Beyond the Veil: Women and Islam

Guest post by Renee Zenaida, member, UU Fellowship of Gainesville
Sermon preached 2011 July 24

As much as I love the big stories, it’s the little ones I count on to explain things. Although, there are always more stories, more stories needed to fill in new gaps. Still, I felt well-prepared to weigh in when Islam was a suddenly the topic in Gainesville. I’d read Huston Smith, of course, but I had even known Muslims.

Years ago now, I married a lapsed Muslim from Lebanon. It was a marriage not made in heaven -— a lapsed, somewhat angry Muslim and a lapsed, somewhat angry Catholic. Rather than an interfaith marriage, it was more of a counterfaith union.

So when people, non-Muslims, try to tell me some deep dark secret about Islam, I smile because I have heard it all before. Any negative thing about being a Muslim that could be said, I heard from someone raised in the faith.

It’s just that it didn’t wash. Little stories. I never met my mother-in-law, except through stories. She was a devout Muslim, Hanoum. She came from a very traditional family. Her father had two wives and each gave him six children: one woman had six boys and Hanoum’s mother, she had six girls.

Hanoum was a bit of a fashion fan and was able to copy patterns of Chanel designs in Vogue magazine and then sew runway-quality copies. She taught at a little school in Beirut when her boys were small. In the school, she covered out of respect. She did not otherwise.

One day she ran into the principal at the market, the principal admonished her for not being covered in public. Hanoum went in the following day and quit.

Little stories. I got to know a number of students from the Middle East, many of them Muslims. It was pretty amazing how some of them accepted me, and some didn’t, just like everyone else.

It was my Western friends who took on a unified front. Even the most liberal of friends whined, “well, you know…” It was inevitable. I was going to end up forced to wear a veil and/or, if we had any children, “well, you know…” Everyone asked me if I’d read Not Without My Daughter. I was perplexed, anxious about the singular character of this, well, bigotry.

At the heart of it was fear of the unknown. Historians have yet to weave the contributions of the Muslim world into our books of Unitarian and Universalist history -— but I think I have a new project for Ken Burns.

But locally as well, the Muslim American community hasn’t drawn a lot of attention to itself, even the community’s charity work seems to go relatively unnoticed except by those on the receiving end. Until the subject came up, everyone was just getting along fine.

The custom that many have us have adopted, of not discussing religion or politics in social settings leaves the question of one’s faith, unasked and unanswered. Unless you’re a woman, a hijabi -— a woman who chooses to cover, to wear the hijab. Then everyone knows.

Back in the late eighties, the media was just getting started framing the Islamic World. But already the PR tide was turning; but I wanted to look at what my friends were telling me from more than one viewpoint. I thought about their concerns for a long time. I wanted to have an answer to give them. I only came up with a question.

They tell their daughters they are too beautiful. We tell our daughters they are not beautiful enough.

If I had a daughter, which should I prefer she believe?

Even now, the information we do get, often the only information we get, is directed by the very narrow lens of the media, or worse, Hollywood. And people living out their everyday lives in harmony, well that just doesn’t “make a story.”

Still, the three great Abrahamic religions do all seem to have a problem with women. Yes, ladies, we’re a problem. Women are thrust into an either-or frame. Good or bad. Temptress or Goddess. Saint or Sinner. I think we might be able to trace it back to the Greek love of dichotomy, but surely the writers and thinkers who’ve followed through on the big stories never really got to know a woman. When have you ever known a woman who was either-or?

We all do it. We fit everything, everyone we meet into frames, grouping like with like, to get as quick a picture of the situation as possible. That’s biology. We need to assess new situations, determine if there’s any danger, and act accordingly. There isn’t time to look at things from every angle, at least not at first.

Either “Muslim Artist” or “who”? I had expectations. [When I first went to see Ameena Khan's art,] I was expecting it to be a lot more serious.

The opposite of vilifying someone for his or her beliefs, opposite but equally devastating, is romanticizing someone for his or her beliefs. I expected a Muslim artist; I met a Muslim, a wife, a daughter, a wonderful mother, an incredible artist, an environmental engineer, a friend -— and the kind of selfless compassion that is all too rare I this world.

