Veil as a Headscarf
At the other side of the debate, there are Muslim scholars who do not embrace the view that Muslim women are required to cover their faces. Those include renowned—and sometimes controversial—figures such as Muhammad al-Ghazali and Yusuf al-Qaradawi. I am going to represent this view, however, through a less-known, though more controversial, figure, Gamal el-Banna.16
In a book simply called Al-hijab}7 el-Banna notes that the past few decades have witnessed a surge of veiled women in Egypt. Very early on in his analysis, he makes a distinction between the hijab and the niqab. A hijab has commonly been used to mean the headscarf that keeps a woman’s face and hands exposed, while a niqab is the full body cover that hides the face except occasionally for a small hole in front of one of the eyes.
El-Banna notes that the rights of the females in Muslim societies have been oscillating between two contrasting and harmful positions. On the one hand, there are those who approach women and their roles in society only from the perspective that she is a female, a sexual being, not from the perspective that she is after all a human being (p. 12). From that standpoint, her sexuality is what determines her:
The idea of the female as a “human being” is very blurry to some... Just by giving her right as a human being gives her a right concerning her dress ... The opposing party has to value her “will” and respect it and not try to weaken it or overpower it.. .A woman has on her end to draw the proper balance between her existence as a human being and her nature as a female. (p. 21)
The other perspective is the one that looks at women only as human beings negating their feminine sides. This is the perspective that adopts the notion that—as el-Banna quotes—“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”18:
The path that the modern European woman has pursued proves that both perspectives are wrong. One is an old [Muslim] jurist understanding which forced a face veil and prohibited ikhtilat [intermingling between males and females] because they only saw the “female” in a woman, and the other [European] perspective which only saw the “human” in a woman thus ignoring the categorical biological differences which make a woman “biologically speaking” a female. (p. 23)
El-Banna then moves on to describe how the head cover was the most practical solution between those two perspectives. In covering her hair, a Muslim woman is acknowledging her femininity; she is different from a male. At the same time, as she is free to expose her face and hands, her personality and individuality are not eroded. The Muslim woman, by putting on a headscarf, is able to strike a delicate balance between her “femininity” and her “humanity.”
El-Banna acknowledges that for the most part of Islamic history, Muslim women have been subjected to a very strict form of seclusion. At one point in time, women were prohibited from going out of their homes, and they were not given the opportunity to learn how to read and write. Moreover, women were required to cover their faces which he considers to be “an unforgivable crime against society and against women which should never be allowed” (p. 34). This understanding—in practice—did not allow women to participate in any sort of meaningful work outside their homes. Thus they became more dependent on men. This gave the latter extreme power over women which was often misused. In addition, the inability of women to get proper education had detrimental impact on the whole family. Mothers could not educate their children beyond what they already know. Such practices “kept half of the society in the darkness of ignorance and illiteracy. ” The society became a masculine society where women were totally separated, not only from men but also from public life. Those baseless prohibitions, he contends, were among the prime causes of “the decline in Muslim society. ”
El-Banna goes even further in putting his standpoint about hijab in a broader perspective indicating that Islam as practiced nowadays is different from the real Islam:
The “Islam” that Muslims practice nowadays is not the “Islam” of God and his messenger, but it is the one that has been molded by interpretations of fuqaha (jurists) over more than one thousand years ago... This revealed an understanding that was impacted by the closed-minded nature of the era in which they lived... Such an understanding reflected the opinions of men who, irrespective of their good intentions, were fallible as their opinions were impacted by fallible sources. (p. 133)
El-Banna then moves on to describe the Qur’anic meaning of hijab. He asserts that the word hijab has been mentioned several times in the Qur’an and does not refer to a dress code. Actually the word hijab comes to mean various things, including a physical barrier or a screen. He explains that the famous verse ofthe hijab refers in fact to written manners (not a dress code) that could be included in a book of etiquette, not a stipulation governing how women should dress.
El-Banna asserts that the basic message of Islam is one that is based on justice and gender equity with rights and duties, while respecting decency and disciplining sexual relations through the institution of marriage. The holy texts in Islam forbid indecency and enjoin things that are right and forbid things that are wrong. A review of the practices in early Islam, el-Banna notes, provides strong evidence that women played an active role in their societies, including participation in group prayers and performing pilgrimage. He notes that—as a consequence—there were lots of women who had very active public roles. This comes in contrast to the stereotypes portraying them as subjugated females who kept to their homes with no voice regarding what goes on around them. Women acted as soldiers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and nurses, and there is no evidence that they used to do all of this while their faces were covered.
El-Banna contends that the Prophet had a very strong relationship with the other sex, first with her as a mother, then as a babysitter, then as a wife, and as a faithful companion:
He was touched by what a woman holds in terms of love, compassion and sacrifice which left deep impressions on his behaviors and life direction. He stood as a supporter of her rights against any injustice or oppression. (p. 193)
El-Banna provides his own theory as to why a basic rule to cover the hair and the bosom was transformed in later thinking to a requirement to cover the whole body including the face. Islam came with a new message, and its rulings—particularly those relating to women—were revolutionary. Those new rulings were not met with proper understanding, and were not unconditionally welcomed. Women were closely linked before Islam to the concept of ‘ird, or honor, and thus they were closely guarded. The saying of one of the closest companions to the prophet provides evidence to this: “By God we did not see anything (of real value) in women till God revealed his rulings about them.” They hated—against the message of Islam—to consult with their daughters as to whom the latter would marry. They hated— against the message of Islam—that a person looks at his future wife before he marries her. They also hated that women join them in prayers, or that they would be given anything in inheritance.
In sum, the liberating ideas of Islam barely lasted for 50 years. After the Prophet died, his compassionate message in regards to women was lost. The Muslim society changed in a fundamental manner back into understandings that reiterated earlier practices. The early equitable message of Islam was lost as new masses of people started embracing the new religion in the Levant area and in Persia, and they brought their heritage and ancient customs. Among those practices were those which kept women at home and deprived them from their civil rights. Those practices included the institution of harem which was, and always is, an alien intrusion into the world of Islam. A wave of political events, changes in dynasties, and a series of cultural influences—including Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, and Mam- luk—gave a severe blow to the cause of women.
El-Banna then advances an understanding about the veil that would differentiate him from other scholars who also criticize the face veil, such as Muhammad al-Ghazali and Yusuf al-Qaradawi. He notes that while he accepts the veil that only keeps the face and hands uncovered, his analysis of the religious text does not lead him to conclude that this specific dress code is a clear injunction of Islam. The Qur’an offers general guidelines and it does not dwell on the details. Those general guidelines would prohibit any dress that reflects vulgarity and exaltation, the dress being too short, or too tight, or it being transparent showing the skin. These are all forbidden by Islam and are far from the decency sought by the faith. Beyond that, a modest dress code is acceptable even if it shows part of a woman’s hair or part of the legs. When understood from this perspective, el-Banna asserts, the veil would not be an impediment to women’s public involvement in social and economic affairs of their communities.