Yesterday was my son’s school sports day, held in the extensive grounds of Dulwich College. It was a warm, sunny day with temperatures forecast to rise up to 24C. Knowing I would be out all day in the heat, I dressed appropriately: knee length leggings with a light and baggy white coloured tunic, sandals and of course, a hat to protect my head from the sun.
Looking around at the other parents I saw fellow Muslim women wrapped up in thick cloaks from head to toe, many of them all in black. Most of these women would be fasting as it is the month of Ramadan – no food or drink of any kind from sunrise until sunset (though women are exempt from the fast if they are menstruating). The men in these families, those that were in attendance, were dressed far more comfortably in knee length shorts and T-shirts. Watching them I felt the familiar sadness, anger and frustration engulf me.
The stricture for women to wear clothes that cover their entire body and a headscarf or hijab is so embedded in current Muslim orthodoxy that to question this is to be a heretical rebel. I have held my tongue for a long time but today I am going to stick my neck out and say the unsayable. This dress code is wrong, has no real basis in the religion, and is a manifestation of the patriarchal nature of Muslim society today that empowers men and subjugates women. There, I’ve said it!
What irks me the most is the way women are singled out for this burdensome dress code and not men. I would like to see men out and about everyday covered from head to toe (and in black if you please) and see how long they would last under such strictures. If this kind of all encompassing modesty is to be enforced, then let it be enforced on everyone, not just women. I bet within a week or even a day of the universal enforcement of this dress code, men would be up in arms about it, complaining about how uncomfortable and impractical it is.
Men and women are equal in front of God. This much is clear to me. There are differences between us of course. No one can deny that men are in general physically stronger and that women are the ones who carry babies in their tummies, and go on to nurture their children. There are always going to be exceptions to these norms. Some women can be physically stronger than some men, and some women have no empathy with children while some men are caring and nurturing. We may choose to have different roles in our society but we are all equal before God.
In the matter of sexual attractiveness and sexual desire, men and women are equal. I don’t believe the lie that says men are more governed by sexual desire than women and that we consequently have a duty not to tempt them into sin. A muscled man in swimming shorts can turn women weak at the knees in much the same way that a woman in a bikini does so to men. Desires are equal on both sides so it does not make sense that one gender is singled out for modest attire and not the other. The logical conclusion is inescapable: women are told to cover up in order to allow men to have control over them.
Now I have many good female friends and family members who I love and respect and who adhere to the dogma of hijab. Many of them, I’m sure, would argue that they wear the hijab out of their own free will and that it empowers them. I respectfully disagree. The orthodoxy of hijab is so embedded into Muslim society that to go against it is to attract undue attention. For many women, to wear the hijab or not is no longer a choice. It is expected of them in the same way as we do not eat pork and fast during Ramadan. It is a non-negotiable pillar of the religion. There is no opt out, particularly if you come from a religiously conservative family. In these circumstances, women accept the status quo and convince themselves that they are truly doing God’s will.
When I was a young teenager I noticed something strange happening around me. Women I had known all my life were all of a sudden putting on a headscarf in the presence of men. I have photos of many of these women coming to visit us in Geneva and London in the 1970s, all of them bare-headed, not a headscarf in sight. I look through photos of my parents’ wedding in Damascus circa 1966. The only woman in the whole series of photos wearing a headscarf is my old and infirm great grandmother. Everyone else is wearing typical knee-length dresses of the sixties, carefully curled hair, lots of eyeliner and mascara. Yet should we fast forward to a wedding being held today, you can be sure that at least three quarters of the women would be veiled.
What has changed since then? Have we all suddenly rediscovered our religion and become more pious? I would argue that no, we are not more pious than we were before. The growth of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism can be traced back to the political climate of the late 1970s. Middle Eastern countries, having discarded Turkish and British imperialist rule, were under autocratic and corrupt regimes often seen as beholden to the Western powers. The nationalist movements of the fifties had failed and political Islam appeared in their stead, whether in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the overthrow of the Shah in Iran. The siege of Makkah in 1979 resulted in a much stricter enforcement of the Islamic code in Saudi Arabia. The 1980s saw the rise of stricter Islamic practices and the greater influence of Wahhabi theology across the Muslim world culminating in the likes of Isis and AlQaeda. These movements did not emerge out of the blue – they are the direct results of the political landscape of the 1970s.
So, there I was, a teenager in the early 1980s, unaware of the political dimension but suddenly noticing a change in the religious climate around me. Everything was strict, programmes on television (in Riyadh, my dad’s last posting in a long diplomatic career) were full of men with long beards telling us not to do this and that, life became all about dogma, the stricter the better. Three decades of this regimen has infected the discourse so much that few people remember what it was like before. Even level headed, sensible people, surrounded by this dogma in every aspect of their lives have been unable to resist its influence on their thinking. It’s like a virus has taken hold of the Muslim world. We must shake it off with a good dose of antibiotics.
The younger me, uneasy at these changes around me, asked my Arabic teacher to show me the Koranic phrases that tell women to wear a hijab. If God wanted me to make this sacrifice, then I would do it. First, I wanted to see the evidence. The relevant texts were given to me and my first reaction was puzzlement: was I to make such a fundamental sacrifice on this spurious evidence? As far as I could see, the text was telling women to cover up their cleavages and not to shake their ankle chains to attract men’s attention. Not a single mention of covering hair. I went home to my father and asked him for guidance. Brought up in Medina, the second most important city of Islam, my father’s knowledge of Islam was deep and extensive. “Do women need to wear a headscarf?”, I asked him. No, he said, this is just a cultural thing that has nothing to do with the religion. Thank you Dad, for showing me the way. I just wish more Muslim women had dads like mine.