“The most beautiful thing about modesty is that you lose yours as soon as you police another’s. This is its nature” -Nahida Sultana Nisa
As a child, it was drilled into my head that “the best place for a woman to pray is in the most secluded part of her chamber.” This, I supposed, was why the jum’ah prayer is supposedly only obligatory for men. This was why the masjid made women pray in the halls while men got the nice room with the spiral staircases and chandeliers.
It might also be why the Urdu word for “woman”–awrath–actually comes from the Arabic word awrah, denoting hidden-ness or privacy.
Linguistics are fascinating; it is truly amazing to see how a multitude of plain, unassuming words are rendered to promote women’s isolation. Purdah, which literally means “curtain” or “barrier,” is used to refer to a woman’s veiling in Urdu. The term hijab has also devolved. Now people think it means a headscarf. (It doesn’t.)
When I was a child, too young to understand these scholarly concepts, I would complain as my parents forced me into long sleeves in summer. My father’s standard response?
“Be glad we’re not making you go to school in a burqa.”
I remember those days distinctly: Ten years old, standing in my parents’ room, I’d browse through their books on Hanafi fiqh. I learned that women formed the majority of Hell’s inhabitants–a fact confirmed when I visited my aunts, who were whispering amongst themselves about the importance of maintaining purdah lest they too should end up in the Lake of Fire.
I learned that a woman must never go out wearing perfume, for doing so makes her a zaniyah, an adulteress. I wondered, briefly, if my mother would go to Hell. I’d seen her leave the house with bukhoor before.
Regardless, this did not compromise her undying resolve to pursue modesty. Lately, my mother has taken to making me wear clothing two-or-so sizes too big, because she wants everything to be “long enough.” To her surprise, these “long enough” shirts tend to fall off my shoulders. In India, this is remedied by golden brooches and dupattas wrapped around my neck.
India is also where massive weddings with two-day receptions take place. The last wedding I attended was my youngest aunt’s. It was an arranged marriage.
I’ve heard that at “normal”–white, Christian?–weddings, brides tear up at the altar because they’re happy. This concept is strangely alien to me. During my family’s weddings, brides cry simply because they are miserable.
My aunt, for her part, was sobbing on the floor. It took the entire bharaat to get her to pull herself together and sign her marriage contract.
The contract appeared to be written in Arabic. I don’t remember seeing her read it. Even if she had attempted to read it, she probably wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to understand the words.
It must be understood that in a Muslim marriage, specifically an Indian one, it is deadly to not read a marriage contract. It is deadly to have no idea what you are signing up for.
But who would tell her that?
The poor thing, her mother lamented. She was so sad. Sad to be leaving home that night to sleep with a man she hardly knew. Sad to be getting married, period.
She’d been “saving herself” throughout her life for this strange thing called marriage, this bizarre institution where she’d now be the property of her husband instead of her father.
She didn’t know what her Islamic rights were. She didn’t know that she could talk to prospective grooms herself and refuse her parents’ match. She didn’t know that she was allowed to initiate divorce. She didn’t know that triple talaq is haram. How could she? She’d never read the Quran in her own language.
Why am I ranting about all this?
Because it’s all done in the name of Islamic modesty.
Modesty is such an elusive concept. To most Muslims, it’s some vague amalgamation of a physical veil, barriers in every mosque, culturally induced domestic servitude. Lowered voices, lowered gazes. Your father’s honor. Or perhaps your brother’s.
It’s used as a way to silence, demean and–yes–to oppress women in God’s name.
This is where the Muslim American community starts to scream at me. How dare I further the narrative that all Muslim women are oppressed?! How dare I provide fuel for victim-hungry Islamophobes, whose burning hatred caused them to take my innocent sister Nabra’s life? (إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ)
Allow me to elucidate my perspective. There are many Muslim women who choose to veil their faces or cover their hair because they believe it’s religious obligation. They do it out of fear of their Lord, out of a sincere desire to serve Him. I have nothing against this–in fact, I very much admire these women’s initiative.
But when we pretend that all Muslim women cover themselves out of their personal desire to serve God, we ignore those who don’t. And it is impossible to deny that in Muslim-majority communities, women are shamed, bullied, and honor-chided into veiling themselves, hiding themselves away, and shackling their own potential.
When I complain about the way women are treated in my own community, it’s not an invitation to Islamophobes to hijack our struggles. And when I criticize misinterpretations of Islam, I am in no way criticizing Islam itself.
The first thing Muslims must do is to educate themselves on what modesty actually means according to the Quran. Shockingly, the Quran doesn’t actually mandate a headscarf or a face veil, and instead commands women to avoid displaying their ornaments/adornment “beyond what appears naturally of it” (24:31). This phrase indicates that we are to employ human reasoning in determining for ourselves what is appropriate to display. This is open to interpretation, and societal norms also play a role. Modesty in Indonesia is different from modesty in the West, which is, in turn, vastly different from modesty in Saudia.
