04/23/2010, 00.00
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Islamic veil: urgent need to interpret the Koran to restore dignity to women

by Asghar Ali Engineer
Asghar Ali Engineer, Indian Muslim, joins the recent debate sparked by the full veil. It is part of a wider area that concerns the rights of women. He advocates a "direct approach 'to the sacred text, and a departure from the Arab tradition, which keeps women in conditions of inferiority, claiming" their dignity and freedom of choice. "

Mumbai (AsiaNews) - The proposal by French President Nicholas Sarkozy to ban the full veil in France has aroused controversy in the Muslim world, in France and abroad. The debate is part of a broader category that covers women's rights in the Islamic world, often duscussed by AsiaNews.

Inspired by the participation of Saudi Arabian poetess Hissa Hilal, in a contest in the UAE – which was a  resounding success with the public and sparked a fierce debate - Asghar Ali Engineer, Indian Muslim and head of the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism Mumbai, publishes a discussion on the topic entitled: "Muslim women between tradition and modernity."

Recently in a poetic recital on T.V. in Saudi Arabia a Muslim poetess Hissas Hilal burst out against the strict control regime for women in her country. It was voice of protest and very bold protest at that, perhaps unthinkable in her regimented society. It was of course in verses of her poem. Speaking through a veiled face she spoke about Islamic preachers, “who sit in the position of power”, but are “frightening” people with their fatwas and “preying like a wolf “ on those seeking peace.

What is equally important is that she got loud cheers from the audience and won her a place in competition’s finals. It also brought her death threats. Posted on several militant web sites. The Saudi regime is controlled by salafi ulama in religious matters; they are adamant on retaining strict control over women in the name of Islamic traditions. Women are denied their rights and free choice according to their conscience.

This may not be the condition in all Islamic countries but traditional Muslim societies impose several restrictions and still are not ready to relax them. For example the kind of hijab many Muslim women wear covering their faces, looking at the world only through two eye holes,  remains controversial among Muslim scholars, theologians and modern intellectuals. The question is what is to be done?.

No one can deny the fast pace of change in the globalised world and it is becoming increasingly challenging to retain present controls exercised on women in traditional societies. This controversy has been going on ever since modernity asserted itself since 19th century. Many reforms took place in Muslim countries and women won a degree of liberation.

However, the later twentieth, early twenty-first century saw a re-emergence of traditional Islam, particularly salafi Islam. No society registers linear progress and progressive measures, in turn bring more challenges. The reasons, not to be discussed here are both economic and political, apart from social and cultural. This complex nature of tension between tradition and modernity is both a challenge and an opportunity.

What is important in this debate, which is often ignored in these debates, is that what we practice in the name of Islam is more cultural than religious or scriptural and also that we depend too much on tradition while defending or opposing the restrictions applied on women. A good example of this is a recent book published from Pakistan on “Chehre ka parda wajib ya ghair wajib” (Face Veil – Compulsory or Not) compiled by Prof. Khurshid Alam. It is a very scholarly debate between two learned scholars one defending and the other opposing the face veil.

However, the book depends entirely on contradictory traditions of the prophet Mohammad and his companions cited by various medieval scholars. You find in abundance both kinds of traditions (hadith) insisting on the face veil or thinking it unnecessary and both the scholars use these traditions to strengthen their position. This approach only reinforces traditional cultural Islam.

We should not ignore the fact that the most of the traditions (except those on moral, ethical or pertaining to ibadat (matters of worship) reflect Arab culture on one hand, and medieval west Asian or central Asian culture, on the other. The jurists have also maintained that Arab Adat (customs and traditions) could become part of Shari’ah law and many Shari’ah laws incorporate the Arab ‘adat.

In the book I am referring to, there is very little direct approach to the Qur’an or fresh reflections on the relevant Qur’anic verses. Let Muslim jurists and scholars realize that Arab ‘adat are far from divine and should not necessarily form the basic structure of the Shari’ah law. Today we must change this cultural base through direct reflections and fresh understanding of the Qur’anic verses relevant to women. This attempt would establish individual dignity and freedom of choice for women. Freedom of conscience is an important doctrine of the Qur’an and so is the individual dignity. The Qur’an is far more in harmony with human dignity and freedom that the traditional medieval cultural practices.

This approach will, in no way, injure the divine nature of Shari’ah and also would liberate it from its traditional cultural basis incorporating patriarchal values of Arab culture rather than the divine spirit of the Qur’an. This would liberate Muslim women and give them sense of dignity and freedom reducing tension between tradition and modernity. This opportunity should not be lost causing more agony to women and creating the dilemma of choice for them. Most of the Muslim women want to follow their religion and also enjoy certain benefits of modernity. The Muslim scholars and jurists should end this agony.  


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