Hijab and Space

I remember a few years ago reading Yasmin Mogahed’s piece on being against “western” interpretations of feminism and how leading prayer isn’t a sign of equality but rather a hidden desire to be like men, and disliking it very much. And then Sana Saeed’s piece, which primarily focused on criticizing frameworks of Progressive Islam, but she did spend a bit of time saying that the question is not about a radical reinterpretation of Islam but really about space,

[T]he problem is about how we frame our discussion on equality. The problem is not about where women pray in relation to men, but rather what this position says about their space in the community. Space speaks – space has meaning not in and of itself but because it is given meaning by those who create it and those who inhabit it. The space created for Muslim women in the masajid of North America says more about their position in the community in terms of religious engagement than about a centuries old, outdated position of prayer. Praying next to each other or having a female Imam lead a mixed-sex congregation doesn’t, still, get at the root cause of the problem. It takes a rather stark and “radical” action and imposes it immediately, without allowing for natural evolution. Spatial restructuring requires mentality restructuring. Change the position of these women in their community and then you will create changes in space. This is how it is done organically as opposed to through sensationalism.

Then there’s that Sh. Hamza Yusuf sound clip that revolves around every few months and no one does anything about it after that.

And now there’s this viral Ali Gomaa article, ” if the Americans agree and feel satisfied with adopting the legal opinion which permit women to lead men in prayer then it is their own preference but we don’t issue such fatwa in our country because it goes directly against our cultural heritage which was established for centuries. The ultimate aim for any jurist is to look out for the interest of his people without contradicting a juristic consensus.”

All this brings me full circle back to a list of questions I drew up a while back before starting the hijab experiment. If we were to step back a little further from the women leading prayer topic and discuss gender and space in the context of religion two of my questions that I’m still trying to figure out are

  •  How does the hijab shape public/private space, and how does that affect our roles?
  • Is the hijab a community obligation? 

My main problem with Yasmin Mogahed’s article is her definition of Western feminism. Although I agree that I find certain aspects of Western understandings of feminism quite problematic and excluding, I don’t see her interpretation to be correct. She argues that Western feminism has adopted the framework of women imitating men, and that shouldn’t be the goal of women. To me, the goal of “Western” feminism is to give both men and women greater access to public and private space. This means that women should be able to have better access to the public sphere, where traditionally they are meant to be in the private, and men should be able to have greater access to the private sphere (greater paternal rights, emotional validation, etc.), where traditionally they are meant to focus on the public.

Among Islamic conversations, this form of feminism is validated through the hijab. There is a popular argument about how women who wear hijab can fully participate in society, as men will be able to respect them more. I remember learning as a child stories about how women during the Prophet’s time were harassed and the hijab was brought about as an identifier of their religion, and, as such, members of a larger community that will come to their defense if they were harassed. This sort of thinking has led me to believe the hijab is a form of spatial division (in the context of the Qur’an, the word ‘hijab’ is used to discuss spatial division but does not refer to women’s clothing as it literally means ‘curtain’).  The hijab, in theory, should give women greater access to the public sphere, and, in theory, the state of hijablessness is a state meant for privacy. It’s a physical marker of mental spatial division.

But that’s not really true. Women who wear the hijab are still harassed by men. Are the cases of women being harassed by men simply exceptions to the rule? Many Muslims seem to agree that they are exceptions, but that doesn’t explain the high level of sexual assault in Muslim countries that women have to face. Could it possibly be that the high levels of sexual assault we see in these regions is related to the idea disseminated through this argument of the purpose of hijab — that men are unable to control themselves, and it’s somehow women’s responsibility to quell men’s sexual desires? If the answer is yes, then that does indeed make hijab not an individual choice, but a community obligation. [This argument also leaves greater room for victim blaming as it seems to say that women who choose not to defend themselves with their clothes are deserving of sexual assault.]

A second question that comes about from this argument, is that if hijab is the solution to interaction in the public sphere why are gender roles still one of the most confusing topic for young practicing Muslims? (I follow this blog of this young imam that takes questions from teenage Muslims, and half of the questions are on the topic of proper gender interaction)  In a recent article Haroon Moghul wrote about the Muslim marriage problem a young man asked, “Can I ask a woman in a headscarf for her phone number?” Is this being asked because the topic of marriage belongs in the private sphere category and such a question interferes with the public/private division? Why are/should women be less approachable because of their hijab?

In my personal experience with the state of hijab and hijablessness, I’ve noticed that I get less attention when not wearing the hijab (which was initially surprising to me since I had a ridiculous belief about how the hijab relates to beauty — but that’s for another post). In fact, I feel I have received a greater amount of respect with my inconspicuousness, primarily due to the lack of attention I receive. I’ll just say that a friend once told me that I ‘attract [strangers who are] creepers,’ and without the hijab I no longer get that attention.

So going back to the Ali Gomaa article, where he states that the argument of whether or not women should lead prayers should consider cultural understandings, we could take into account about how here in America at least women’s participation in society is generally not affected by physical appearance. [Ok, that is a total lie but believe me for a second specifically in regards to the state of hijab or hijablessness and not the pressures of beauty placed on men and women (hijab and modesty — for another post).] As such, does that mean that we don’t necessarily need to make this physical division of space? This is where I get stuck since I think that I’m mixing too many thoughts in one idea and I lose my ability to explain things….

Anyway, basic conclusion that everyone already agrees with, clothing choices should not determine the level of respect a person receives nor should it determine their access to society. Is this reason enough to permanently take off the hijab – for right now, no.


Posted on October 9, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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