You've spotted her on the cover of a sensational novel, telling a hackneyed story of patriarchal cruelty and oppression; you've seen her out and about in a Western country, looking like a misfit - a "black sack" apparently devoid of freedom and human rights; you've seen her circumambulating the Holy Ka'ba in Makkah, not an inch of her skin showing in her full hijab, including gloves and a gauze eye-cover, wondering how on earth she survives the heat in that garb (because you can not wait to take off your burqa/abaya on your flight back home to your more "lenient" and secular Muslim country). This veiled "robot", as she's known in the media, is an object of disdain to the feminist, disgust to the pageant queen, pity to the opposite sex, abuse and hatred to the biased racist, and overall mystery to the general onlooker. Does she have a voice? A will? A personality? A life?
Before explaining how people can respect the modern-day Muslim woman behind the veil, and why any woman in her right mind would opt to dress like that, I'd ask the reader one question: if you wanted to travel to a place in the world, and you wanted to know what it was like, who'd you trust more to provide you with the right answer - a person who had been there, lived there, and experienced its life; or, another person who held their opinion of that place based on hearsay, information in the media, or prejudice? Which person would you trust to provide you with a more reliable answer? Without doubt, the one who had visited the place themselves. The same principle applies to getting answers to your questions about veiled Muslim women, and why they dress the way the do. Instead of forming an opinion based on hearsay, media reports, or propaganda, you need to approach a knowledgeable, veiled Muslim woman and find out from her, why she dresses the way she does.
- Do not presume that she was forced to take up the veil by a patriarchal father or husband:
Most of the younger Muslim women today are starting to wear the veil of their own free will. Not only are they brave enough to change their image, start a life of being perpetually judged for the way they dress, and to constantly have to explain their faith to curious onlookers, they also have to prove themselves to be mentally aware and knowledgeable individuals. Give them the benefit of the doubt - not all women are so weak-willed that only a man can make them change the way they live. Perhaps you should consider that their God, Allah, is more of an incentive for their change of dress and lifestyle. While it is true that many rural and conservative men make their women wear the veil, as do many men who marry reverts to Islam, majority of the educated Muslim women today take up the veil after extensive reading, studying and research of the Qur'an, ahadith (narrations attributed to Prophet Muhammad [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم]) and Islamic books. Not just that, most of them actually defy their fathers' and husbands' wishes in taking up the hijab.
- Don't assume she is not educated, enlightened or civilized, unless she proves otherwise by her actions:
I am always amused by how people even in Muslim countries turn their heads to give me surprised looks whenever I speak fluent English in public places. I remember being passed over by a female flight attendant during a local flight, who directly served me local cuisine, probably assuming I wouldn't even comprehend the name of the international fare on the menu, whilst she asked my relative seated nearby, "Would you prefer European or Pakistani food?" before serving. There have been countless such incidents both locally and internationally, when every onlooker has presumed that the woman who wears a face-veil and "berqa" can not even comprehend or converse in English, have a University degree, a profession other than milking goats, or a mental exposure that could be at par with their own knowledge of current affairs.
- She does not dress like that 24/7 - she's probably gorgeous and wears fashionable clothes when not around men:
Just because you can not see how she really looks, since she covers herself from men in places where the latter are around, doesn't mean she has no fashion sense, no wardrobe, or no taste in clothes, shoes and accessories; Muslim women take pains to maintain personal grooming and hygiene. They are, simply put, gorgeous to behold - a fact accentuated by the lack of public display of their faces and bodies, and the spotlessness of their character and the loftiness of their modesty. Attend an exclusively women's-only wedding or `Eid party hosted by such veiled Muslim women, and you'll be surprised to see how beautiful they are without their veils, how good their taste in clothes is, and how well they take care of their hair, skin and figures. Muslim women groom themselves only for their personal satisfaction - to feel good about themselves. They do not need, nor desire, cat-calls, lustful stares, wolf-whistles, screeching brakes and leering expressions on strange, bystanding men's faces to know that they look good.
I am ever so amused to read comments on blogs and news websites by haters, who "pity" veiled Muslim women. One such woman said, "Imagine, they never feel the wind in their hair, the sun on their faces, the joy of running wildly in open places..." and I had to stifle a laugh. As one such girl once said to me, "You can not even think of sitting outside in the sun, unless all the men in the world die!"
