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The Veil, women and Islam


Vinod Kumar

RAWA -- Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, an independent political organization established in 1977 in Kabul to fight for the human rights and social justice in Afghanistan in its official stand points state: "As Afghanistan finds itself strangled in the grip of religious fundamentalism of all shades, human rights of the entire nation are being grossly violated. In fact, the present conditions are even worse than those during the Soviet occupation period. The nature and range of crimes perpetrated against Afghan women by fundamentalists gave no precedence in modern history. Afghan fundamentalists treat women as degraded souls whose only function is to satiate men’s lust and reproduce! Had we been facing some civilized opponents, we might have convinced them of our rights by logic and words of reason. But as fundamentalists go on rampage in Afghanistan, RAWA holds that our women will never be able to achieve their rights through the ‘kindness’ of the fundamentalists. To attain a meaningful emancipation, our women must continue their hard, long struggle against fanaticism and carry it to the end. We are of the opinion that any collaboration with the fundamentalists will only lead further ravaging of the Afghans by these bandits."

On the topic of veil, RAWA wrote: "We believe wearing the veil is a cultural issue, not a religious one." And goes on to say: "the fundamentalists want to use the Koran as a bogey , even though wearing the veil has not been explicitly commanded in the Koran".

Again in a letter RAWA insisted "Still we insist that veil is a just like Russia cultural matter - it has not been explicitly mentioned in the Koran- rather than a religious one as the fundamentalists and other reactionaries claim."

I have full sympathy with the plight of the women of Afghanistan and pray with all my heart and soul for their emancipation from the Islamic fundamentalism of which they have been cruel victims but the question is can they escape from this cruel treatment under false pretexts or denial of reality and blame their fate on the "fundamentalists" without blaming the "fundamentals" the fundamentalists" follow. Can the women of Afghanistan find salvation unless they are prepared to face the facts and deal with the cause of their plight?

The real cause of their plight is not the Talibans -- "the Islamic fundamentalists" but rather the fundamentals they follow which are very dear to the women of Afghanistan themselves too. Let us see if the veil is really an Islamic injunction or simply a cultural matter as the women of Afghanistan would like us to believe.

Needless for me to say that in Islam, the highest book is the Book of Allah -- the Koran -- and the next most important book is the book of the traditions and the sayings of Muhammad; Sahih Al-Bukhari has the highest place among the traditions.

Initially Muhammad was against the hijab. But according to Sahih Al-Bukahri on the urging of Umar -- the second Caliph the verses about hijab were revealed.

Let me quote Sahih Al-Bukhari (The Book of Wudu, 13 Chapter Ahadith 148)

"Narrated Aisha: The wives of the Prophet used to go to Al-Manasi; a vast open place (near Baqla at Medina) to answer the call of nature at night. Umar used to say to the Prophet, "Let your wives be veiled," but Allah's Messenger did not do so. One night Sauda bint Zama went out at Isha time and she was a tall lady. Umar addressed her and said, "I have recognized you, O Sauda." He said so, as he desired eagerly that the verses of Al-Hijab (the observing of veils by the Muslims women) may be revealed. So Allah reveled the verses of al-Hijab". (A complete body cover excluding the eyes.)"

Now what are the verses of the Koran that Allah revealed because Umar wanted the Muslim women be "completely covered excluding the eyes"? Why Umar wanted the Muslim women to be veiled and especially the wives of Muhammad is a matter of speculation --I will not go into that as our concern here is whether "veil is Islamic or not"?

Verse 33.53 tells the believers "If you ask his wives for anything, speak to them from behind a curtain. This is more chaste for your hearts and their hearts." We will not try to speculate what motivated Allah to reveal such distrust of his believers with the wives of Muhammad. But clearly Muhammad's wives have been isolated from being seen by the believers.

Two verses later (33:55) Allah allows: "It shall be no offense for the Prophet's wives to be seen unveiled by their fathers, their sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their women, or their slave-girls."

It clearly shows that veil has by now been definitely imposed upon Muhammad's wives which according to the Ahadith narrated above was not in force when Umar had addressed Sauda.

Then of course what is good for the gander should be good for the goose too. If veil was good for Muhammad's wives it must be good for the women of Islam too.

Naturally so -- six verses (33:59) down the road, Allah says:

"Prophet enjoin your wives, your daughters and the wives of true believers to draw their veils close round them. This is more proper, so that they may be recognized and not be molested."

The verses quoted from the English translation by N J Dawood.

