Islam without veil
Al Makin, Yogyakarta | Tue, 07/27/2010 9:36 AM | Opinion
Since the recent controversy surrounding the French government's ban on total
face coverings (burqa or niqab), the head scarf issue has once again attracted
the world's attention.
Indeed, only very few Muslim women cover their face completely, which is a
reflection of the attitude preached by Sayed al Tantawi, an imam of Al-Azhar in
Cairo, who boldly stated that total face coverings are not in accordance with
It is therefore not surprising that the education ministry in Syria, a Muslim
majority country, has also issued a ban on niqab in all state and private
Looking at classical Islamic literature, one will discover that this piece of
cloth was never a serious subject of discussion among Muslim jurists,
historians, philosophers, theologians nor any other thinkers.
There are much more important issues to discuss than paying attention to
whether women's heads should be covered or left bare.
The headscarf issue, which has served a symbol of new Islamic revivalism, is
The Koran itself never explicitly mentions that women should cover their hair.
Nor is there clear guidance on what parts of women's bodies should be covered
with what kind of cloth.
Covering women's heads with only their faces showing, is part of more recent
Islamic conservatism, which has recently penetrated almost all aspects of
Indonesian Muslims' lives.
Indonesian women, however, have proven themselves to be creative in making the
veil into more of a fashion statement that a symbol of conservatism.
Girls in campuses and malls have combined the article with modern trends.
Ironically, some headscarf clad women can be found wearing trendy outfits
accentuating the female form.
Those who are in favor of wearing hijab head scarves justify their ideology,
which they consider as a religious duty, by exploiting the interpretation of
verses 33:59 and 24:31 of the Koran.
The remainder of the argument rests on unclear Prophetic traditions in the
Hadith, whose meanings are then violated. The contexts are forgotten and their
main messages are abandoned. The focus of attention is paid to whether there is
a piece of cloth covering a woman's head. They are selective in choosing the
part of the tradition that supports their argument.
We may question why they are so concerned with two verses out of more than
6,000 verses in 114 chapters of the Koran. Six years ago in Ciputat, Tangerang,
Banten, in a conversation my colleague, Prof. Abdullah Saeed, a professor of
Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia, wondered that
Muslims did not pay enough attention to the prohibition of lying which occurs
in almost every chapter of the Koran.
Paradoxically, the unclear message of wearing head scarves in only two verses
of the whole Scripture becomes a heated subject of debate among Muslims.
Of course, wearing a headscarf is neither a theme of philosophical nor of
theological discussion. It can perhaps be inserted in Islamic law, although its
place is marginal. Head scarves are certainly items of modern fashion that have
become prevalent in Muslim communities.
"Looking at classical Islamic literature, one will discover that this piece of
cloth was never a serious subject of discussion among Muslim jurists, nor any
It is of course a product of culture. Studies show that many women have their
own various reasons to wear a headscarf - be they religious, personal, or
fashionable. Additionally, wearing a headscarf is obligated by certain
institutions, supported by parents, or friends.
On the other hand, covering head is also an old tradition, older than Islam
itself. Images of women covering their heads have been found connected to
Egyptian, Sumerian, Greek and Byzantine cultures.
Many classical works show that important female figures, such as the Virgin
Mary, covered their heads with cloth. Note that men also wore headscarves - a
fashion which is less popular now, except in the Arab countries.
Indonesian thinkers, i.e. Nurcholish Madjid and Abdurrahman Wahid "Gus Dur",
whom we should be proud of, warned us that we should distinguish between the
spirit of Islam and Arab culture, the context in which Islam was born. Sukarno,
when he was young, once condemned the segregation of men and women in public
In understanding Islam, Sukarno often called upon Indonesians to take the fire
(the spirit), not the ashes (unessential elements).
Without doubt, the headscarf issue is not the fire. It is a part of recent
revivalism whose advocates adopted the headscarf as a symbol and "identity",
indicating their unpreparedness in facing the challenge of globalization. They
are worried of being lost in the wilds of the global market
and feel the need to distinguish themselves.
Since the 1990s in Indonesia, the veil has dominated the public and at times
buried our "identity". In campuses, streets, supermarket, vehicles, the hijab
has become a trend.
Fewer people wear traditional ethnic clothes even in ceremonies. We often see
weddings with grooms and brides who preferred "religious dresses" to
traditional ethnic garb.
In fact, to wear veil, or not to wear veil, does not indicate the quality of
our piety. It is purely fashion. Traditionally, Indonesian Islam was never
hidden behind a veil.
The writer is a lecturer at the State Islamic University Sunan Kalijaga,
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