Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Islam without veil

Since the recent controversy surrounding the French government’s ban on total face coverings (burqa or niqab), the head scarf issue has once again attracted the world’s attention. Indeed, only very few Muslim women cover their face completely, which is a reflection of the attitude preached by Sayed al Tantawi, an imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, who boldly stated that total face coverings are not in accordance with Islamic teachings. It is therefore not surprising that the education ministry in Syria, a Muslim majority country, has also issued a ban on niqab in all state and private universities.

Looking at classical Islamic literature, one will discover that this piece of cloth was never a serious subject of discussion among Muslim jurists, historians, philosophers, theologians nor any other thinkers. There are much more important issues to discuss than paying attention to whether women’s heads should be covered or left bare. The headscarf issue, which has served a symbol of new Islamic revivalism, is new.The Koran itself never explicitly mentions that women should cover their hair. Nor is there clear guidance on what parts of women’s bodies should be covered with what kind of cloth.

Covering women’s heads with only their faces showing, is part of more recent Islamic conservatism, which has recently penetrated almost all aspects of Indonesian Muslims’ lives.Indonesian women, however, have proven themselves to be creative in making the veil into more of a fashion statement that a symbol of conservatism. Girls in campuses and malls have combined the article with modern trends. Ironically, some headscarf clad women can be found wearing trendy outfits accentuating the female form.

Those who are in favor of wearing hijab head scarves justify their ideology, which they consider as a religious duty, by exploiting the interpretation of verses 33:59 and 24:31 of the Koran.The remainder of the argument rests on unclear Prophetic traditions in the Hadith, whose meanings are then violated. The contexts are forgotten and their main messages are abandoned. The focus of attention is paid to whether there is a piece of cloth covering a woman’s head. They are selective in choosing the part of the tradition that supports their argument.

We may question why they are so concerned with two verses out of more than 6,000 verses in 114 chapters of the Koran. Six years ago in Ciputat, Tangerang, Banten, in a conversation my colleague, Prof. Abdullah Saeed, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia, wondered that Muslims did not pay enough attention to the prohibition of lying which occurs in almost every chapter of the Koran.

Paradoxically, the unclear message of wearing head scarves in only two verses of the whole Scripture becomes a heated subject of debate among Muslims.Of course, wearing a headscarf is neither a theme of philosophical nor of theological discussion. It can perhaps be inserted in Islamic law, although its place is marginal. Head scarves are certainly items of modern fashion that have become prevalent in Muslim communities.“Looking at classical Islamic literature, one will discover that this piece of cloth was never a serious subject of discussion among Muslim jurists, nor any other thinkers.”

It is of course a product of culture. Studies show that many women have their own various reasons to wear a headscarf — be they religious, personal, or fashionable. Additionally, wearing a headscarf is obligated by certain institutions, supported by parents, or friends. On the other hand, covering head is also an old tradition, older than Islam itself. Images of women covering their heads have been found connected to Egyptian, Sumerian, Greek and Byzantine cultures. Many classical works show that important female figures, such as the Virgin Mary, covered their heads with cloth. Note that men also wore headscarves — a fashion which is less popular now, except in the Arab countries.

Indonesian thinkers, i.e. Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid “Gus Dur”, whom we should be proud of, warned us that we should distinguish between the spirit of Islam and Arab culture, the context in which Islam was born. Sukarno, when he was young, once condemned the segregation of men and women in public forums. In understanding Islam, Sukarno often called upon Indonesians to take the fire (the spirit), not the ashes (unessential elements). Without doubt, the headscarf issue is not the fire. It is a part of recent revivalism whose advocates adopted the headscarf as a symbol and “identity”, indicating their unpreparedness in facing the challenge of globalization. They are worried of being lost in the wilds of the global market and feel the need to distinguish themselves.

Since the 1990s in Indonesia, the veil has dominated the public and at times buried our “identity”. In campuses, streets, supermarket, vehicles, the hijab has become a trend. Fewer people wear traditional ethnic clothes even in ceremonies. We often see weddings with grooms and brides who preferred “religious dresses” to traditional ethnic garb. In fact, to wear veil, or not to wear veil, does not indicate the quality of our piety. It is purely fashion. Traditionally, Indonesian Islam was never hidden behind a veil.

By Al Makin, lecturer at the State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta.

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