Women covered in head scarves and chadors, Islamic divorce rules favoring men,
the view that women should be relegated to the private rather than public
sphere--these attitudes and practices subjugate women, say critics. Is Islam
inherently discriminatory? What is Muslim women's role in the Islamic
resurgence? And what does it mean to be a Muslim "feminist?" Here are
excerpts from the full interviews with: Nilufer Gole, Amina Wadud and Imam
Feisal Abdul Rauf.
Imam of Masjid al-Farah, New York, New York
What about [Islamic] interpretations regarding women? We find, in many parts
of the world that tend to be populated by Muslims, it seems that women are
getting the short end of the stick.
... Some of what we see may be considered to be inequities. But we have to
remember that, when Islam spread from Arabia to what we consider the Muslim
world today, it spread through countries and societies which had very ancient
traditions. Egypt, which had an ancient tradition. Iran, another ancient
country. Persia, before that. The subcontinent of India, another ancient
culture. Same thing with today, current-day Turkey, the Byzantine Empire. ...
Through that, many cultural norms became to be considered by societies as being
Islamic, but they're really cultural. So in matriarchal societies, which you
will see some matriarchal societies like in West Africa or in Egypt, you'll
find women very, very influential. Women hold the purse strings; women
determine a lot of what happens, because ancient Egypt had a tradition of
having women kings, women queens. Queens of Egypt.
Whereas in some societies, which tended to be nomadic, it was very much more
male-oriented, and the patriarchal and very strong male orientation became
predominant. So as you go across much of the Muslim world, you will see this
diversity, which really entered into Muslim life through custom, and not
through the Quran and the hadith itself.
Professor of Sociology at Bogazici (Bosphorous)
University in Istanbul, Turkey
What are these girls in Turkey [who are starting to cover their heads]--what
are they trying to communicate?
There are several things. First of all, the fact that they belong to Muslim
identity and they follow God's rules and it's their faith. Secondly--I would
say there are layers of this--it creates some kind of collective identity. It
empowers them. ... The girls in Egypt, the ones in Turkey, and the ones in Iran
are not that different. So there is this collective identity which is
underlined, I would say, behind this new veiling.
...But what are they trying to do by covering up? In your book, you've
referred to a sort of walling off of their sexuality: "This is how much access
to me you get."
The veiling is not only just covering the head; it indicates a way of behavior,
which is called to be more modest, more pure--Puritan maybe--which means you
limit your presence in public life. For instance, the way you look at people.
You have to cast down the eyes. The way your body occupies the space in
public. That means you shouldn't be too loud--laughing, for instance. So it
means a way of behaving, more modest behavior. It comes from hija,
meaning being more cautious, being more modest. So I think it's not only just
a kind of dress code, but a dress code which indicates a set of manners, bodily
manners, in relation to the other sex, but in relation also to public behavior.
Also, culturally, it means a more civilized behavior--civilized in the sense
that you are more controlled. It's a kind of self-control in public life.
How do men exhibit that self-control?
Through women. That's the interesting thing. That's why veiling is more
important than any other thing. ...
In other words, men control their sexuality through how women restrain
Yes, especially, but they also have some codes--dressing codes and so on. But
it is basically women who are the markers of this difference and who are the
markers of what is to be considered as licit, what is to be considered as
illicit; what is private, what is public. So each time I would say it's
women's body and it's their cautiousness. It's their way of living in social
and public life which marks the boundaries. They are the boundary-setters.
... So this can be a more subversive role because they are boundary-setters.
So that's why we start with veiling. Today we become conscious of the
importance of an Islamic movement through women. So women are actors of this
movement. They are not only
following men's desires, or men's power.
It's a kind of feminism?
There is a kind of Islamic feminism which is becoming more and more explicit in
the movement. Although they don't want to mimic totally the Western feminism,
they borrow it from Western feminism, and yet they reprocess it through their
own experiences and they give voice to that.
[Did the role of politicized, educated women in the Islamic movement lead
to] tension between the men and the women? The men perhaps don't want to see
the women as public as they are becoming?
Exactly. ... Women participated in the Islamic movement and gave some
new visibility to the Islamic movement. They attracted attention to it. And
yet, with the same movement, they became publicly visible and their lives
changed. They started publishing women's magazines, going to
meetings with other women for the sake of the Islamic movement. Then they want
to pursue their professional careers after having achieved university degrees.