Modesty should not be conflated with stifling individuality and beauty. God actually commands us to make beautiful things. In fact, He orders us to beautify ourselves:
“O children of Adam, wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer, and eat and drink: but be not excessive–for God does not like the wasteful.” 7:31
Verse 7:31 instructs all Muslims to value aspects of physical beauty. Its only restriction is that we should avoid displays of extravagance. This sentiment is echoed in verse 24:31: Provocative displays of adornment beyond what is “apparent” (Arabic: ilmaa zahara minha) are prohibited. This is a condemnation of wastefulness and excess, not of beauty itself. The Quran and Islam have always valued aesthetics as a form of expression.
Part of our problem as an ummah is that we confuse beauty with sexually provocative display, or tabarruj. This is symptomatic of a much wider disease.
It’s incredible how, in our futile attempts to avoid sexualizing things, we Muslims inevitably succeed at turning every mundane aspect of our lives sexual. Why can’t a Muslim man be alone with a woman? Because sex. Why can’t we shake hands with non-mahrams? Because sex. Why must Muslim women lower their voices in the presence of strange men? Because their voices drive sexual lust. Why are women persecuted and terrorized under zina laws in the UAE and Malaysia? Because sex.
We Muslims literally can’t live our lives without a paralyzing fear of all things sexual–and in turn we inadvertently sexualize everything. It’s no wonder Muslim-majority countries have the highest rates of pornography usage worldwide.
Televangelists and self-righteous imams spend their days preaching at women: “Why, O women, do you walk around marketplaces and shopping malls in broad daylight? Why do you mingle with men? Where is your haya, your modesty?!”…And finally, “Why do you not remain at home as you should?!”
This is despite the fact that the Quran orders both men and women to actively participate in society (9:71). Verse 33:59 orders women to lengthen their garments appropriately so that they may avoid being harassed in public. (This doesn’t mean a woman is guilty if she is harassed; the subsequent verse, 33:60, clearly blames the perpetrators of said harassment–the hypocrites).
The Quran commands decent dress precisely so that both genders can interact with each other in the public sphere. If women were locked up at home, there would be no point in ordering public modesty!
But many Muslims overlook this, instead insisting that a family’s honor lies in the seclusion of its women. This is unhealthy–not to mention, often detrimental to the women involved.
Crimes against women are perpetrated under the guise of “protecting” them. Muslim men are generally told to maintain gheerah with regard to their wives and daughters. Gheerah is an Arabic term meaning “protective jealousy.” In the Quran, men are charged with primary responsibility regarding the maintenance of their female relatives. Unfortunately, in actual practice, this has been replaced with selfish possessiveness. All of it is backed up with misguided religious convictions.
Double standards are also rampant. Modesty is seen as applicable only to women, who are routinely repressed. Muslim men, on the other hand, are told that they will be “gifted” with “heavenly maidens” (Hur Al-Ayn) in Jannah. Islamic secondary sources are filled with distasteful graphic descriptions of these women, who are apparently created only to satiate men’s lust.
According to the Quran, Hur Al-Ayn are for all companions of Paradise. The hooris themselves are gender-neutral, and harbor no sexual connotation. The word for hoor comes from the Arabic term ahwar, meaning *bright-eyed, with intensely dark pupils. The Quran renders Hur Al-Ayn as nothing more than “pure companions” found in Eden. But Islamic secondary sources have taken this lovely concept and turned it into an absurd concoction of ancient men’s depraved fantasies.
There are times when I hear descriptions of the (alleged) 72 virgins in Jannah and burst out laughing. It is hilarious how desperate men can convert such pure beauty into such a nonsensical sexual dream.
But other times, my heart breaks.
I’ve seen Muslim women in tears over the hooris that their husbands will supposedly be awarded in Jannah. I’ve seen them attempt to invent explanations–perhaps earthly women will be prettier than the hooris! Perhaps we will harbor no jealousy!–but in the end, it all falls flat. The orthodoxy’s disgustingly fanciful tales continue to find their way into the fatwas of “reputable” Islamic organizations.
I admire the strength of orthodox Muslim women. It amazes me. Despite everything: Despite the fact that the orthodoxy caters to men, deprives women of their rights, and massacres Quranic teachings in the name of God–somehow, they live through it. Somehow, most of them manage to retain their faith.
I follow only the Quran, which guarantees me my rights. God also promises me lawful retribution. The men guilty of replacing Islam with their corrupt desires will be punished. It brings me peace, to know that.
Girls who were buried alive–whether literally or figuratively–in this dunya will testify against their oppressors on the Day of Judgement:
“And when the girl buried alive is asked, for what crime she was killed…” 81:8
The Quran’s verses on wrath and retribution used to distress me. But now they are comforting. They promise equity in Heaven. They are a manifestation of God’s Overriding Mercy towards the oppressed.
I don’t need to gain retribution on my own. God will do it for me.
*Bright-eyed is an approximate translation. Ahwar also denotes purity of heart or lightness, or faithfulness. It has absolutely no inherent sexual connotation. Rather, the Quran defines our relationship with Hur Al-Ayn as one of peaceful companionship.