By now Umar's desire for the Muslim women to be veiled has been fulfilled. Umar had wanted that Muslim women not be recognized -- what he wanted that one Muslim woman not be recognized separately from another Muslim woman as he had clearly said "he had recognized Sauda" -- she was a tall woman.

Allah had decreed veil in order that a "Muslim woman be recognized as different from un-Believing women" and being recognized as Muslim women they would not be molested as the non-Muslims knew from the treatment meted out the Jews on the charge of "molesting" a believing woman. It also confirms that "veil" was not a tradition in Arabia at that time. Had it been so the Muslim women will not be recognized as Muslims, separate from others if everyone was wearing a "veil".

It will serve no purpose to discuss how through the history of Islam different Islamic societies have imposed the Koranic injunction of veil on its women.

I believe it is wrong for the Islamic women of Afghanistan to believe in Islam and be "good" Muslims, and then protest against the "divine" Islamic injunctions being carried out in the "true" nature of Islam by "true" Muslims who have dedicated their lives to the service of Islam -- a pure and pristine Islam as practiced and preached by Prophet Muhammad and as revealed by Allah Himself. If the women of Afghanistan believe in Islam, it is un-Islamic to hate the "veil" and what "the true soldiers of Faith - the Talibans" are doing.

RAWA in a letter wrote: "We must struggle against and expose those who misuse religion to subjugate people and especially women. Just look at Turkey a Muslim country wherein women enjoy freedoms without renouncing Islam."

In case of Turkey, the veil was repealed by Kamal Ataturk against the wishes of the pious Muslims and now as "pure" Islam is making inroads into Turk society, "veil" is doing the same. The Shah of Iran had also banned the use of "chador" in Iran; it too had come back with full vigor as Islam replaced the mild regime of Shah. Repealing the "veil" did not have the sanction of Islam.

In all fairness to Talibans -- they are not "misusing" Islam -- they are just following it as it was revealed by Allah.

RAWA contends "No doubt that religion in every country especially in Muslim societies has been flagrantly used by the rather and demagogic rulers. Religions including Islam in their own can hardly be a major hurdle on the way of the promotion of secular ideas and even an irreligious ideology as communism as far as these ideas and ideologies ensure happiness and freedom of the masses."

Sadly, Islam was not used by demagogic rulers for their own use. The rulers who followed or tried to follow Islam to the letter are now considered to be demagogic -- like the Talibans who follow, or at least trying but not always succeeding, Islam to the letter are being declared "demagogic" by the western media. But as far as the Islamic rulers are concerned they were following the highest standards of justice as reveled by Allah to Muhammad and it no wonder that even today a demagogue like Aurangzeb is called a "living pir" and Mahmud Ghaznavi -- the iconoclast a great "champion of Islam".

On the topic of "promotion of secular ideas" under Islam -- Secularism has been declared un-Islamic by the Islamic scholars and rightly so. Secularism implies all religions are equal or at least give equal respect to all and tolerate them; and Allah (and thus a true Muslim) will never agree to this as Allah said in His Book "Islam is the Only true faith" -- it can never be equal to others and specially the kafirs like the Hindus or the Buddhists. That is why in countries where Islam is strictly followed the practice of religions other than Islam is illegal. Saudi Arabia is a prime example where the Koran is the constitution, the practice of any religion other than Islam is illegal. Now, would you like us to believe the Saudis don't understand what Islam is or what the Koran says? Communism is not a religion, of course, and what does it have to do with Islam? In most Islamic societies, non-Muslims if not outright non-citizens are second-class citizens at best, with not much civil or other rights. Treating a kafir equal to a Believer is un-Islamic as the Koran says.

"Still we insist that veil is a just like Russia cultural matter" -- RAWA wrote. RAWA can "insist" all it wants -- that is absolutely their prerogative; RAWA's choosing to ignore the reality will not change it. Should one to read the Koran -- the Book of Allah and the traditions of the Prophet, one will find the "veil" is as much a part of Islam as the "prophethood" of Muhammad.

Not accepting the reality and keeping one's mind under "the veil" is absolutely one's own choice and as long the women of Afghanistan or any country remain under the shackles of Islam and "good" Muslims, the veil is their Allah given fate much as they might try to convince themselves that Allah did not ordain it.

The problem, truly speaking, is not the Talibans -- the problem is the ideology they follow, and the women of Afghanistan including RAWA admire.

The first step in solving a problem is to identify it and diagnose it. The results of the treatment will be only as good as the diagnosis. One can hardly cure cancer by treating it as a common cold -- to give an analogy.