French Veil Controversy: Muslim rethinking of Islam is overdue. By K. Itarwala


The Mullah and the torch-bearer
Hail from the same stock;
They give light to others,
And themselves are in the dark.
(Bulleh Shah, Sufi, revolutionary and poet)
The shrill opposition of many 'Muslims' to the French ban on the face veil has only reinforced my conviction that a thorough reform, indeed nothing less than a complete paradigm shift, in the ways in which 'Muslims' understand Islam is more than overdue. My point is simple: 'Muslims', by and large, are guilty of equating their own historically-produced and conventionally-understood readings of Islam as equivalent to and wholly synonymous with Islam itself or the Divine Will per se. Since these understandings are humanly produced, and, hence, necessarily flawed and limited, to insist that these represent ‘true’ Islam or the Divine Will itself is to be guilty of the cardinal sin of shirk or ‘associationism’. Such a claim is, in effect (even if this is not the perceived intention), tantamount to equating humans with God by equating God’s word with human, and therefore, necessarily flawed, understandings of it.
At the outset, let me clarify that although I am convinced that the face veil has no sanction whatsoever in the Quran and I agree that it is extremely debilitating and degrading for women, I am not convinced that banning it by law is the best way to reform the custom out of existence. That said, I also insist, contrary to what many 'Muslim' critics of the French ban argue, that banning the veil is not tantamount to an attack on Islam, although it may be an assault on 'Muslim' communal sentiments that seem, in this case, to be premised on the visible degradation of 'Muslim' women. To claim, as, for instance, the ignorant mullahs of Deoband recently did (in an appeal to the Government of India to sever ties with France) that the face veil is an integral part of Islamic belief is wholly erroneous. This ridiculous argument only reflects the general tendency, pointed out earlier, of 'Muslims', led by their ignoramus mullahs, daring to equate their own fallible and humanly-conditioned understandings of Islam with Islam or the Divine Will per se.
It would be obvious to anyone reading the Quran that nowhere does it specify that 'Muslim' women should wear a specific sort of dress. Neither does it state that women should cover their faces. It is true that the Quran lays down certain principles of modesty in dressing, but it does not specify precisely what people should wear, this being left to personal discretion and open to variation depending on local custom. Such principles apply both to males and females, and are not specific to females alone. Unlike what the mullahs urge, based on rules that they have themselves devised, the Quran does not insist that 'Muslim' women must be wrapped up in black sacks. To insist that this is compulsory uniform for Muslim women is to be guilty of inventing rules and restrictions that have no Quranic warrant. To impose such rules in the name of Islam is a crime, for it is tantamount to claim to know the Quran better than The One whose word it is believed to be.
To insist, as the mullahs do, on a trap-like medieval Arab dress for women that effectively subjects them to enforced domesticity and abject subservience to men reflects another painful reality of conventional 'Muslim' (mis-)understandings of Islam: the notion that Arab culture is somehow integral to Islam and inseparable from it. Hence, the widespread belief that Arabs are more ‘authentic’ 'Muslim's than we are, that Arabs are superior to non-Arab 'Muslims' (hence the prohibition on Arab women marrying non-Arab men in some schools of fiqh), that the Arab Syeds have special privileges and deserve particular honour, that Arabic mosque architecture is more ‘Islamic’ than other styles, that Arab dates are more ‘holy’ than non-Arab dates, that Arabic is the language spoken in heaven, and so on.
Arab cultural supremacism has played havoc with the notion, so integral to the Quran, of Islam as the universal faith—as the faith not just of the Prophet Muhammad but, indeed, that of all the other prophets of God, whom God has sent to every people, only few of whom were possibly conversant in Arabic, prayed and preached in that language or called their faith by the particular Arabic term ‘Islam’ ( I suppose that if they used any term to define their ‘Islam’, it would have been in their own languages and would have conveyed the same sense as what ‘Islam’ means in Arabic, i.e. submission to God). To privilege Arabic culture in the manner that many 'Muslims', including those hollering for the face veil, do is surely a form of cultural idolatry (defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘extreme admiration, love, or reverence for something or someone’) that has no warrant in the Quran whatsoever.
By conflating Islam with Arabic culture, and, on that basis, insisting that the face-veil is normative for all 'Muslim' women and for all time, the mullahs and their ignorant followers effectively declare that to be 'Muslim' one must conform to, or at least privilege, seventh century Arabic cultural practices and norms. In making this audacious claim that freezes lived Islam into a fixed cultural mould and renders it incapable of adjusting to new cultural contexts, the ignorant mullahs are completely unmindful of the immense practical difficulties as well as psychological traumas that their ridiculous pronouncements produce for non-Arab 'Muslims', who happen to form the vast majority of the world’s 'Muslim' population.
Much has been written about the shameless hypocrisy of many 'Muslim' men, brainwashed by their ignorant and scheming clerics, in insisting on rules of ‘modesty’, including in matters of dress, for 'Muslim' women while conveniently ignoring that modesty, as the Quran suggests, is for both the genders to observe. I do not wish to revisit that debate here, but only want to point to the blatant double-standards of the champions of the face veil. Women, they insist, based on some (probably fabricated) hadith reports (and NOT the Quran), is wholly awrah, something to be concealed fully and hidden from public gaze, allegedly because women are by definition, by their very biology as it were, sources of temptation and fitnah (strife). Even their voices, they quote another hadith as declaring, are awrah, and so no woman should speak to an unrelated man. The justfication the mullahs proffer for this horrendously misogynist prohibition is that women are supposedly so sexually stimulating that if men not just see their faces but even so much as hear their voices, they would be thrown into the throes of sexual excitement. And that would cause the entire edifice of ‘morality’ to come tumbling down.
