somehow fall into it
even if we’ve done no wrong
because it is our job
to protect men
and not the other way around.
When I wrote the blog, “Is Discussing Hijab Off Limits?” I shared my personal struggles with how the topic of hijab is so often mishandled, specifically with the hyper-focus on men’s struggles as opposed to women’s souls. This male-centered approach to everything in Islam, even acts of obedience that are for women specifically, has resulted in spiritual crisis for so many women, myself included. Even when we are in full hijab, we are harassed, criticized, and berated if any random man feels we haven’t done enough to curb his desires.
At the same time, I also discussed in my blog my concern with hijab losing its meaning to women themselves, and I asked how we can find a middle ground in this. Or is the topic so sensitive and triggering that most Muslims genuinely feel it is off limits today?
The intention of the blog was to brainstorm with my fellow Muslim sisters (and brothers) how we can return the topic of hijab to its proper place: as a female-centered act of obedience to Allah for the sake of her soul—as opposed to merely a “sexual desire-blocking cloth” centered solely around men’s desires and needs.
Unfortunately, this statement alone (regarding female-centered hijab) caused some very strong opposition, as one man (speaking on behalf of many others) felt that my mentioning of hijab as primarily female-centric was a violation of Islamic principles and evidence of “feminism” and my introducing a new religion that is completely foreign to Islam. He contended that the principle of hijab in Islam is centered around men’s sexual desires, not anything else.
Below are some of my responses during this in-depth discussion. I’ve adapted some of the statements for clarity in this context.
Men, I Have My Own Soul To Worry About
With respect to this topic in particular, I’ll share something I wrote after I went through a period of doubting I could be Muslim, which was due at least in part to the tendency of even many scholars to teach that Muslim women are required to keep adjusting their clothes and behavior until men’s sexual desires disappear:
Men, I have my own soul to fend for, so please leave me alone to do it. Excuse my bluntness, but I couldn’t care less about any fitnah you face as a result of my speech or actions when I am doing nothing displeasing to Allah.
So here’s my advice: Be a man.
Can you do that?
Men lower their gazes and focus on their own souls.
If that’s too hard for you, then at least keep quiet about your personal problems. They have nothing to do with me.
How Can Hijab Be Female-Centric?
Regarding hijab being “female-centric,” let me rephrase that so as to clarify what I meant: All commands from Allah are rooted in the believer protecting his or her own individual soul from harm, irrespective of the effect that this obedience has on others. Yes, the rules of hijab are definitely related to sexual desire, but they are not dependent upon them. In this point is a very, very important and critical distinction. It is the difference between encouraging obedience to Allah, and creating a culture of oppression and abuse. So this distinction is not small.
For example, a woman can be covered in all black, niqaab, and wearing a single one-piece, loose abaya with her eyes covered, yet a random man can still find her sexually attractive. Is she is sin? According to the male-centered narrative, she is. But according to Allah, she is not.
That’s my point regarding female-centered hijab. We do all we can to obey Allah. After that, it is not our problem what a random man finds physically attractive. Likewise, if a man covers himself modestly, does not interact inappropriately with the opposite sex, and lowers his gaze, can he be blamed if a woman finds him sexually attractive? Should he be banned from coming out of his home? According to the random-sexual-attraction theory, he’s in sin. According to Islam, he is not.
I hope you see the point here.
‘But It Is About Men’s Desires! This Is How Women Please Allah’
As with all acts of obedience to Allah, with respect to hijab, it is upon the one fulfilling Allah’s command of hijab to engage in jihaad-an-nafs (sincere internal self-check), which is a life-long struggle. It is not for onlookers to seek to do this on her behalf, no matter how strongly they feel about her hijab.
We can argue semantics regarding my use of the term female-centric, but principles are most important. And no matter what terminology you prefer for this issue, in the practical application of hijab, this act of obedience is female-centered because the female is the one Allah commanded to do it. This remains the case irrespective of whom she considers in her heart and mind while covering. While every act of obedience is indeed rooted in the pleasure of Allah, all acts of obedience require a human being to fulfill them, and in the case of hijab, it is the woman. Thus, this “for the pleasure of Allah” act is female-centered.