Perhaps she doesn't know of the countless parks, trails in forests, remote islands and beaches where men are not around, in which Muslim women can take off their veils and enjoy the sun. Perhaps she doesn't know that several Muslims own huge palatial homes, where they have lavish lawns complete with ponds, pools and simulated rockeries, in which Muslim women invite their friends to enjoy outdoor "fun in the sun", mostly with little kids in tow. There are many terraced houses, and those with indoor, open courtyards, where Muslim women enjoy the wind, sun and rain. The average part of the day when a veiled Muslim woman wears the veil is trivial compared to the time she spends without it. However, who's interested in what she's like in her time of privacy? We are too busy judging her outdoor, fully-covered look.
The real problem for the woman who does not like the veil, is that she cannot imagine a life without the ever-present and unnecessary male attention. She doesn't know how a woman could lead a happy and fulfilled existence if men were not allowed to admire her beauty or enjoy her company. Consequently, when a shining example of such a woman passes her by on the road, she turns up her nose in disgust.
Could it really be so disgusting to be indifferent to men?
- Women who wear the veil are able to do many physical activities without any problems or accidents:
Imagine standing with a mask over your face for hours, performing intricate dental or brain surgery. Imagine working in a labratory with dangerous chemicals, wearing an outer garb that covers your clothing, gloves on your hands, and a protective mask over your nose, in a tightly-controlled environment . Imagine getting launched in outer space, dressed in a heavy body-suit and head-gear worth its weight on your shoulders. Imagine the top-to-toe gear a skier, racecar driver, motorbike rider, sky diver, or a deep-sea diver wears to embark on a tryst of his favorite sport - one involving strenuous physical stress and exercize.
Now open your mind and ponder: did you ever question why he or she dresses like that while on this physically challenging mission? Did you worry whether they find it difficult to breathe with their faces half-covered, or to move because of their body-attire? You might argue that their garb or outfit is necessitated by the risk of physical injury or other environmental circumstances. Well, it's all a matter of perspective then, isn't it? For a Muslim woman who believes her dress code to be a command of Allah, there is an element of necessity as well. Why, then, is she criticized because she has to lift up a flap of cloth from her face each time she takes a spoonful of food to her mouth in a public restaurant? Why is her flowing cloak blamed for "being dangerous" for her balance, when she climbs stairs or boards a vehicle? Why is everyone so sure that her hijab, naqab and "burqa"/abaya, are so physically impractical or restrictive?
This scribe has been driving a car, without any accidents, since 2003, with my abaya and naqab. Yes, the cloak hangs around my ankles, and my veil causes a very partial, minor obstruction in my side-way vision. I have taken transatlantic flights in the same garb, without taking off my veil en route even once; I have driven a bicycle around a sub-division in a suburb of USA successfully, with no accidents or falls, wearing the same veil and abaya.
"But it is not practical in this day and age!" insist onlookers. Take a look at the photographs of the scientists and sportsmen above, and ponder on this statement.
In rural Pakistan and India, poor village women do a lot of outdoor work under the hot sun all day, wearing flowing garments and veils (dupatta's), fetching water in pails on their heads, grinding flour, washing clothes and tending to other outdoor chores, all the while dressed in loose-fitting garments such as the "ghagra-choli" and a "chador". Their wearing loose clothes and veiling the face has more to do with culture, societal mores and tradition, than with religion. Nonetheless, they have no complains about their flowing clothes interfering with their hard physical work in any way.
Perhaps all the objections pertaining to a Muslim woman's veil have more to do with the beholders' mental attitude than with actual practical problems pertaining to mobility and comfort?
- Even men wear long thobes and head-covers in the world's hot countries:
I get very surprised when men openly claim that the veil is "dehumanizing and belittling" for a woman.
There are countries in the East, where the national dress code for men includes a long, single-piece garment -- a "thobe" -- pants, and a head-cover that protects them from the severe heat and dusty winds.
These men conduct normal, day-to-day activities and even work at their office in this attire. They go on outdoor hunts and safaris wearing the same clothes.
