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Guest post: The veil holds Muslim women back

Shaukat Malik is a Muslim-American Certified Public Accountant from Potomac. He left his native Pakistan in 1972 and has been living in the United States since 1980.

Gamal al Banna, a brother of the founder of Egypt's Ikhwan al Muslimun -- the Muslim Brotherhood -- says "the veil is not an Islamic tradition, but a pre-Islamic one, when Arab women covered their heads and left the upper parts of their chest uncovered." He thinks the relevant Quranic verse commands women to cover their chests, not necessarily their heads.

Unfortantely, the Arab world has gone where the Saudi conservatives wanted it to go. Nasserism in Egypt was followed by veiled female students at Al Azhar University in Cairo demanding the imposition of Shariah, and soon there were youths belonging to Gamaa Islamiyya willing to thrash women who refused to veil themselves in public. When the Arabs came to Afghanistan in 1996 to fight for the Taliban, the call for "true Islam" was already a slogan that was heard loud and clear in Pakistan. Ironically, "true Islam" usually applies to women and had begun spreading with General Zia's Hudood Ordinance, ordaining that women anchors and announcers on PTV cover their heads. But the ulema on the right of Zia wanted more. In fact they wanted nothing short of a "shuttlecock", a brutally punitive covering that renders women half blind.

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Pakistan was reluctant to take the veil because of the embarrassing fact that Fatima Jinnah, sister of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, and Begum Liaquat Ali Khan were national icons without the veil. But the order of the Taliban affected many parts of the country nonetheless. After a few incidents on The Mall in Lahore, religious seminarians found that it was no use threatening Pakistani women to take the veil if the government was not willing and the Constitution allowed a woman to become head of government and state. But the environment was scary enough to force Benazir Bhutto to start fingering beads in public and Hasina Wajid of Bangladesh to wear a pious head-band. The Taliban whipped unveiled women in Kabul, but could not do so in Mazar-e-Sharif. When foreign-inspired Islamists began beating up unveiled women in the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia, no one really took them seriously. Neither Bangladesh nor Indonesia could have dreamed 20 years ago that there would be violence against unveiled women. Funnily, today the Pattani Muslims of southern Thailand -- "revived" after their leader paid a visit to Saudi Arabia -- proudly display prescriptive photos of a complete head-to-foot covering for women in a climate that is sure to suffocate them to death.

Bengali Muslim women complain that Bangladesh is falling under the interpretation by Maulana Maududi of a Quranic edict of the strict veil that was actually meant only for the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and that too in a specific case. To impose the veil, a country needs theocratic rule, but theocracy doesn't tend to last, as happened in Afghanistan. In Iran, where it survives, an imposed veil awaits the day of release. In Turkey, which punishes women who take the veil, at least one Islamic party went around illegally punishing unveiled women in cities where it had won the local elections. But today the Islamic party in government wants to join Europe where France disallows the veil as part of its cultural policy. If Turkey joins the European Union, the Shariah will go, together with the veil and an interfering army!

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By choosing the veil as a battlefront, the clergy has made a fatal mistake in the Islamic world. This is a battle it can never win because no one agrees on the nature of the veil prescribed by Islam.

AP photo

To wear the Hijab is certainly NOT an Islamic obligation on women. It is an innovation of men suffering from a piety complex who are so weak spiritually that they just cannot trust themselves! The prophet had instructed Muslim women to use the extra cloth in their headscarves to cover their breasts. Nowhere was their any instruction to cover your face like Darth Vader.

Muslim men have cleverly exploited their interpretation of Sharia laws to limit a women's role in Muslim countries. Laws of Hadood, the Islamic marriage contract, plus legalized polygamy, all lead to treating women as if they were living in Arabia 1,400 years ago, and had no idea about today's world. A women believing in these interpretations will fall victim to these relgious predators and end up wearing a hijab, when all she needs to do is to dress modestly.

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The hijab or burqa are not required by Islam. The only requirement is to dress modestly. Today in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East, Iran, Somalia, Afghanistan, Turkey and throughout the world, most Muslim women have no choice but to wear the hijab or burqa with only thier eyes showing due to cultural and Man-made traditions.