Personally, I have gone through many stages in this topic, and the one I find healthiest for my soul is to focus on my own heart and intentions in front of Allah as I wear hijab and leave men to do the same for the commands that are uniquely for them. To protect my emaan, I don’t focus on the struggles men have. I focus on my own. This focus is actually what Allah asks of all of us, whether male or female.
‘This Is the Alien Religion of Feminism!’
He said: “I hope scholars and leaders take note of this subtle erosion of Islamic values by invention of bizarre ‘principles of fiqh’ sourced from the alien religion of feminism. No, screaming patriarchy will and should not negate this sanction.”
There is nothing I can say about this blog or myself that will make you see the Islamic urgency, necessity, and sincerity in what I wrote; or even the possibility that my position is more aligned than yours with the religion of Islam as understood by the Prophet, sallallaahu’alyhi wa sallam, and the earliest Muslims. However, I am used to this sort of interaction on this topic, as it is the norm in circles of Muslims who, even after being given naseehah (Islamic advice) and pointing out the very real harms of this thinking, wish to focus on men’s sexuality instead of women’s souls (while claiming they are one in the same when it comes to hijab).
It is clear that it hasn’t occurred to you that you are the one who could be mistaken about this topic, not only in my view, but in front of Allah. Because surely, any woman who wishes to sincerely obey Allah while removing the focus from male sexuality and onto protecting her soul is introducing “the alien religion of feminism” and “screaming patriarchy.” Though neither of these claims are true regarding me, I will not refute those points specifically because, ultimately, true understanding is rooted in the heart more than the mind. And I have no hope of convincing your heart to understand that which you imagine it already does. So at this point, I leave your affair to the Master of the Day of Judgment, as I do not have the human ability to help you see the error of your ways since you imagine that you are on the side of Allah as you disagree with me.
But here’s my advice to readers who might also share this faulty ideology regarding women’s hijab. If you (male or female) are sincerely concerned about the topic of hijab, here are my suggestions:
- Supplicate to Allah that He removes preconceived notions from your heart regarding His religion, and that He purifies your heart from any negative views of His servants, no matter how righteous, misguided or sinful they appear to you.
2. Supplicate to Allah that He grants you hikmah (wisdom) such that He guides you to put everything in its proper place, especially regarding the commandments in His Book and the Sunnah of His Messenger, sallallaahu’alayhi wa sallam.
3. Supplicate to Allah and beg that He allows you to have empathy, love, and mercy toward all believers, such that your focus is on seeing the best in the them, even when they are struggling, instead of fixating on their faults and sins.
4. Supplicate to Allah and beg Him to allow you to make every concern, every advice, and every analysis regarding any spiritual subject, about Him and Him alone, firstly for the sake of your own soul and secondly, for the soul of the one whom you are advising.
5. After you have made these prayers, consider the very real possibility that you are the one in need of guidance, advice, and better understanding more than the person with whom you are disagreeing (or advising).
Women Have Their Own Sexuality
Though hijab definitely includes within Allah’s commands consideration for male sexual proclivities, ultimately, the hijab is centered around the woman’s own soul and proclivities. It is further centered around her need to sincerely obey Allah and engage in continuous jihaad-an-nafs in her interactions with the opposite sex.
What is often lost in these hijab discussions is the fact that women have their own sexuality, and much of it is directly linked to her natural and acquired beauty in the presence of men, with some exceptions (hence the list of this group of exceptions to observing hijab in the Qur’an).
Just as Allah has created men to desire woman’s beauty, He has created women to enjoy this admiration of beauty; hence His very wise commandments on hijab that speak to the very fitrah (inherent nature) of women’s modesty and sexuality, which is connected to men’s desires but is more firmly rooted in her own.
And therein lies the female-centered command of hijab.
In His infinite wisdom, Allah also understands men’s sexual nature, which remains present even when women are fully covered; hence His commandment to them to lower their gazes, even when a man can see nothing of woman’s physical body. This divine commandment alone should highlight the inherent problem in making hijab about men’s desires, as these desires don’t ever disappear, even when women are fully covered.