Despite the extremely hot weather and dust, both men and women in these countries wear these loose garments without feeling any discomfort.
- She does not get dehydrated, deficient in vitamin D, or short of oxygen:
A recent trend in news media has started focusing on how Muslim women who wear veils might be suffering from a deficiency of vitamin D, because their skin is not exposed to sufficient sunlight. That is a baseless theory, because they do in fact get to expose their skin to direct sunlight, just not in public places.
In fact, it is only since the past few decades that the sun has been considered increasingly "skin-friendly", with the bikini coming into fashion, and even secluded topless and nudist beaches abounding in some countries. Since many years before this trend, however, the sun was considered harmful for the skin. Protective hats and umbrellas were used to shade the face from its rays, even by men. Think about life in the West a century ago -- did women frolick on beaches wearing what they do today?
Vitamin D production does not need hours of continued skin exposure to the sun. A few minutes per day is sufficient, which even veiled Muslim women get very easily.
Most abaya and veil-cloth materials are soft and light to wear for a Muslim woman. With time, her body gets used to the extra layer of clothing and adjusts to it. Consequently, she is not always in need of water to drink, or cold air to feel comfortable. She does not constantly perspire inside her veil. The latter actually helps her stay protected from the sun's heat, the dust and the wind. Most veiled women therefore, have spotless and healthy skin.
- She more often than not faces the most ardent opposition for her veil from Muslims themselves:
Perhaps this is one aspect of her life for which no one ever gives her due credit. The most vocal, critical, taunting and antagonistic opposition a Muslim woman gets for starting the face-veil and abaya, is from Muslim themselves. She faces intense opposition in the following categories:
- Her parents oppose her veil for fear that no one will marry her, since men will not be able to publicly behold her beauty, which is considered the prime factor in attracting a good marriage proposal in the East.
- She will be socially ostracized by relatives and other families for her appearance in this attire at weddings and other events, where there is free mixing and socializing.
- She will be labelled an extremist and not be able to progress professionally in the corporate world, because in most offices, women are expected to "be presentable and willing to work in a team environment".
- She will forever have to prove her mental calibre, well-rounded personality and intelligence, since her garb will make people presume that she is not very educated.
- Since majority of the other Muslim women do not wear the veil, the latter feel that a veiled Muslim woman is challenging their faith in Islam. As a self-defense mechanism, they become aloof or even hostile, reducing social interaction with her, because each time they meet her and see her doing the whole "hijab-naqab" thing, they are reminded of the fact that they do not do it.
As a result, whenever a veiled Muslim woman attends any social event, people more often than not ignore her, or talk to her only when she talks to them. They feel 'scared' of that flap on her face, of her 'hideous' black gloves and socks. In other words, they judge a book by its cover.
Below is a video that shows the differences among Muslim women in their approach towards hijab, based on their personal beliefs:
- The veiling of women was not initiated by Islam:
The advent of Islam took place a bit over fourteen centuries ago. It obligated Muslim women to veil many years after the first Divine revelation.
Veiling, however, existed centuries before Islam came and confirmed it. Therefore, those who perceive that it is only Muslims who have resorted to veiling their women in the world, are misinformed.
The history of the veil shows that it has existed since thousands of years. Other religions, such as Christanity and Hinduism, have supported the concept of veiling in some form or the other.
Ironically, in some societies, veiling was limited to the noble and elite women i.e. it was considered a symbol of high rank or status. It was not uncommon, therefore, for wives of kings to be veiled.
Even in this day and age, brides are veiled at their wedding ceremony. It is also common for widows to wear a black veil at their husbands' funeral, even if it is just a net hanging over their face from the brim of their hat.
One thing we can all be sure about: the incidence and prevalence of veiling - or "pardah" - is definitely on the rise, both in Muslim as well as non-Muslim countries. Younger, urban and more educated women are adopting it, not just as a way of dressing, but as a complete mode of conduct and way of life. It is a trend which others will have to encounter in some way or the other in the coming years. You, as a beholder, do not have to understand why the Muslim woman chooses to wear the veil; you do not have to accept it; you do not even have to agree to it; what you can do, though, is to respect her decision, her choice, to dress the way she does. Perhaps then, we all can live and let live, in mutual peace and harmony, in this world.