Annur: The Light (Second Part of Verse 31)

And tell the believing women to lower [from] their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigor, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto God together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed. (The Qur’an: Annur, 24:31)11

The continuation of this second verse is specifically directed at the believing women. This verse requires that the believing women observe a certain dress code that is not required from men. What is interesting is that the word hijab, which is commonly translated to mean “veil,” is not mentioned here. Instead the word that is used is khimar, which is understood to mean a headscarf. Women in jahiliya (pre-Islamic “ignorance” era) used to put a loose khimar over their heads that would extend behind their backs. The khimar thus used to expose their necks, braids, ears, and upper part of their bosoms. The new dress code had an instruction to the believing women to draw their khimars over their bosoms or the exposed front part of their dresses. Effectively, the believing women were supposed to cover those areas that were open to male gaze during the times of jahiliya.

Thus in this verse believing women are instructed to cover more areas of their bodies than what they were used to. The verse also specifies the exception, that is, the males who are excluded from this prohibition. These include husbands, fathers (and grandfathers by extension), fatherin-law, sons (and grandsons by extension), stepsons, brothers, nephews, and children.

There is another verse that lifts some of the restrictions on older women:

And women of post-menstrual age who have no desire for marriage - there is no blame upon them for putting aside their outer garments [but] not displaying adornment. But to modestly refrain [from that] is better for them. And God is Hearing and Knowing. (The Qur’an: Annur, 24:60)12

Another verse in a different chapter also has some instructions as to how the believing women should dress:

O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is God Forgiving and Merciful. (The Qur’an: Al-Ahzab, 33:59)13

This verse explains in further detail how the believing women need to bring down their outer garments. It is the earlier verse (24:31), however, that has been contentious among Muslim scholars. I present below two different understandings of this verse that have implications on male-female dynamics and women’s participation and involvement in the public sphere.

Understanding 1

On the one hand, there are those scholars who assert that the above verse instructed believing women to extend the veil over their faces. To those scholars, there is no way for a woman to draw her khimar over her bosom if she does not cover her face. Accordingly, covering the face and hands becomes part of what the believing Muslim women are ordered to do. The famous Saudi scholar Muhammad Ibn-Uthaimeen14 (1925-2001), in support of this opinion, noted:

God ordered His Prophet to tell his wives, daughters, and the believing women, that they draw down their gowns and cover their faces and bosoms...

A Muslim woman has to cover her face... If she reveals her face, that would be a temptation to men, especially if she is young or beautiful, or if she puts on makeup. (pp. 10-12)15

This is the mainstream understanding that is found in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and some parts of the Arab Gulf countries. In addition, this view is embraced by disperse communities, though relatively minor in terms of numbers, in the Levant area and parts of the Indian subcontinent. This religious discourse, dominant in Saudi Arabia, has also impacted other Muslim contexts. A case in point is Egypt.

In Egypt, the dress of Muslim women passed through various, often contradictory, stages. In the nineteenth century, the face veil was very common, and one of the first symbolic moves done by the famous feminist Huda Sha’arawi16 (1879-1947) was to lift her face veil in the early twenties. That was the start of a gradual removal of the face veil and then the headscarf altogether for most Egyptian women, especially after the 1952 revolution which brought Nasser (1918-1970) to power. Nasser, a charismatic leader and captivating orator who ruled Egypt from 1954 to 1970, brought in a socialist revolution that contributed to a transformation of the Egyptian society. During the 1950s and 1960s, the veil—whether the face veil or the headscarf—almost disappeared from the public scene in Egypt.

This trend changed starting in the mid- to late seventies17 to the extent where the veil became the adopted dress code by the overwhelming majority of Muslim women.18 The face cover also witnessed a limited comeback due to the impact of the religious discourse in Saudi Arabia. A phenomenon called “Saudi-oriented Salafism” became very vibrant in Egypt, influencing individuals across the social continuum.19 Some scholars argue that this group enjoyed the commitment of many Egyptian expatriates who returned from Saudi Arabia, many of whom were uneducated. Part of their discourse has been centered on an incessant affirmation as to the importance of the face veil for women who want to enter into the public space.

Understanding 2

The other understanding which is more mainstream—at least in terms of numbers—is the one which contends that the khimar is supposed to cover the chest, the neck, and the ears while keeping the face and hands exposed. According to some scholars, this is reported in a hadeeth when the Prophet conversed with one of his female companions, Asma’ the daughter of Abu Bakr, who was also one of the companions of the Prophet:

Asma’, daughter of AbuBakr, entered upon the Messenger of God wearing thin clothes. The Messenger of God turned his attention from her. He said:

O Asma’, when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, it does not suit her that she displays her parts of body except this and this, and he pointed to his face and hands.20

Proponents of the face veil do not accept that this was a saying of the Prophet. The controversy over the face veil has thus remained a hotly debated issue between various Islamic scholars for centuries, and the debate is still ongoing. In the modern times, the renowned Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali21 (1917-1996) was one of the staunch critics of the face veil:

The Qur’an is categorical in indicating that humanity flies with two wings, one is male and the other is female. If one wing is broken, this means that it cannot fly anymore and has to stop and crash down.. .hiding hands in gloves and covering the faces behind the face veils and making a woman like a ghost who walks on the street isolated from this world: this is not an instruction of any religion22 (pp. 6-7)

This contentious issue has had obvious implications on the participation of Muslim women in the public sphere. Under the first perspective, women would inevitably be secluded not only from men, but also from most economic and political activities by virtue of their dress. A counter argument would be that there are examples of women, completely veiled, who have been participating, or attempting to participate, in public life. Indeed, the controversies over the face veil in Europe have mostly been about such women trying to negotiate their place within the larger public space, and not them negotiating to stay at home. Yet, covering the face would entail significant obstacles towards any significant participation.

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