Those who have read the Quran (without the lenses supplied by the mullahs) will know that there is nothing in the Quran that sanctions this perspective. If men are so weak and so sexually charged that the mere sound of a woman’s voice will drive them astray by exciting their sexual desires, why should women be punished for the sexual obsession of men? The Quran (and logic, too) insists that no one shall bear the burdens of the sins of others. That being the case, why must women be punished—hidden behind veils, locked up in their homes, denied access to the public sphere, left economically and educationally completely deprived and therefore utterly dependent on sexually-frustrated men—just because men are supposedly unable to control their over-charged libidos? To force women to pay for the sins of men is certainly unjust by every reasonable standard. It definitely contradicts the clear Quranic declaration: ‘No soul bears the sins of another soul. Every human being is responsible for his own works.’ (53: 38-39). But will the mullahs, wedded to their own created interpretations of Islam instead of to the Quran, listen to the voice of reason?
Anyone who travels in the Middle-East, the supposed ‘heartland of Islam’, will be confronted by the gross violation of the above-mentioned Quranic dictum on a massive scale. He or she will be faced with the frightening spectacle of women forced to hide behind black sheets, their faces completely invisible, because, the mullahs have declared, this is how women must ‘preserve’ their modesty. On the other hand, 'Muslim' men will dress as they please, in as revealing and as immodest a manner as they like, including in the latest Western fashions. (It is a different matter that many Middle-Eastern women sport the skimpiest of mini-skirts and even the most tantalising belly-dance costumes under their burqas, and that vast numbers of of them, as in Iran, so I hear, simply itch to throw off the veils that have been forced on them by the mullahs—such is the hypocrisy these gendered dress codes necessarily generate).
The fact that women, and not just men, have sexual desires and that they, too, could be sexually excited seeing ‘strange’ men, does not seem to matter a whit to the mullahs, who dare not impose on 'Muslim' men the same harsh rules they can on women. If the absurd logic of the mullahs, that the mere sight or voice of a woman is bound to sexually excite men and set off fitnah on an uncontrollable scale, and that, therefore, the former must be silenced by compulsory veiling (not just of the body, including the face, but of the voice, too), is to be taken to its logical culmination, let them order men, the guilty gender, to be locked up in their homes rather than punish women for men’s crimes.
The neurotic (there seems no better word for it) obsession of the mullahs and their blind followers with the constant policing of 'Muslim' women constantly reinforces the deeply-rooted notion that women are simply tantalizing sexual objects and that men constantly obsess about sex. In this way, this discourse completely over-sexualises men as well as women. This has become so ingrained in the general 'Muslim' psyche as to be transformed into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Curiously, this notion is wholly absent in the Quran, but fully present in the Hadith and in other humanly-crafted texts (which are replete with misogynist narrations that completely defy and contradict Quranic logic), which the mullahs in effect privilege over God’s word by insisting that the Quran can only be read in the light of their pronouncements.
The un-Quranic notion of women as simply sexual beings pervades 'Muslim' cultures and societies worldwide, making for all sorts of enormities: the inability of 'Muslim' men and women to relate to each other sensibly, or even to see each other in other than just sexual terms. It leads to an enormous and painfully exaggerated obsession with sex on the part of men. The more women are ‘sexualised’ by being perceived as sexual beings and subjected to all sorts of ridiculous restrictions on that account, the more men’s obsession with sex mounts, producing a completely neurotic personality. The more women are denied access to the public sphere, together with chances of normal, non-sexual interaction with men, the greater the inability to conceive of the possibility of interaction between the genders in anything but sexual terms.
This accounts, in large measure, for the general impression of 'Muslim' men as sexually-frustrated and sex-obsessed creatures. That is not to say, of course, that this is a specifically 'Muslim' issue, hypersexuality being glorified in many non-'Muslim' cultures, too. I admit this is a somewhat exaggerated stereotype. Yet, all stereotypes, to gain acceptance, must contain at least a grain of truth. Denied any opportunity for interacting on even a non-sexual level with women, 'Muslim' men, the mullahs insist, must inhabit an entirely male public space. That, in turn, leads to all sorts of complications and frustrations, including unhappy marriages that women find themselves trapped in because 'Muslim' men are trained to perceive women as sexual beings and are generally rendered incapable conceiving marriage as an egalitarian relationship between two equals based on reciprocity.
In their dogged commitment to the fiercely patriarchal and misogynist laws that they have themselves generated and falsely attributed to the Quran and God, the mullahs and their ignorant blind followers simply do not care what havoc they have created and continue to insist on creating. And if any one dares to challenge them, calling them back to the Quran and appealing to them to desist from passing off their ideas and rules as the word of God, they quickly pounce on him or her as a ‘heretic’ and impute all sorts of false motives. That being the case, the prospects for reasoned debate on the women’s question in 'Muslim' societies remains, as ever, an almost impossible one.
The article appeared in NewAgeIslam website

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