Let’s Face It: Our Understanding Of ‘Cover Up’ Is Failing Us!
So finally, something has emerged to break some key long held perceptions that most Muslims have unfortunately, stuck to like binding glue to a piece of furniture. I know it’s going to pinch (but well, nobody ever said the truth tasted like a ‘Kingsbite – chocolate bar’.
1. The Covering of a Woman DOES NOT NECCESARILY MAKE a man more able to control himself and his gaze,
2. DOES NOT MAKE a woman less attractive, and
3. DOES NOT make a woman less prone to stares from men.
In fact, the covering of a woman in Islam has very little (and I mean, very little) to do with a man (I told you this was going to pinch).
We have over-hyped this idea of “a woman’s beauty when exposed keeps a man controlled”. Yet ironically, this image has just, in simple terms, shown that no matter how much a woman covers, if a man with a weak moral compass sees a woman as a piece of meat waiting to be eaten, he will do just that. Covering will do very little to prevent anything. You think I’m exaggerating?
Heard of the #MosqueMetoo movement? I’ll give you a clue. Mona Eltahawy started that online movement. What about? To give Muslim women the space to openly talk about how they were abused (being touched at their behinds, for example) by men during Hajj. Hajj ooo. Hajj where women are covered, covered and covered (you can read more about it online). So do you somewhat see what the image is silently trying to portray? If you ask me, the point the image was trying to portray (that women cannot lead the prayer) back-fired. Seriously. Its disgust outweighs its satirical feature.
Apart from it shooting down the stars of Muslim ladies who think that covering up would make particularly, Muslim men appreciate their brains and not their ‘behinds’ (or that when she bends down to pick a pen, her ‘behind’ won’t be gazed at because she is loosely covered), it portrays Muslim men as a species so weak, so loose, with uncontrollable appetites so bad, that they cannot stick to Qur’an commandment 24 Vs 30, even in prayer. For me as a Muslim woman, the former point stabs (and I know you definitely weren’t smiling if you were a guy reading the later point). That many shared it and didn’t realise the disgust in it, made it further heart-jabbing.
And who doesn’t remember that other famous Meme? A covered lollipop has fewer or no flies around it, right? Guess what? Looks like covering ain’t sparing the lollipop the flies no more.
“So what at alllllllll do you want us to do?” Exactly what the outspoken Muslim woman perturbed about this issue will ask (and for the ones who can’t say it out loud, the question eats them up in their hearts). And yes, rightly so, they will ask. After all, we’ve been made to believe that we cover up so that men can keep their eyes off and appreciate us for who we are, not so?
Well the woman in the image was covered. So what happened to the law of “Cause and Effect”?
We have overestimated the “Men are controlled by what they see” line.
Now get me here. I am not saying there is no truth to this statement. There’s lots of psychological research (and books) out there that show that men are moved by sight. And I have had a number of male friends confirm how sight gets the best of men (let’s not forget though that there are those who defy the norm). That the Qur’an (Chapter 24: 30-31) talks about this makes it stick in stone for me. But let us take a closer look at the chronological arrangement of the verses for a moment.
First, Allah commands men to lower their gaze, and guard their private parts against acts of immorality. Then He commands women to also lower their gaze, guard their private parts and then, cover up. In actual fact, reading verse 31 to the end, one sees a Muslim woman is not even supposed to expose herself to just every female around her, not just men (which I believe is to guard against Lesbianism tendencies).
If covering up is really what could keep a man controlled, why is the first verse asking men to lower their gaze? The verse could have just asked women to cover themselves and finito! Men can go on a holiday. Thing is, covering of the woman is not enough. It is that decision of a man to lower his gaze, i.e., put in extra effort to ensure that the beast within (which every human species has) does not get the best of him that will keep him controlled. Allah to me, was basically advocating the principle of Self Control.
In other words, it will take a man whose Moral Compass is awake and who has the terms ‘Self-Control’ in his dictionary. Self-Control is what will make a man see a woman fully covered in prayer and resist the urge within. A Muslim man with no Moral Compass (or has been programmed to think he does not have one) will hide behind the “men are controlled by sight’ line, resulting in what the image is portraying.