Compassion. If you’re looking for something that is held in common among Muslims, among any group really, experience the culture. Every community builds a culture up out of itself. So if you want to understand something -— a country, a religion -— get to know the people. Immerse yourself in the culture, and oh…eat the food…better…experience the meals. (Always a great antidote to the 11 o’clock news.)

The culture I encounter among the Muslims I know and have known is one of benevolent compassion. There’s a sense of community and shared plight.

When you talk about the United States, you can argue from here to next Thursday about the intentions of the Founding Fathers. United States culture is overwhelmingly Christian. When most of us were growing up, we never gave it a second thought when a City Hall had a nativity set on its lawn. It just was. We may not agree with reintroducing the Ten Commandments into civic settings -— but most if not all of us know them, base our morals on them. There’s a national flavor to US culture -— a not-so-subtle worship of the individual.

Yes, ours is a culture that will protest school uniforms with the fervor other cultures reserve for McDonald’s trying to move in. It may seem trite, but it’s serious business. That’s how deeply ingrained the reliance on the individual is in American society: no one is going to tell us what to wear.

Of course, we end up mostly wearing the same thing as our peers. To wear anything different is to “stand out.” People who dress outside the norm are often treated as just that -— outsiders. I imagine there is similar peer pressure in countries and regions that are predominately Muslim. Resisting would be difficult—in a place where covering is the law, impossible.

But imagine wearing hijab here. Or in any Western country? Instead of disappearing into a sea of veils or an ocean of hairstyles, you stand right out. And it’s not like wearing Orange and Blue in Gainesville, you’re not on the home team.

When news of an Arab spring began to filter in, I was excited. Having let go some of my romantic notions about what being a devoted Muslim looks like, I headed off to a protest on the corner of University and 13th. There were quite a few women there. I was the only one not wearing a headscarf.

Oh my goodness. I held my sign, chanted along (we were awful at the chants, we’re doing much better with our chants for peace this morning), but I stood out.

Now, there’s something about being a Unitarian Universalist, I’m not sure why, but you end up carrying a lot of protest signs. I’ve been in the crowd before; but this time at least a dozen people pointed out that they’d seen me for less than a second on the news. I stood out.

Still, I was feeling pretty good about having been there, at least tangentially, cheering on world-changing events, when I went to gather my things. As I was waving goodbye, an elder, a woman, walked near me. She dropped a flag. I picked it up and took it to her. I was expecting an accent. Egyptian perhaps? It was an Egyptian flag. No. The lovely lady turned to me, and, in since the cradle Southern, said “Thank you, Sweetie.”

No matter how far I stretched my frame, it wouldn’t hold a representative grouping of Muslim women. So why not really test the boundaries. I put a note out on Facebook, asking Muslim friends to comment on “the veil,” and to share with their friends.

People sent me articles, videos, and best of all, personal notes. All spoke of hijab as an expression of faith, but each had a unique way of expressing her faith and her relationship to covering.

I sometimes get the impression that in that romanticizing way, some think women wearing hijab are somehow unaware of its implications. Somehow these dear innocents haven’t caught up to us yet.

With the information I’ve received so far, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Muslim communities worldwide are discussing the role of women, the role of hijab -— from lovely songs extolling the virtues of hijabi to a comedian shouting about what is and what is not hijab to internationally published profiles of women who have chosen to not cover, sometimes after many years of wearing the hijab. There are blogs and websites discussing all the possible frames a Muslim woman can fit into. The range is staggering.

Islamic scholars debate whether the instructions on modesty were for all women or only for the Prophet’s wives; argue over how much covering is required. There are radical women and moderate women and conservative women…and men…all interacting from within and from outside the system. Islam is not the monolith some perceive it to be: it’s a vibrant, living faith. Change, if it comes, will come from within the faith.

One of the most touching letters I received was from a woman named Angham. She started covering when she was 21; and it was a hard decision…but she’s forty now…and she has grown into and with her commitment to her faith.