So there is a kind of upward social mobility through education
and through politics. And now they have new opportunities for their
But what happens is that each time these Muslim girls--or women now--go to
public life, pursue their professional career, there is a tension within
the movement. There is a debate among Islamic women who
want to go even more public and Islamic men who remind them that, first of all,
they have to be wives and mothers--their sacred roles. This debate is becoming more and more a public
debate....Internationally, as well as in Turkey.
Professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth
It seems that the head scarf means something different everywhere you go.
Is this about the evolution of the head scarf from some sense of modesty now
to a statement of identity? Is that what's been happening?
I think that Islamic codes of dress, particularly the head covering or the
hijab, is a strong symbol that many factions of Islamic society will revolve
itself around with different intentions and expectations.
The symbol has become justification of itself, whereas before it was supposed
to be a manifestation of modesty. And the idea that it's become uniform is
also one of the ways in which we simultaneously use it as a symbol of identity,
but at the same time are simultaneously locked into restrictions of our
identity development, with the assumption that again, that this is the right
way to do it. And therefore, it implies that any other way to do it is in fact
wrong. And one does not want to confess to being wrong.
So the idea of struggling with modesty is in fact the element that is Islamic
and that the hijab might be one of the ways in which this modesty has manifest
itself does not mean that modesty is equal to the hijab. And the hijab has no
hierarchy over the concept of modesty. So it is at one and the same time a
mixed symbol that people will identify for the sake of religion, but also for
the sake of personal identity with that religion, even though it, in
and of itself, has no religious meaning.
This is a paradox--because it's seen also as sometimes a symbol of
oppression and sometimes a symbol of liberation.
I think the head covering as a form of oppression comes to the end of whether
or not a person or a collective of people in one cultural context has the right
to choose. And when it is taken as a manifestation of correct Islamic
modesty, there is no choice that you can have. You cannot be Islamic and
modest unless you wear this form. And so it will be enforced, not only from
outside, but also enforced from within. People will assume, women will assume,
that they have to dress this way in order to be Islamic, and from the outside,
governments and/or social groups will enforce it as a manifestation of Islam:
this is the way to present yourself as Islamic. If we understand modesty as
something that is not fixed in time, but is the primary principle that is being
promoted within the Quran, for example, then we will recognize that there are
many ways to symbolize this. And that the choice, to be able to adopt this
particular one, or to reject this particular one, is in fact of equal merit.
But the idea of attaining to the reality of modesty cannot be fixed in any one
particular item. That's very hard for Muslims to grapple with, because again,
the whole idea of identity reformation is being contested, not only from within
Islam but from without as well.
How would you analyze the changing meaning of the head scarf in Turkey over
the last 10 years?
I think the Turkish situation is fabulous in terms of showing the complexity.
Because some form of Islamic head covering has always been a feature of Turkish
life, even in the massive modernization movements that were part of the 1930s
and '40s and '50s, because women in the villages still retained some form of
Islamic head covering. With the urbanization of many cultures because of new
economies, the idea of that dress became backwards and it represented, you
know, the old ways of thinking and the village ways of thinking and not quite
being modern. Certainly, the Islamic resurgent movement in its global aspect
included a resurgence of ideas that were clustered around certain symbols, that
actually gravitated towards those symbols. And the idea of Islamic head
covering then became a marked separation between those within Turkish society
and government who wanted to claim secularism as a basis of their identity as
Muslims and as moderns, and there were Muslims, women and men, who said, "Our
identity as Muslim is not in contestation with modernity, there is no need to
become secular," and again the head scarf or the hijab becomes a symbol of that
And how would you analyze the evolution of the head scarf in Iran over the
last 20 years?
I think the situation with Iran is also a different dynamic, that
includes a crossroads with some of these similar uses of symbols, because the
women gravitated towards the chador during the revolution as a way to
distinguish themselves from secularism and from Westernism, which had
become imbedded in some notions of modernity. So when they adopted the hijab
as a form of revolution against these ideas, it then became a feature of
Iranian Islamic articulation. Whether or not the women ever intended it to be,
again, eternal, there became no choice. Because the new Islamic regime decided
that it was mandatory, and therefore people had to sustain it. Women did,
however, also find that it simultaneously liberated them into the opportunities
to present their ideas and their concerns in the public forum, and to be able
to address the idea of genuine reform with regard to women's rights. So this
is again one of the ways in which we see that nothing is ever
simple, everything is very complex with regard to Islam and modernity.
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