Reflecting Religion: Women in Islam
By: Rasa P.
Taking inspiration from Ghandi to be the change I want to see in the world, I dared myself to follow my own tips for conquering the writing enemies by finally writing about religion. I’m an alumnus of the Religious Roots of Europe master’s degree program that focuses on the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This program is designed to cover all three religions in different phases of their development through the lenses of history, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, and theology, among others. I wrote my master’s thesis from a cognitive perspective and explored how human brains recognize the sound of the recited Qur’an.
I’m not religious myself but I am very curious about the spiritual lives of human beings since I learned about Catholicism as a child, although I didn’t belong to it like the rest of the kids at my school. Due to personal reasons, my parents decided not to have me baptized, and so gave me a chance to explore religions, beliefs, and other spiritual practices without any limits. After practicing meditation, yoga, martial arts, belonging to a local religious community (I decided to explore my home country’s religion more), and travelling to non-Catholic countries, I decided that religion is an important part of our lives and is worth studying as a science, compared to only empirical experiences.
I was doing my EVS (European voluntary service) year in Armenia when I got the chance to travel to a few Muslim countries. It was hunger for travel and adventure, mixed with curiosity to see a completely different culture, that led me to visit Iran, the secret country of maharajas (that was my romantic title for the upcoming trip). The moment my friend and I left Christian Armenia and crossed the border bridge into Iran, the rules of the Islamic world applied to us too. We covered ourselves with 3/4 length sleeves, a headscarf (also known as hijab) that also covered our chests, a very modest skirt, and long trousers or tights under that. It was an unfamiliar feeling to dress according to these rules. I had a feeling of safeness because I could hide myself under the scarf when I got too much attention. Since foreign travelers, especially women, were rare, people were very curious and came up to us in the streets asking where we were from, what our names were, etc. Nevertheless, even with completely unknown people, I felt safe and the hospitality was overwhelming.
Random people met on the streets would look after us as we changed buses, looked for a coffee (that was a hard task for some reason), and while visiting hidden places of caravanserais’, mosques, and even organizing a special excursion to a famous cemetery in Isfahan. On one occasion, we took a taxi that ran as a minibus and would pick up several people along the way. In the middle of our drive, a young woman jumped in. She saw that we were strangers and asked us some typical questions. After five or ten minutes, she turned to us and said that the taxi ride would be her treat, simply because we were guests in her country. Just one small example of how welcomed we felt.
However, despite all the amazing sites we visited and people we met, being a woman in Iran was challenging. Even when it was over 40 degrees, I still had to wear all those clothes. It became hard by the end. I wanted to feel a refreshing breeze through my hair. Swimming was quite out of the question, as I couldn’t go in the water in just a bathing suit. Moreover, we had to be careful all the time not to expose ourselves to the police or military because we could have gotten our Couchsurfing hosts in trouble. This was due to a law forbidding those without a tour guide certificate to speak to or host foreigners.
After two unforgettable weeks in Iran, we crossed the same bridge back to Armenia. Admittedly, I felt very much relieved (and cooled down) to take off all the extra layers I was wearing. I remember, though, walking on that bridge with mixed feelings because of what I had learned from the Iranian women I’d stayed with. They were so lively, intelligent, curious, and beautiful. Yet most of them felt like they couldn’t be themselves in their own country after the revolution in 1979 when the Islamic regime came into power. This experience, combined with a trip I’d also taken to Turkey, a more liberal Muslim country, and the way Islam and Muslims are represented in mass media, resulted in me choosing Islam as my university research subject.
Talking about the hijab
Many Muslim women wear a hijab. It’s one of the most visible and distinct parts of a Muslim woman’s attire, and its history reaches back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad himself. (1) With the rise of feminism and the way that Christian and Jewish westerners often viewed it as oppressive, the hijab, traditionally seen as a sign of a Muslim woman’s religion and culture, became part of the discussion on Muslim women in society. An example of such ideas is presented by Samina Ali, Muslim feminist and activist, in her TedxTalk video below:
To sum up Ali’s talk, the meaning of the word hijab literally is a “screen, curtain.” (2) The Qur’an is a book written (recited) in the form of poetry and prose, therefore, its meaning is often unclear and various interpretations can be made. Having women dress modestly was proposed as a way to guard themselves from the dangers of tribal society, to show a woman’s social status, and that they belonged to a family or a clan. The Holy Qur’an gives recommendations three times on how a woman should dress but none of the verses include the word hijab to mean a woman’s headscarf.
So, why do they still wear the hijab?
In the Islamic religion, the Hadith (conversation), a collection of reports related to the Prophet Muhammad and his life, that holds “sayings, actions, and tacit approvals and disapprovals of the prophet”(3) is as important as the Qur’an itself. The conversations with the Prophet offer more detailed and precise guidelines on how men and women should dress. There are six volumes of the Hadith that were gathered by six authors in different periods of time after the death of the Prophet. (4) The most commonly used example of dressing guidelines for women comes from the Sunan Abu Dawud collection: (5) “O Asma, when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays parts of her body except this and this and he pointed to his face and hands.” (6)
Another important aspect of Islam are the local customs and traditions of the nations that converted to Islam, which already had their own mature cultures. Just as when Christianity adopted and slightly changed some pagan festivals and celebrations that already existed, Islam, as a new religion, had to adjust and embrace some of the local traditions, allowing people to better identify with it. For example, the adaptation of how women should dress: traditional dresses were recommended to look humble but didn’t change their general shape or style.
The hijab is more than a symbol of Islamic religion. It is also a symbol of culture, sometimes an ancient culture before Islamic religion, and sometimes a metaphoric curtain enforced on a nation by a religious regime. In any case, it is as old as Islam itself and is a significant part of the religious and cultural identity.
1 Interesting research on the topic are made by B. R. Stowasser, Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretations (Oxford: OUP 1994) and A. Wadud, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective (Oxford University Press 1999)
2 Brill online: http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/search?s.q=hijab&s.f.s2_parent=s.f.book.encyclopaedia-of-the-quran&search-go=Search
3 Gade, A. M., 2006. Recitation. In Rippin, A., (ed.) The Blackwell Companion to the Quran. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, p. 482.
4 All six Hadith collections can be found online (also in English) at http://www.hadithcollection.com.
5 An Islamic Perspective on Women’s Dress. 1997. Muslim Women’s League, online at: http://www.mwlusa.org/topics/dress/hijab.html
6 Abu Dawud 27:4092.