Now, covering one's head as is done even amongst Orthodox Jews and women in India and Pakistan that still allows them to participate in all activities is not at issue here.

It is the total hijab and burqa as worn by many Muslim women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere that clearly isolates them from society while also violating their rights. Essentially her divine right to breath normally and not be forced to inhale her own exhaled air, the right to work in the same environment as men, the right to run a business or pursue any profession she is qualified to pursue, the right to travel alone, the right to participate in a sport of her liking, or just exercise.

The object of the hijab and burqa is essentially to control women. This idea may have worked in medieval times. However, in today's world, where contribution by both sexes is essential, it ends up violating a woman's rights.

Morality of the self and cleanliness of conscience are far better than the morality of the hijab/veil/burqa. No goodness can come from pretence. Imposing the hijab on women is the ultimate proof that men suspect their mothers, daughters, wives and sisters of being potential traitors to them. How can Muslim men meet non-Muslim women who are not veiled and treat them respectfully, but not accord the same respectful treatment to Muslim women? This confirms the hypocrisy of Muslim male behavior reinforced by culture and selfish traditions.

I am reproducing for you translations by three renowned translators of verses in the Quran that make reference towards Hijab/covering one's body.

These verses must be read and their meaning interpreted in the context of Arabia 1,400 years ago, when the holy prophet was alive. This was a time when girls were buried at birth and the outside world was very dangerous for a woman venturing out.

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YUSUFALI: O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

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PICKTHAL: O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.

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SHAKIR: O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments; this will be more proper, that they may be known, and thus they will not be given trouble; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.

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YUSUFALI: Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage,-- there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty: but it is best for them to be modest: and Allah is One Who sees and knows all things.

PICKTHAL: As for women past childbearing, who have no hope of marriage, it is no sin for them if they discard their (outer) clothing in such a way as not to show adornment. But to refrain is better for them. Allah is Hearer, Knower.

SHAKIR: And (as for) women advanced in years who do not hope for a marriage, it is no sin for them if they put off their clothes without displaying their ornaments; and if they restrain themselves it is better for them; and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.

Verse 33. 59 of Surah Al-Ahzaab reads: "O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when outside): so that they should be known (as such) and not molested."

According to the Quran, the reason why Muslim women should wear an outer garment when going out of their homes is that they may be recognized as "Believing" women and differentiated from streetwalkers for whom sexual harassment is an occupational hazard. The purpose of this verse was not to confine women to their homes, but to make it safe for them to go about their daily business without attracting unsavory attention.

Verse 24.60 refers to Older Muslim women who are past the prospect of marriage are not required to wear "the outer garment." "Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage, there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not wanton display of their beauty; but it is best for them to be modest; and Allah is One Who sees and knows all things."

The Quran does not suggest that women should be veiled or they should be kept apart from the world of men. On the contrary, the Quran is insistent on the full participation of women in society and in the religious practices. I think Western culture has embraced the essence of the message in the Quran by according equal status to women in all matters legal and social.

Muslim women remained in mixed company with men until the late sixth century A.H. (11th century A.D.). They received guests, held meetings and went to wars to help their brothers and husbands, and they defended their castles and bastions. It is ironical to note that a Muslim women's counterpart in Europe had none of these rights. She was part of her husband's estate to be passed on to his heirs on his death. Similarly a Hindu woman was also considered mortally tied to her husband and was burnt alive with him in the funeral fire on the pretext of religious tradition. This practice referred to as "Sati" was mainly practiced to usurp her property rights and thankfully was abolished by the British in the 19th century.

Muslim Women living in Western Countries

Partly as a reaction to racial profiling and prejudice in the western world, especially after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the resurgence of the Taliban and their own version of made-up Islam, and reinforced by referenda on minarets and public condemnation of Islam by leaders of democracies sworn to freedom of religion and free speech, some young men and women who were born in the West to Muslim families feel that they no longer wish to identify with the West, and that reaffirmation of their identity as Muslims requires the kind of visible sign that adoption of conservative clothing implies. For these women, the issue is not that they have to dress conservatively, but that they choose to. Some of these women will wear a total burqa with only their eyes showing. They indeed resemble the infamous throat-slitters seen on television murdering captives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although, Western constitutions guarantee freedom of religion, displays of religiosity by wearing the Jewish yarmulke, or the Christian cross is not encouraged.

