It had been ten years since she had set foot in a mosque. Being away in college had broadened her mind in many ways; one of them being her reconnecting with Islam. She had begun praying five times a day a month ago, and now felt ready to pray in public, at the university's Jumu'a prayer. She paused and stood a few feet away from the women's entrance. Taking a deep breath, she pulled the silk scarf out of her purse and tied it carefully on her head. Her ponytail stuck out a bit. She smoothed the creases on her long-sleeved beige shirt and tugged at the bottom of it to make it longer over her pants.
The prayer was great. She had never felt this sense of inner peace.
Afterwards, she tried mingling with the sisters, but nobody even looked her way. A few of them even pretended not to hear her greeting. The only sister who did talk to her said in a huff: "You know your prayer is not accepted in those pants and that tiny thing you pass for a Hijab. I suggest you get more Islamic knowledge and dress properly before coming back here." The words stung her like a million bumble bees. Too numb to respond or speak, she charged out of the hall. Never again would she associate with these people, she told herself. And never again would she return to Jumu'a.
Are you shocked reading about this incident? Don't be. It has been a reality in almost every Muslim community in North America. This harsh judgment and intolerance shown towards Muslim women who do not wear Hijab can lead to at least some Muslim women to become alienated from the Muslim community, and could lead to a complete loss of Islamic practice.
While Hijab is an obligation clearly ordained in the Quran and Sunnah, the above-mentioned method of its enforcement and encouragement is not Islamic, according to Muslim scholars, researchers and activists. Muslims have to start seeing the issue from a different perspective, they say.
SOME ARGUMENTS IN SUPPORT OF NON-HIJABI SISTERS
"I would say that the overwhelming majority of Muslim women I have met who don't cover and who believe in God, believe they should cover, but believe they're not ready yet," says Sharifa Alkhateeb, vice-president of the North American Council of Muslim Women, in an interview with Sound Vision.
This reality indicates there is a seed of faith that needs to be nurtured and encouraged. As well, it means these women need all the support they can get. Abdalla Idris Ali is a member of the Islamic Society of North America's (ISNA) Majlis Shura, which debates Islamic issues and establishes policy for the organization. He says what also has to be remembered is that many Muslim women are coming from cultures where the Hijab is not practiced, for whatever reason. These sisters should not be condemned. Rather, Islamic concepts like Hijab, should be explained to them.
Another possibility is that Muslim women who do not wear Hijab are coming from families which are either not practicing Islam, or are downright hostile to it. In this situation, "it's actually a celebration that a young Muslim woman wants to pray Jumu'a," says Kathy Bullock, who started wearing Hijab two weeks after she converted to Islam. "I think that's where the tolerance comes in."
Another reason some Muslim women may find Hijab difficult is because of the often negative ideas surrounding Hijab. For instance, that wearing Hijab kills marriage and job prospects. Muslim activists must seek to dispel such myths. "There needs to be a lot more support for the women who decide to cover," says Bullock, who completed a PhD. about The Politics of the Veil from the University of Toronto in January. Bullock also gives a chilling warning to those who condemn non-Hijabi Muslim women: "We might be wearing Hijab but we might be doing something incredibly wrong which cancels out the reward [for wearing it]." One of these things she mentions is arrogance.
WHY ARE SOME MUSLIMS SO SENSITIVE ABOUT THE HIJAB?
Some Muslims seek to condemn non-Hijabis out of their understanding of the Quranic injunction of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil. Yet, they fail to take the right approach in doing it, in accordance with the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), which was one of kindness, gentleness and patience. Interestingly, some Muslim men and women who criticize non-Hijabi Muslim women seem to have different reasons for doing it and varying ways of approaching a sister who does not wear Hijab.
"Unfortunately on the brothers' side there is a push to make Hijab the marker of Islamic identity," says Bullock. She also emphasizes the hypocrisy of many Muslim men criticizing Muslim women who do not wear the Hijab, while they themselves wear no beards, images on their shirts, or ill-fitting jeans. These forms of dress are strictly prohibited for men in Islam. Yet, go to any Jumu'a or Jamaah prayer, and these forms of unIslamic dress can be easily seen. Also, the lowering of the gaze is rarely ever practiced.
