked pictures of herself on her blog to reveal her justified rebellion. Her intention in her mind at least is perfectly noble. However, someone who is viewing her nakedness and reveling in what she is revealing renders the protest redundant: she is seeking to inform others of how she was objectified and sexually assaulted, but someone is just pleasing their virility by simply not lowering their gaze and looking at her. The sexual assault and objectification that she was protesting against is being repeated. Not physically of course. But mentally – and the mind knows no inhibitions especially when the stimulus is so graphic. Those who fuel the porn industry can testify to this. So, a pure intention is being marred by the action. You can cover or not cover, but you cannot guarantee what the onlooker is thinking or feeling or imagining. Wearing a burqa (or not) does not guarantee that you are exempted from being an object. That’s why men were asked to lower their gaze first, an expression that was to achieve modesty of the mind and body, intention and action. And the culmination of that claimed modesty – if it was there in the first place – should be manifested in totality, in all four: mind, body, intention and action. You can intend that my intention is not to arouse, but if you’re giving them something to look at (or even nothing to look at for that matter), they’ll still get aroused – a simple biological reflex, stronger in some than in others, but present nevertheless. The burqa can be considered as a necessary and convenient filter. But there are no guarantees.
So then why cover? That’s a matter of belief and your choice to subscribe to that belief – and its own package deal. Covering up does not guarantee that you’re ending up in heaven. Neither does not covering up. It’s a popular understanding, that those who cover their faces with a cloth or a beard are the most corrupt and vindictive scum of the earth, or even terrorists for that matter – a hasty generalization of course, as was the case with Travyon Martin and Shaima Alawadi. But the resentment is justified, for those who do cover in the name of faith are bearing an emblem of piety, and to not fully meet the standards of the piety that that emblem should’ve intended to generate in the first place is a mockery of both the emblem and the professed piety. And piety is a private matter of the heart. No human can or should be a judge of that. Piety cannot be achieved by merely donning a garment, or shunning it. One has their whole life to practice the part and to perform. The applause (or the boos) will follow later. And the choice to agree to the metaphor and be convinced of its truth is an open question: a matter of belief.