However, a full burqa will have the exact opposite effect on the majority population. Unlike Pakistan or India, where every woman is subjected to an "eye-exam", in the West people are not really bothered, unless someone is wearing very little clothing. A Muslim woman by covering her head amd dressing up in loose fitting clothes will hardly be noticed and can go about her business.

Unfortunately, the hijab covering the face, with each breath visible with the movement of the area covering the mouth, bears a close resemblance to the Darth Vader character of the Star Wars films. It draws unwanted attention and ignites the hatred of bigots.

In the United States, under civil liberties guaranteed by the separation of church and state, wearing a hijab is a woman's choice. But why stand out in a safe society?

You do not suddenly acquire good morals by putting on a hijab. Your environment and where you live and work more or less dictates how you dress. Muslim women in the West who wear a hijab, especially of the type worn by Darth Vader, are incorrectly and criminally identifying Islam with this crazy outfit. They are dragging Islam into the gutter of hatred. As if the throat-cutting Taliban and Lal Masjid-type mullahs have not done enough damage already. Videos of Muslim men shouting, "God is great and beheading innocent people, show them wearing the hijab mask where only their eyes are showing. What nonsense! Do we want to project Islam as a religion where the women must hide or is a source of evil that must be enclosed inside a garment, just because Muslim men are sexually out of control?

Muslim women living in Muslim countries

For years, most progressive Muslim scholars have accused traditional and literalist interpretations of the faith on this issue. They practically propagate that it is women who alone are responsible for the lack of moral probity and modesty in society, and not men's obsession with sex.

There have been cases in various Muslim countries where men after assaulting or raping a woman said that they did so because "she was asking for it," meaning that not observing the veil amounted to an invitation to abuse. Such thinking unfortunately is not uncommon amongst many men in Muslim countries. While we busy ourselves in discussing the veil issue in western counties like France and secular Muslim republics like Turkey, bemoaning the discrimination faced by Muslim women there who observe the veil, we conveniently forget that in most Muslim countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and increasingly, Pakistan, women who believe that modest dressing can be demonstrated without observing hijab are coming under pressure.

Much of this pressure, of course, is coming from men -- most of whom blame an unveiled woman for their own sinful thoughts. Yet unveiled women also face a telling pressure from the ever-increasing numbers of veiled women. This begs the question: is it really liberation that a woman feels behind a veil, or is this liberation only about freeing oneself from the thought of ever daring to challenge male-dominated interpretations of exactly how a Muslim woman should dress and behave?

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It is time Muslim women stood up for their rights and refuse to wear the burqa. We can make a start in Afghanistan by teaching Afghan men to allow their women to go out without the suffocating "tent burqa" they must wear when they go out.

Many women in the tent camps of Pakistan were forced to remain inside these canvas ovens during the military offensive in Swat during the summer of 2009. Many women suffered from serious skin rashes and poor lungs because of not being able to inhale fresh air and being forced to remain inside all day in their tent jail.

We must enlighten Muslim men to be more accepting of women in the marketplace and place of work and not just think of them as a sex objects persons who are inferior and must be subdued and shown their lower status. Cultural traditions rooted in illiteracy and folklore must be uprooted and replaced by reason and enlightenment. The clergy in Afghanistan and the frontier regions of Pakistan must be re-educated to teach them the correct status of women in the holy Quran and also what women have accomplished elsewhere in today's world in almost every field of endeavor.

Female U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan can play a very important role in this regard by gaining access to Afghan households in villages where they are stationed and engaging and teaching the Afghan women about their rights. They should also engage the Afghan men by sharing with them their role as combat soldiers. If nothing else, it can be hoped that this will make the Afghan think.

In conclusion, in a free society we are free to wear what we like, as long as we are cognizant of its effect on society and what message we are giving.

Muslim women should focus more on their personal and intellectual development so they are better able to cope with today's competitive world as opposed to isolating themselves behind the hijab shield.

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