"I think some of the men put too much emphasis on the women instead of looking at their own selves," she says. However, Alkhateeb thinks most of the men are less vigilant than the women about Hijab, partly because they figure the women are going to take care of it.
She argues that the majority of the Muslim men who are over concerned about with the issue of Hijab because they don't trust themselves sexually, and fear their own reaction to a woman who is not covered Islamically.
For women, weak self-identity and faith could explain the harshness shown towards non-Hijabi Muslimas. "It is so difficult to maintain the practice of covering, emotionally, psychologically on the job and in everyday life, you get so much negativity from other people that the reaction of most of the practicing women and activists is to develop a cocoon, a protective cocoon, and part of that protective cocoon is in continually, verbally and in other ways rejecting what is unlike yourself," explains Alkhateeb.
"And that is to shore up your own self-identity. I think that part of the reason they are so negative is because this is part of shoring up their own self-identity and because there is a hidden fear that if they let down their guard that they'll stop covering. And if they allow any space in their mind to alternative ways of thinking that their thinking will fall apart. And that means that the underlying precepts and concepts are not strong."
WHERE DOES HIJAB FIT ON THE ISLAMIC LADDER?
"While it is correct to say that Hijab is correct in the teaching of Islam we tend to forget that there are many other basic issues, why the over obsession?" asks Jamal Badawi, a member of the North American Fiqh Council.
Part of the reason some Muslims treat non-Hijabis so harshly is because of their lack of understanding about where the obligation of Hijab ranks on the Islamic ladder.
A more correct approach would be gradual and would mean implementing more important aspects of Islam, like Iman (faith), and praying five times a day before moving on to requirements like Hijab.
"We fail to see any Ayah (verse of the Quran) pertaining to Hijab in the entire Makkan revelation that was given to the Prophet, that's almost 13 years. The injunctions about more detailed aspects relating to the righteous Muslim community were revealed during the Medinan period. Some in the middle, and later part of that period," explains Badawi, "This is a revealing lesson for us because it shows that Allah knew in advance what injunctions He wanted to reveal," he adds. "Yet He delayed the revelation of those matters until many, many years of preparation on the level of Iman, submission to Allah, love of Allah and the sincere desire to voluntarily obey Allah and His Messenger. Once that base was established it wasn't difficult at all for the believing women to willingly abide by the injunctions of Allah. "
Badawi says this is similar to how the Islamic commandment forbidding intoxicants was introduced. "The same process of preparation took place to the point that when the final prohibition of intoxicants was revealed it wasn't difficult for men to abide by that willingly and immediately." He explains this was especially difficult for Muslim men, who were the ones reported more likely to consume alcohol than women at that time.
"Some well-intentioned Muslims seem to miss these lessons from the gradual revelation and become too legalistic to the point of doing more harm than benefit, notwithstanding their good intentions," adds Badawi.
WRONGLY USING THE "BASEBALL BAT" APPROACH TO THE HIJAB
"Muslims gain a little bit of knowledge and they want to run around with a baseball bat and beat people over the head with religion. That's exactly what [has] made many young people leave the mosque," says Alkhateeb. Using the right method to tell Muslim women about Hijab is crucial, just as it is in advising Muslims to implement any other requirement of the faith. "In the Prophet's whole life he led by encouragement not pressure," she says. "The way he behaved is the opposite of how most Muslims who are practicing Muslims behave towards each other in terms of giving advice. His way was not carrying around a religious baseball bat."
The thinker and writer, who has also been an activist for the last 35 years points out the "baseball bat" methodology is in full swing when many Muslims encounter non-Hijabis.
"Instead of inviting her and embracing her, they're immediately trying to think about what they can criticize her about," says Alkhateeb.
The Prophet also did not use"vigilantes" to impose a religious requirement like Hijab.
"When we deal with the Sunnah, we find that he never appointed vigilantes to go around to reinforce something that believing Muslim women were encouraged to do, or use any harsh words or actions to arrive at that desired situation or desired setting," says Badawi. "The approach that he followed which we should follow as our example was not to focus on issues like Hijab before Iman and psychological and spiritual preparation was in place." Badawi stresses inviting to Hijab and other Islamic requirements should be done in a way "that would motivate people to respect the moral values of society rather than simply forcing them to do so. In fact that goes back to the definition of Islam which is willing trusting and loving submission to Allah and obedience to His Messenger."
