Role of women central to necessary reforms within Islam

World Hijab Day is a good time to acknowledge that states such as Saudi Arabia peddle an extreme form of the religion, says TP O’Mahony.

An illustration from Shepard Fairey's 'We The People' series, featuring a US flag hijab.

ARE we too complacent in Ireland about the threat of radical Islam? An illegal immigrant scam at Dublin airport suggests so.

On this, World Hijab Day, it is apposite to examine the degree to which we appreciate the conflicting versions of Islam, and whether we care sufficiently about the (often deadly) consequences of Islamic extremism.

It might be that for the vast majority of Muslims in Ireland, and elsewhere in Europe, Islam is a religion of peace. But if that were universally true, there wouldn’t be a problem.

But this manifestly is not the case. We need only look at the example of Saudi Arabia, a country that is not only a major exporter of oil (hence the West’s acquiescence; it is noteworthy that the ban imposed on immigrants from a list of countries specified by US president Donald Trump does not include the Saudi kingdom), but also an exporter of a deadly version of Islam. This is known as Wahhabism (after its founder), an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that is the official state religion of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia spends billions of petro-dollars promoting Wahhabism in countries in, and far beyond, the Middle East.

We shouldn’t forget, either, that 17 of the 19 hijackers responsible for the 9/11 attacks were Saudis.

We don’t know to what extent radical Islam has taken roots here, but it would be naive to believe — given all that has happened in the world since 9/11 — that some followers of the Prophet Muhammad have not been radicalised by external events.

Just before Christmas, a leading Irish imam called on the Government to regulate Islamic affairs in Ireland to prevent unqualified imams radicalising Muslims. Shaykh Dr Umar Al-Qadri, chairman of the Irish Muslim Peace and Integration Council, said the Government should set up “a Muslim council to regulate all affairs in Ireland, such as how mosques are being run and what education they are providing”.

He said this council should be supervised by the Government and should provide accreditation, without which imams would not be allowed to operate.

Dr Al-Qadri, who runs a mosque in Clonee, Dublin, said that although the Government monitored individuals it suspected of having extremist links, it also needed to monitor levels of radicalisation and to promote integration.

According to the 2011 Census, there are 49,204 Muslims in Ireland.

Shaykh Dr Umar Al-Qadri

World Hijab Day fosters good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. As the Economist magazine said: “Women around the world are encouraged to experience what it’s like to wear a headscarf on World Hijab Day.”

But the hijab itself — it is a scarf used to cover the hair and head of a Muslim woman, while leaving the face fully exposed — is a symbol of fierce debate and division within Islam itself.

But it isn’t just within Islam that the female body is burdened with modesty codes and protocols — this is true also of the two other great monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity.

“Whether covered and veiled or stripped and commodified, women’s bodies are still largely controlled by, and for, others,” says Tina Beattie, professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton, in London.

“Feminist endeavours to reclaim women’s moral autonomy and bodily integrity have to navigate an ugly path of mockery emanating from religious and secular sources alike.”

The task of ‘navigating’ and balancing the sometimes conflicting values of freedom of expression and respect for others is especially tortuous when it comes to attitudes within Islam to women’s bodies.

This is highlighted by debates and conflicts over the hijab (and by the more extreme forms of dress used by Muslim women, such as the niqab, a veil, usually black, that covers all of the face, apart from the eyes; and the burka, the head-to-toe body-covering that has slits in the face veil for the eyes).

In her book, Headscarves and Hymens, Mona Eltahawy, an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab and Muslim issues, says” “Wearing the hijab is far from simple — it is burdened with meanings.”

She says that hijab is an Arabic word, meaning ‘barrier’ or ‘partition’, but “it has come to represent complex principles of modesty and dress”.

Ms Eltahawy, who was born in Egypt and wore a hijab until she was 25, traces the tradition of imposed veiling to misogyny and points to the power of the ‘morality police’, in places such as Sudan and Saudi Arabia, to punish women for going unveiled or for wearing trousers.

“I know that nothing frightens Islamists, and the equally misogynistic secular men of our society, more than the demand for women’s rights and sexual freedom,” she says.

She admits that choosing to wear the hijab is much easier than choosing to take it off. But she poses this key question for those insisting that the headscarf must be worn.

“Why were women alone responsible for sheltering men from the sexual desires women supposedly elicited in men?,” she asks. “Why could men not control themselves? Why, if men were the ones being tempted, were they not the ones being policed?”

For Ms Eltahawy, who lives in Cairo and New York and who was named by Newsweek as one of its ‘150 Fearless Women of 2012’, the controversies over the hijab have convinced her that “the battle over women’s bodies can only be won by a revolution of the mind”.

She, along with the Canadian Muslim feminist, Irshad Manji, believes that this must be part of a wider reform movement, one that prioritises Islam’s need to find a way to accommodate itself to the 21st century.

Making the case in her book, The Trouble With Islam Today, Ms Manji says she is seeking to update Islamic interpretations of the Koran for the 21st century, not the 16th..

Beattie, in an article entitled ‘What, or What Not, to Wear’, in the English Catholic weekly, The Tablet, recounted an incident in Rome.

“For all this 21st century debate, nothing much has changed at the heart of the Catholic Church, in its view of the female form,” she said. “A friend recently celebrated her 60th birthday by attending Mass in St Peter’s Basilica. Her daughter had bought an elegant new dress for the occasion, but she was refused entry, because her dress was too short. This woman was returning to the Church for the first time in 20 years. She will not be back...

“If Pope Francis wants a Church with arms open to the world, he might start by ensuring that the millions of women who visit the Vatican every year are spared such humiliation.”


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