What was more difficult for Angham was moving to the United Kingdom. People stared. She even felt pity. She had been a lecturer in English literature at an Iraqi university, she was in the UK to pursue a higher degree.

She wrote:

“To be honest, when I came to study in the UK last year I was uncomfortable with the way some people were looking at me and I fully understand how most people in the West look at the veil… I don't blame them as long as they are highly attracted to what certain newspapers tell them… I even sometimes feel that they pity me for this!!!! I think it is our job. I mean the veiled Muslim women's job is to try to change the way the West perceives this, not necessarily by words but by deeds… I think when every body around me realizes that this cover is not preventing me from thinking, studying, participating in life in general and breathing like the rest of them and when I show them that the veil wont prevent me from building bridges with them and make friends and behave normally they will eventually change the way they look at it… It is the veiled women's Job and mission…”

Maybe we could meet Angham and her sisters, those wearing the hijab and those not, half way. To embrace religious diversity, to live the words of Francis David -— that we need not think alike to love alike -- we need, perhaps, to turn our attention to discrimination against women who choose to express their faith by wearing the hijab—countries where certain styles of covering are banned, sporting events turned political, attitudes that judge a woman as lacking because she chooses to cover her hair.

Unless we look beyond the frames, beyond the veil, and see each woman individually, we won’t recognize real oppression when we see it.

Oppression. Non-Muslim friends gave me input about Women and Islam too. A number of people asked me if I’d read Infidel. It was the only lens through which they’d gotten a closer look at women and Islam.

Harrowing. But remember, I was raised Catholic. People who live in glass cathedrals… And as a Catholic, I have heard some pretty harrowing tales about losing one’s religion.

One of Karen Armstrong’s first books, Through a Narrow Gate, about joining and leaving a convent, was unsuccessful on many levels. In 2004, Armstrong wrote in her reprise of the journey, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness, that it had been too soon -— she had not even begun the process of spiritual healing.

That she chose a path of spiritual healing is admirable, and fortunate for many of us. Armstrong is an extremely popular author and advocate for interfaith communication and…compassion… her topic at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly a few weeks ago.

Are there Muslim women who are oppressed? Yes. But there are non-Muslim women who are oppressed as well. Are Muslim women victims of domestic violence? Yes. But no more so than any other religious group. It’s not either-or. It’s us.

“They tell their daughters they are too beautiful, we tell our daughters they are not beautiful enough.”

It’s not either-or. Either a young woman held back from following her dreams, or a teenager saving up for plastic surgery.

It’s not either-or. It’s us. It’s a woman thing. Women have made amazing strides the world over, but when you look at the numbers, women still get paid less, are harassed more, are educated less. Women are the targets of war efforts, and the pawns in political repartee. They are victims of cruelty and ignorance.

When a group of women in Saudi Arabia rev up their engines to get the right to drive. When groups of women brave bullets to march through the streets of Homs, Syria. Whenever and wherever a woman stands up for her rights, would we refuse to stand alongside because a woman chooses to frame her face and cover her hair?

There’s a dimension to the hijab that is difficult for some of us to get our heads and hearts around—it is an expression of faith.

One dear friend just said it wasn’t her way of expressing her faith, but she is no less faithful. I have gained such respect for Muslim women, those who do not cover despite peer pressure to do so, and those who do despite public pressure.

I’m sure it doesn’t happen every day, at least not after a woman has been wearing the hijab for awhile. In the beginning, it can be consuming… like any life passage. But later, when she has endured days where she just couldn’t get it pinned right, hours outside wishing she could brush the hair and veil up off her neck and let a cool breeze in, stares of curiosity and derision, after that and more… she catches sight of herself in the mirror and knows it is an offering, the good and the bad, the pride and the struggle.

What is our hijab? What reminds us of our connection to something greater than ourselves, to all that is greater than ourselves. Maybe we begin with an embrace, embracing our sisters and brothers, and walking to a place of learning and healing.

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