As an example, he cited an incident from the lifetime of the Prophet when a Bedouin man urinated in the mosque. When other Muslims saw this, they became very angry and wanted to rebuke him harshly. The Prophet on the other hand, stopped them and told the man gently what he was doing was incorrect. "That story is a classic example of the contrast between the attitudes of some well-intentioned Muslims who want to correct the wrong immediately and by any means and the approach of the Prophet of kindness, gentleness, persuasion and wisdom," he explains.
TEMPORARILY TOLERATING THE WRONG: A RULE OF USUL AL-FIQH
"The other aspect which is frequently missed is another rule of ordaining the good and forbidding the evil which was addressed by many scholars especially by the famous Shaykh ul Islam Ibn Taymiyyah," says Badawi. "The rule basically is that if in a given situation, attempting or trying to forbid the wrong may result in greater harm than benefit, then it is better to tolerate the wrong on a temporary basis."
"I think the classic example that Ibn Taymiyyah is referred to is when the Tatars invaded Muslim lands," explains Badawi. "He was told that some of these soldiers were drinking and that they should be stopped because this is part of forbidding the wrong yet, he advised that they should be left alone. His reasoning was that if those soldiers become sober, they might go on killing more people which is a greater harm than drinking".
"This is not a new rule," he emphasizes. "It is a basic rule in Usul al-Fiqh, the roots of Islamic law, that if some harm is inevitable then it is better to tolerate the lesser harm in order to prevent great harm." Badawi demonstrates how this rule could apply to a situation where a Muslim sister who does not wear Hijab attends Jumu'a prayer. "For example, if that sister is approached in a harsh way she may not come again which could hurt her and hurt the community at large. But if she's welcomed first and there's demonstration of brotherhood and friendship, then in a gentle and wise way that is suitable for her, she can be encouraged, then of course it would be a far better result than the confrontational, harsh approach."
INVOLVING NON-HIJABI SISTERS IN ACTIVITIES
"It's only by mixing in the right company that someone who is contemplating Hijab will have the strength and courage to make the final act," says Bullock. This means women offering friendship, as well as involving the sisters in Islamic activities through organizations like Muslim Students' Associations. Bullock notes that if a Muslim woman wants to do something for Islam she should be applauded "because she could be out there doing something else."
"Muslim organizations have a duty to say what is right and to invite in the best of manner women to cover and to support them when they do so but that doesn't mean individuals should be judgmental when women are not covering," she adds.
INVOLVEMENT, BUT NOT LEADERSHIP
However, Ali and Badawi draw the line of involvement of non-Hijabi Muslim women in Muslim organizations at the leadership level. They both say that any Islamically-oriented organization will select a person to be their leader who reflects their goals and aspirations. That means a Muslim woman who does not wear Hijab would not be selected because she is not fully following the precepts of Islam. Similarly, a Muslim man who is not fulfilling Islamic obligations like prayer, chaste behavior, etc. would also not be selected for a leadership position in such a milieu.
Badawi says this is not exclusion. Rather, it is the natural outcome in any milieu which aims to be Islamically-oriented. Its leadership will represent the precepts of Islam as much as possible.
"I'm against the term exclusion because if we apply the Islamic Shura (consultative) method then the leadership would emanate from the people, will be chosen by the people. And if the community or Islamic organization in a given setting are truly Islamically oriented, one would expect that the person chosen to be the spokesperson and symbol of that organization should reflect their conviction and values in the best possible way."
A POSITIVE APPROACH
Badawi gives an example of how he, "with my weaknesses" approached an aggressive non-Hijabi sister and the result. Many years back, during a visit to Australia, one sister, during one of his lectures, a non-Hijabi Muslim woman asked questions about Hijab, in a disapproving manner. He talked to her kindly and give information without harshness. Two years later, he returned to Australia, and a sister in full Hijab approached him, asking if he recognized her. He did not.
"I am the one who was arguing with you about Hijab two years ago," she told him. "But it is the approach and information that you gave me that helped me to study more, to educate myself and to make up my own decision and I am happy with what I decided."