An enlightening piece by Aisha Hussain Rasheed, that explores beyond the literal translation of the Scripture to understand who Islam holds responsible for gender-based violence.
How familiar are you with a situation like this?
A woman is harassed, assaulted, or generally violated, and in the conversation that follows, someone questions where she was, what she was doing, or what she was wearing. Someone else, maybe, adds it wouldn’t have happened had she been wearing Hijab or stayed at home, “the way she should have been”.
Naturally, you’re appalled.
Not only is such a statement morally unacceptable – it diverts the conversation away from holding the perpetrator accountable to blaming the victim of the crime; it’s not even factually correct that wearing the Hijab or staying at home guarantees women’s physical or psychological safety: all over the Muslim world – from the East to the West, even while performing Tawaf around the Ka‘bah – women in Hijab and even Niqab have been victimised and have had their autonomy threatened and violated.
In some situations, such as in the case of Islamaphobic attacks in some non-Muslim communities, or when repressive regimes in Muslim countries target Islamist political groups, the Hijab or Niqab has been what draws negative attention and harm to women. Women are targeted in such a situation, not just in spite of abiding by an Islamic dress code; rather, because of it.
But, here’s the thing: if you were to ever point this out, you’d quickly be told not to blaspheme; that what you’re saying contradicts with the Word of Allah. After all, Almighty Allah says in Surah Al-Ahzab that women should cover themselves, so that they will not be subjected to harassment. Are you saying the Creator does not Know the human condition?!
So, you don’t know what to say. You don’t want to blaspheme, but deep down, you can’t accept that the Qur’an would support this victim-blaming attitude. In the end, you can't resolve this apparent conflict between the Quran in this case and the lived experiences of the whole of womankind.
It becomes yet another one of the questions that you have about the Islamic faith that you will probably never ask for fear of being accused of heresy or blasphemy. You resign yourself to the possibility of never finding an answer that will spiritually satisfy you.
Well, what if that is not the end of the conversation? What if the discussion has been lacking certain important perspectives? The verse in question can be translated as follows:
“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women among the believers to cover themselves with their headscarves (when they go out in public). That is better for them to be known, so that they may not be caused distress. And Allah is ever Forgiving, most Merciful (Al-Ahzab: 59)".
What's going on, really, then? Does this verse really imply that if women were in Hijab, they would not be subjected to harassment or abuse? What would you find if you were to research about this topic in classical Islamic literature?
To properly understand the complexities of this issue, we must first recognise a fundamental characteristic of the Qur'an and Hadith (the historical narrations from the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him)): they are texts! Therefore, they cannot be properly understood without first understanding their context. As a general rule, we shouldn’t interpret individual verses from the Qur’an and individual Hadith in abstract without reference to the textual, linguistic and socio-historical contexts of revelation.
For example, there is a verse in the Qur'an that translates to: "Then, woe be unto those who perform Salah (pray) (Al-Ma'un: 4)". In abstract, without taking into consideration the context of the verse that follows, which translates as, "Those who are heedless of their Salah (prayer) (Al-Ma'un: 5)", the interpretation will be completely wrong: that not only is performing Salah not mandatory, it is, in fact, forbidden!
There’s also a Hadith narrated in some sources on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (May Allah Be pleased with him) that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "the child born of illegitimate relation is the worst of the three." Without offering any context, it appears as if children born out of wedlock are condemned in Islam for the indiscretions if their parents.
But another narration on the authority of A'ishah (May Allah Be pleased with her) could offer more perspective as to what the Prophet (peace be upon him) may have meant: it is narrated that A'ishah came to know that Abu Hurayrah narrated the earlier Hadith and said, "May Allah have mercy on Abu Hurayrah. He misheard and mis-narrated as a result. That is not what the Hadith was.
What actually happened was, that there was a hypocrite (a name used to refer to Medinans who outwardly accepted Islam but helped plot against the nascent Islamic community), who used to cause distress to the Prophet (peace be upon him). The Prophet asked, "Who will help me stop this man?" and was told, "Whatever he may be, he is a child born from an illegitimate relationship," to which the Prophet replied, "He is the worst of the three." And, besides, Allah Almighty and Exalted said: "No soul bearing burdens shall bear the burden of another.""
(Please note that both these narrations are weak according to the classification of Hadith scholars; I only refer to them here to illustrate the importance of contextualising textual authorities. But I digress.)