Allah says in the Qur’an what has been translated to mean: “No soul shall bear the burden of another” (53:18). Thus, women do not bear men’s sexual burdens, no matter how beautiful they are in hijab.
Can Men Advise Women on Hijab?
As I mentioned in the blog “Is Discussing Hijab Off Limits?”, just because hijab has become a sensitive topic for many women (myself included) doesn’t mean that advice and lectures should not be given, whether by a male or female.
The entire purpose of me mentioning this sensitivity was merely to say, “I’m human too, so I understand how this is difficult.” I was not saying that giving advice is inherently wrong. The Prophet, peace be upon him, taught us that “The religion is naseehah (sincere advice)” (Muslim), and certainly no one should be barred from giving advice to anyone, whether men to women or women to men, or to each other.
However, what I find very troubling is that when a woman gives advice to men to remind them that ultimately Allah’s commands toward her are about her own soul (and not about him), her Islam is called into question, she is labeled a “feminist” (in the negative sense), and she is accused of introducing an entirely new faith tradition, as occurred right here in this discussion. But I am glad he voiced this view in public because it demonstrates in black-and-white the very issue at the root of so many women suffering spiritually.
Often, our suffering is not due to our desire to disobey Allah, but due to our desire to in fact obey Allah in peace. Many sincere believing women wish to preserve their souls by obeying Allah from a place of self-accountability to their Creator instead of female-accountability to men. Yet unfortunately, to some Muslims, this concept of female accountability to Allah alone is so unthinkable that they imagine it is a new religion or bid’ah (blameful innovation).
May Allah guide us.
‘Why Don’t You Discuss Women Undermining Hijab?’
All I can say to this criticism is, SubhaanAllah. The entire purpose of my writing the blog “Is Discussing Hijab Off Limits?” was to start a discussion on the wisest and most sensitive way to address this very problem. Otherwise, there was no need to write the blog at all.
My discussion of the un-Islamic fixation of men making the hijab about their sexual weakness (vs. women’s own needs) was to openly acknowledge that “We have to do a better job” in commanding the good and forbidding the evil.
‘But Women Are Beautifying Their Hijabs!’
Regarding women beautifying themselves while wearing hijab, it is very important to note that the definition of hijab has two major differences of opinion historically (the obligation to cover the face, and the permission to display the face and hands). In both opinions, many scholars have stated that some beautification (natural and acquired) will be apparent, like henna, kohl, rings. etc.; and this beautification is not in violation of hijab.
Thus, it is incorrect to state or imply that any beautification contradicts hijab. While the strictest view of hijab does seek to teach this, the other points of view (including the view that obligates the face to be covered), are rooted in the actual lives of female Companions and early Muslims. And when looking at their practice of Islam (combined with statements from famous male Companions like Ibn Abbaas, may Allah be pleased with him), it clear that some beautification is natural and generally accepted as per custom and what is normal.
Naturally, there are limits to this, but again, it is upon the woman to engage in jihaad-an-nafs in seeking to not go beyond what is acceptable. No one can do a sincere soul-check on her behalf.
Let’s Redirect Our Focus
I emphasize again: Hijab is about women protecting their own souls from harm before it is about anyone else’s life being made easier. My post was meant to redirect the conversation to this focus so that we (male and female) can better encourage each other in our efforts to meet Allah in a state that is pleasing to Him.
If you wish to focus on male sexuality when it comes to hijab and you genuinely believe this focus is most pleasing to Allah, then carry on and do what you believe is best. For those who wish to come from the perspective of female accountability to Allah first and foremost (irrespective of men’s sexual desires), then this brainstorming discussion is for you. My hope is to help create an environment wherein we regain each other’s trust as believers, especially as women, so that we can do a better job at encouraging each other to protect our souls from harm—for all acts of obedience to Allah, not only hijab—before we are lowered beneath the ground.
May Allah forgive us, have mercy on us, and take our souls as believers. May He remove from our hearts the diseases that divide us from Allah’s pleasure and from each other, and may He fill our hearts with empathy, compassion, and understanding, but most importantly emaan and taqwaa until we meet Him.
Yaa Rabb, Ameen!
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the self-help book for Muslim survivors of abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You. Her latest novel His Other Wife is now a short film.
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