Unfortunately, you hear a sermon on the dress of a woman and all you get is “Allah asked women to cover up because they are attractive”. Dude, really? This reduction of the female’s reason for doing almost anything on the planet to a man; that the reason why a Muslim woman covers is to avoid the ‘male gaze’ not only robs the true essence of covering for a Muslim woman, but indirectly makes men think that their ability to control themselves relies on the extent to which a woman covers herself. Sickening! (really, just read on the #MosqueMetoo movement and you will be shocked with what you will hear).
When a woman enters the mosque, she is there with women. No men. She prays covered per Islamic dress ethics (she doesn’t put on a miniskirt just because there are no males). If you see her walking around town covered the same as she was in prayer, chances are that she wants to appear such that wherever prayer meets her, she will be ready to observe. Finito. Male gazes are less of her concern really, because she knows intuitively, that whatever a lady wears, she will be looked at. Covering is to meet prayer requirements, before any other reason. And that is what women who veil or “niqab” mean when they say their dress appearance gets them closer to their Lord. It facilitates their ability to worship and makes them remember they have a higher calling to serve humanity whilst remembering their Lord in the process. It is a spiritual thing the covering, not just something done for men. It goes far beyond that.
More so, let’s be honest. Women are attractive. It’s just who we are. Put us in a sack, a box, strip us off the Mary Kay and Iman cosmetics, and you’ll still have a pretty damsel before your eyes (and nope, locking her up in a room isn’t going to do the trick either. If there’s window, be sure she’ll still draw male stares). Which also means that even a woman dressed per Islamic standards will still attract male stares. And that’s just normal. When it comes to this issue, there appears to be the mistaking of a Muslim woman’s looking good and presentable even within Islamic dress ethics for “making herself primarily look good for a man”(drives me nuts!).
I mean seriously, as a Muslim lady I’m sure you’ve had that day when even appearing dressed per Islamic standards, you had so many ‘you look beautiful’ complements from both male and female friends. So does it mean at that point you were attracting male gazes and all of a sudden you should go cover yourself with a sack so no one sees you, or that you were just looking your best, whilst keeping to pleasing your Lord in terms of appearance? (in fact putting on a veil or “niqab” as Ghanaian Muslim lady, you stand you a higher chance of being seen especially due to the zeal amongst Muslims to show that covered Muslim women are capable, contrary to the view of covered women back in the days). So if you thought covering makes a Muslim woman less conspicuous, think again (like a male friend of mine who said a man who could still look at a woman in “Niqab” needed Ruqya recited over him. Funny).
Nothing really makes a woman less conspicuous. Like it or not, covering will still get a woman compliments and male stares. Covering won’t relieve her of it. Expecting covering to relieve her of looks is a weird way to look at the issue. It may be a stare of admiration or lust. But she can’t control that. And yes, there may be those who will argue that due to this ‘wahala’ the Muslim woman brings, keep her away from the public space against her own will. Yet such proposers don’t see that by raising that point alone, they are running away from the call for self control efforts from the man.
Honestly, this was not an article I thought I would be writing. My next write up was to be on this whole controversial issue of female circumcision in Islam (which I am still working on). But I seriously could not let this one slide because of the general picture it is painting, which is this;
The Muslim community (at least from the part of the world I come from) appears to have an over-simplistic approach to gender issues. There is the need for us to engage in honest discussions on these issues. We have to start looking at the realities of how our understandings of who the Muslim woman is, her status in society and particularly, her appearance in the public space are sending out a subtle message that Muslim men are obsessed with every step the Muslim woman takes, leading them to want to squeeze her off any choice or freedom to be. And yes, I have actually met Muslim guys who are doing just that, choking the breathing space of women. Happily, I have met enough Muslim guys with progressive minds to realise that it is not generally so for all Muslim men.
These discussions are really needed. They are.
Khadijah Abdul Samed