In the case of the particular verse quoted by some (many, if we're being completely honest) to justify victim-blaming – the Verse of Jilbab, as it is known to many Islamic classicists, it is important to refer back also to the incident that led to the revelation of this verse and the social context it was revealed in:
In pre-Islamic Yathrib (before it became known as Madinah Al-Nabi (the City of the Prophet), the city was known as Yathrib), it was common practice that some slave-girls were put into prostitution by their masters as a way of making money. Even after Islam arrived in Madinah and many Yathribites embraced Islam, that practice seems to have continued among the non-Muslims, especially given that the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not impose Islamic injunctions on the non-Muslims of Madinah.
It is narrated in various classic books of Tafsir that Muslim women, when they went out in the darkness of the night to answer the call of nature, used to be caused distress because some men would confuse them with those slave girls and make remarks to them. The verse was revealed as a result in response to such incidences. So, when the verse says, "to be known, so that they may not be caused distress," it means, to be distinguished from slave girls that were in the Trade, so that they may not receive solicitations that are not meant for them.
But the Qur'an did not stop at that: in a different place, the Qur'an also condemns slave-masters who force girls into prostitution. Allah Almighty and Exalted says: "And do not compel your slave girls into prostitution, if they desire chastity; you seek thereby the temporary benefits of the world's life. And if someone were to compel them, then indeed Allah is ever Forgiving and most Merciful (to them) after their being compelled (Al-Nur: 33)."
Further, the Qur'an puts the responsibility of maintaining one's own chastity on the individual – whether male or female, when it says: "Say to the believing men to lower their gazes, and protect their private parts (from illicit relations); that is more purifying for them, and surely, Allah is well Aware of what they do. And say to the believing women to lower their gazes, and protect their private parts (from illicit relations), and to not show publicly from their beauty except that which is apparent, and to cover the neck openings of their clothes with their headscarves... (Al-Nur: 30-31)."
Classical scholars of Tafsir have narrated that women in pre-Islamic Arabia did use to wear headscarves, but they kept they necklines uncovered.
If we take this into consideration, it appears that the above verse commands Muslim women to differentiate their clothing from the dressing style of pre-Islamic women. This rings more true in contemporary application for Muslim women living in non-Muslim communities, as their observation of Hijab makes them standard bearers of Islam in communities that are sometimes hostile to Muslims.
In the above verses, women are commanded also to lower their gazes and protect themselves from illicit relations, indicating that the command is more than simply to put a piece of clothing on their heads; it is to live up to a higher standard not only in form but also in substance. But before that, believing men are commanded to lower their gazes and protect themselves from illicit relations. This emphasises that when it comes to maintaining dignified inter-gender interactions, each individual is responsible for their own actions.
These verses along with this contextualisation clearly manifest certain principles of inter-gender relations in Islam that I would like to highlight here:
Hijab remains obligatory, as per orthodox Islamic scholars, even without the exact social circumstances in which it was revealed. However, it isn’t an armour or some kind of Islamically-endorsed magic force-field that wards off unwanted attention. It is an act of spiritual submission to Allah’s command that is part and parcel of a lifestyle that is followed through even in private.
Men must also observe their own “Hijab” and adhere to the Islamic lifestyle and Islamic guidelines that govern inter-gender interactions. This lifestyle, above all, is based on God-consciousness, respect for others and self-purification. It is the inculcation and observation of this lifestyle and owning up to one’s own responsibilities that can truly curb social ills, including sexual harassment and gender-based violence, especially in a Muslim community.
When the Hijab is framed in such a male-centric way as to insinuate that it was legislated in order to spare the male gaze from the fitnah (tribulation) of the female existence, it turns a Creator-centric act of obedience into a creation-centric act of compliance.
This, in turn, pushes many women – especially young women and those who are finding their way to the faith – into spiritual crises that could lead them further away from the faith.
Often, unfortunately, it isn’t possible to find a resolution for these crises from most contemporary male scholars. This isn’t due to the lack of example in the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him) or the lives of the pious predecessors, but due, I believe, to their stubborn insistence on interpreting Islamic principles in the light of certain patriarchal and misogynistic cultural norms.
It’s high time that we as a society put such stubbornness and victim-blaming in the ash heap of history, where it belongs.