“It’s really difficult to walk around Muslims feeling broken inside, and the only thing they think needs fixing is a piece of cloth on your head.”
—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah
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I suppose it was inevitable that I’d write this blog. I myself have been on multiple sides of the hijab experience, and I know how it feels to love hijab and I know how it feels to almost resent it. Some of my experiences with hijab were empowering and enlightening, and others were suffocating and humiliating. But very little of the positivity or negativity had anything to do with how I covered—and I’ve worn everything from a head-wrap or bun-at-the-back (and hair showing) to an all-black over-the-head abaya, gloves, and niqaab (face veil)—but most of it was due to how I was taught to view my body and soul…
“Sisters, please don’t wear make-up or jewelry with hijab or niqaab. It defeats the purpose of covering.”
Today, it’s something that gets me choked up, hearing this statement. Perhaps it’s so difficult to hear because I myself once embraced this thinking, and may Allah forgive me, I taught it to others. And I worry about all the innocent little girls and naïve female converts to Islam who are inspired to be “good Muslims,” thinking that their piety revolves around being un-beautiful and unappealing in public—as judged by random men making no efforts to lower their gazes—regardless of whether or not the women have done all that Allah requires regarding hijab.
Allah says what has been translated to mean,
“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that will make for greater purity for them. And Allah is well-acquainted with all that they do.”
Though Allah equates male spiritual purity and righteousness with men’s own actions and choices, today Muslim women are taught ad nauseam that male purity and righteousness rests with women’s actions and choices, usually in the context of hijab (the Muslim woman’s covering). But Allah reassures us that He is well aware of what many men do. And what I find interesting is that when Allah tells us this, He uses the word yasna’oon, which in some contexts means what “men manufacture or fabricate.” So as I read this, I reflect on what is happening today with what women are being taught, and I say to myself: Allah is well-acquainted with what people manufacture in the name of men’s modesty and spiritual purity.
“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, that they should not display their beauty and adornment except what [ordinarily] appears thereof…”
Though Allah Himself gives an exception to what must be covered of a woman’s zeenah (beauty and adornment), the message many women receive is that there is no exception. This concept of “no exception” often takes the form of telling women that it is sinful for unrelated men to see their eyeliner or kohl, their facial make-up, their facial or hand jewelry, and even the henna designs on their hands—even when they are in full hijab. This explanation is often justified through a strict literalist interpretation of both the term zeenah and the exception “what [ordinarily] appears.” The literalist interpretation is defended based on the grammatical structure of the Arabic and assumes that the exception involves only the zeenah that appears of its own accord without any choice or power on the woman’s part, such as when the wind blows and her shape can be seen or her ankles become uncovered, or when a passerby gets a rough idea of her height and general body size based on how the large, single sheet of burka cloth falls over her body.
In other words, for all intents and purposes, there is no exception.
It wasn’t until I read books and stories that detailed the actual lives of early Muslim women that I realized that this explanation is not completely accurate. Though there are some reports that can be interpreted as describing some women appearing like this in public (which of course are used to “prove” the literalist interpretation to be applied to all women), the fact remains that eye kohl, henna, and rings were worn by early Muslim women, and these items were not always hidden from men in public.
It Defeats the Purpose?
When I hear that wearing make-up, hand henna, or jewelry defeats the purpose of hijab, I have but one question: What is the purpose of hijab?
Is the purpose to stay within the limits set by Allah—or to be always unbeautiful, ugly, and unappealing in front of unrelated men?
As for me, I believe the answer is the former. Unfortunately, many women believe the answer is the latter—because they were taught that the limits set by Allah are to be unbeautiful, ugly, and unappealing to unrelated men (a view that has, in some circles, gone so far as to suggest that it is forbidden to wear anything other than a single sheet of plain, unadorned black fabric outside the house).
What I understand from Allah’s limits is this: We cover our bodies (for our sake, not men’s), and the beauty that is allowed to appear is what would ordinarily appear because it is customarily displayed on those parts of the body that are allowed to be seen.
In other words, if you believe you must cover your face, then whatever would ordinarily appear on your eyes (like kohl or eyeliner) can be seen in public, and if you do not believe you must cover your face, then what would ordinarily appear on your face and hands (like make-up, henna, and rings) can be seen in public.
This is what I understand from reading the Qur’an, hadith, and the actual lives of early Muslim women—and understanding divine sources as a balanced whole, as opposed to isolated verses, hadith, or random stories used to “prove” what all Muslim women must do in every circumstance.
And Allah knows best.
“But you can’t purposely beautify yourself!”
I certainly am of the opinion that both men and women should avoid going to extremes while striving to obey Allah regarding modesty and covering (which applies to men too); and I also am of the opinion that neither men nor women should intentionally “push the limits” so as to skirt around the entire purpose of obeying the limits in the first place.
But here’s what I learned from my studies in Qur’an, Islamic history, and authentic spirituality: It’s not my job to judge when anyone is “pushing the limits”—except myself. The concept of “purposely” doing anything is a matter of the heart and is thus virtually impossible to judge in anyone other than yourself. So I choose to focus on my own soul in this regard, and hope for Allah’s guidance and mercy for my own inevitable errors and faults.
