That Veil Thing

Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Posted Sep 5, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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That Veil Thing

By Sumbul Ali-Karamali

Author of The Muslim Next Door

Recently, Roqaya Al-Gassra from Bahrain competed in the Beijing Olympics wearing a head scarf and a full-length suit. I was surprised that her running gear did not occasion more comment. But if wearing a modest track suit allows her to compete in a sport that she wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable competing in, I think that’s wonderful. I’ve already seen posts from several Muslim women cheering her on for solidarity’s sake, and I empathize. But I’m left feeling vaguely troubled, because in all the discussions about Muslim head-scarves, I frequently see a gaping black hole.

And that is the question of whether head-covering is required in the first place. Although Muslims rightly celebrate al-Gassra’s demonstration that adherence to religious dress is not an obstacle to Olympic dreams, they assume that al-Gassra’s head-covering is an Islamic requirement. How wonderful, they say, that Islamic dress did not prevent al-Gassra from being a world-class runner!

But what’s Islamic dress? And is a head-covering required? Both Muslims and non-Muslims in recent years assume that it’s a clear edict. Add to that Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s state-enforced requirement of the head-covering, and the issue transforms from a personal question of faith to a politically charged one.

When I grew up in Southern California, the “mosque” I attended was simply a group of families gathering in someone’s garage to teach their kids some rudimentary aspects of religion. Gradually, as more families joined, we rented a community center. Eventually, we bought our own building, complete with parking lot. The women who came to our mosque were nearly all immigrants of various nationalities. But very few covered their hair. Those who didn’t would have told you that Islam didn’t require it and that head-covering was a personal choice.

I myself do not cover my hair, except – as all Muslim women do – when I pray. However, even custom is not as absolute as we are taught to think; some scholars cite evidence showing that in very early Islam, women even prayed with their heads uncovered.

Recently, when I enrolled my kids in classes at the local mosque, I was told that my daughter and I both had to cover our hair (indeed, that only our faces and hands and feet could show) just so she could attend the classes. When I objected that head-covering was not unanimously required in Islam, and certainly not required for 8-year-old girls, I was unequivocally told that yes it was, it was perfectly clearly required: neither I nor my daughter could come to Sunday School without covering my hair. We didn’t last very long at that mosque.

What has happened in the intervening years?

Starting in the late 1970s, Saudi-style Islam – called Wahabi or Salafi – began to purposefully influence Muslims world-wide by funding mosques with Wahabi imams and granting stipends to those who promoted their brand of Islam. Wahabism, founded in the 18th century, has always been considered extreme in its theology, and was rejected by mainstream Islamic scholars throughout the years. It has never qualified as one of the Islamic schools of thought that mutually recognize one another as valid.

The Saudis, though comprising less than 2 percent of the world’s Muslims, have disproportionately influenced Muslim practice (as well as the non-Muslim perception of Islam) for several reasons: they have more wealth than any other Muslim nation; they control the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina; and they have Western allies. The Saudi type of Islam – though it portrays itself as the true form of Islam – is very much intermingled with conservative, patriarchal Arab culture. The religious authorities in Saudi Arabia interpret Islam in such a way that women are not allowed to drive, vote, show their hair, or be alone with men unrelated to them. But this philosophy is out of step with 90 percent of the Muslim world.

Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, never forced women to cover their hair. Muhammad routinely included women in political and societal discussions. He appointed at least one woman as the imam of her mixed-gender household. Even in early Islam, a woman could be a qadi, or judge. Women could be muftis, or qualified religious scholars. For the seventh century, this was feminist, progressive thinking.

Last year, a radio program featured an American convert to Islam, one who wore the niqab, or face-veil. (I had never seen one of these until I was twenty-eight and had moved to London, where many Arab women vacationed.) She insisted that the niqab was “recommended” and I must admit that I felt – despite my advocacy of diverse viewpoints – really irritated. Face-veils, even in early Islam, were “recommended” by a very small minority of men.

The Qur’an simply requires modesty for both men and women, and does so in language nearly identical for men as for women. The Qur’an also urges women to “draw their garments more closely upon themselves.” But even the early Islamic scholars did not agree on what constituted modesty consistent with these verses. All agreed that the legs above the knees must be covered, as well as the chest. Most, but not all, asserted that only faces, hands, and feet should show. Very, very few considered that faces should be covered. Therefore, as long as the chest and legs above the knees are covered, there’s room for personal, valid interpretation of Islamic modesty.

However it’s interpreted, nearly all scholars agreed that the purpose of modesty was to prevent harm to women, who didn’t have much power in those days and whose head-coverings or veils were meant to convey a protected status.

Moreover, in the 7th century, Islam spread across the Arabian peninsula and into the Persian and Byzantine empires, where many women covered their hair or wore veils as a sign of high social status (the women working in the fields couldn’t afford to be so encumbered). As the Arabs ruled more cultures, they often absorbed the customs and practices of those cultures. Islamic scholars were developing Islamic doctrine concurrently with the spread of Islam, and could not have helped but be influenced by cultural norms.

But that’s okay! The early Islamic discussion on appropriate clothing took into account the established social practices and cultural norms. Significantly, this aspect seems to be missing from today’s discussions on the hijab.

A woman should be able to dress how she wants. Of course there are limits in the U.S., too, not just religious ones but cultural ones; for instance, we don’t allow people to appear nude in public, and we require that – for the public safety – driver’s licenses should show faces. But banning a headscarf is just as much a violation of personal liberty as requiring one. In Turkey and France, where women have not been allowed to wear headscarves in public institutions, scores of women have tragically been denied the opportunity to attend school or get jobs.

It’s wonderful that Roqaya al-Ghassra participated in the Olympic games dressed as she was, because the hijab is a choice, and it’s not about “religious dress” or oppression. It’s a decision about modesty, the same as wearing long sleeves instead of short or a high neckline instead of a plunging one. Her choice is not the same as mine – but it doesn’t have to be under Islam. 


Sumbul Ali-Karamali grew up in California frequently answering difficult questions about Islam and its practices posed by friends, colleagues, and neighbors. (“What do you mean you can’t go to the prom because of your religion?”) She holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a J.D from the University of California at Davis and earned a graduate degree in Islamic law from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She has served as a teaching assistant in Islamic Law at SOAS and a research associate at the Centre of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law in London.