Leave. Me. Alone.
This is how many women feel when they receive yet another piece of thinly veiled harassment under the guise of “naseehah” (Islamic advice) regarding how beautiful they allegedly are to men, thus “proving” that their hijab is not “Islamically correct.” Leave me alone! their hearts often scream.
“I suppose I should be flattered,” I jokingly told a friend of mine. “I didn’t know I was so sexy.” And incidentally, this conversation occurred during the time when I wore an over-the-head abaya and niqaab, yet Muslim men and their wives believed I should also cover my eyes, apparently because even if a camel wore a face veil, its eyes would be beautiful (No joke, that’s what I was told—as if the beauty of even an animal’s eyes sent men into sexual frenzy).
Is Beauty Evil?
“Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty…”
—Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him (Muslim)
Personally, I don’t believe that beauty is evil, but I was certainly taught that it was. No, no one said outright that beauty is evil, but this was the unambiguous message that I received nonetheless.
If you’re beautiful, you’re in sin—even if you’re in full hijab. This is the “Islamic hijab lesson” in many religious circles today. And the “beauty is evil” argument doesn’t stop there. It dictates that women shouldn’t speak to or in front of unrelated men (lest their “beautiful” voices sexually arouse the men). It dictates that women shouldn’t be “displayed” in front of unrelated men (lest their pictures or film appearances sexually arouse men). And in some cultures, it dictates that some women shouldn’t even be spoken about (lest the knowledge of their existence alone inspires all sorts of sexual fantasies in men).
Men’s Loss of Manhood and Respect
When the narrative of women’s dress consistently revolves around men’s sexual weakness and arousal, especially regarding the dress of women who are already covered, there is a significant loss of respect for Muslim men in many women’s hearts.
As Muslim women, we are taught that men are our leaders in private and public life, and it’s difficult to reconcile this divinely assigned role of manhood with the helpless, sexually weak image many men paint of themselves. Though it is natural for any human being to feel attracted to the opposite sex and sometimes become aroused (often for reasons inexplicable to others), it is bizarre to be expected to listen to a public narration of this attraction and arousal—from a pulpit or Islamic scholar—and in all seriousness be expected to change one’s dress based on the inner workings of random men’s minds and hearts. I myself can’t imagine narrating my own attraction to men then writing a blog imploring all Muslim men to stop wearing a specific item of clothing or cologne, or to stop speaking or singing a nasheed because I dream about them at night.
Though I’m half-joking in this example, I’m completely serious in that it doesn’t make sense to view one’s own strength and ability for self-improvement as tied almost entirely to the actions of others.
In the “real world” (in which we all live), there will always be a variety of people, and some of them won’t be Muslim; and still others (Muslim or not) won’t make even the slightest effort at being modest or obedient to God’s laws. But men still need to be men, and they still need to lead.
And regardless of what others are doing or wearing, if men can’t handle their assignment of manhood, then they need to reassess their own hearts and behavior in front of God, not women’s dress and behavior in front of men.
Spiritual Beauty Is Empowering and Enlightening
If I could give advice to new and striving Muslims, it would be this: Learn Tawheed (the Oneness of Allah) so as to avoid shirk, study the six pillars of faith and the five pillars of Islam so as to understand the foundations of your religion; and perform your five daily prayers and read Qur’an daily so as to incorporate Islamic spirituality into your daily routine—then go on with your life.
If you can find a good, supportive Muslim friend or two along the way and a balanced, non-sectarian masjid to attend when you need to study Qur’an or learn other basics, then hold on to them. But don’t suffocate yourself by trying to be the “perfect Muslim.” It doesn’t exist. That’s why true faith is about gaining Allah’s mercy and forgiveness, not about avoiding sin and error altogether.
As a Muslim woman who wears hijab and had essentially been taught that my body is the property of men, I finally realized that my soul and body belong to me and my Creator alone and that my covering is to enhance my spiritual beauty in front of Allah, not to diminish my physical beauty in front of men.
I myself felt the most spiritually empowered and enlightened when, after years of trying to “do the right thing” based on others’ definition of Islam, I finally embraced Allah’s definition of Islam—striving to submit to Him each day despite my inevitable human imperfections. And, to me, this is what true beauty is, and it is the antithesis of evil.
No, I still don’t have the answers to everything, and I constantly wonder if I’m doing things right. But I’m okay with this too. Because our job as believers is to always be on the right path, not to always be right. And you remain on the right path by establishing a relationship with Allah through prayer and supplication, and consulting Him before taking a single step in any direction that could significantly affect your life or spiritual course.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “The Religion is easy. So whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not go to extremes, rather strive to be near perfection. Receive good tidings that you will be rewarded, and gain strength by offering the prayers in the mornings, afternoons, and during the last hours of the nights” (Bukhari).
And to me, the promise of reward through religious simplicity, regular prayer, and sincere striving is sheer beauty. And that knowledge alone is one of the most beautiful, liberating things in the world.
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