We often hear muslims “teach” us about the meaning of the islamic head scarf (or veil) that islam demands women wear. On one hand we have several imams claiming that the veil stands for modesty, while on the other hand some other type of self-defined “secular moderate” muslims even insist there is no way you can find any prescription on the veil in the Quran.
Since both these groups always insist that we should “read the verses in the context they were revealed”, then it is time we followed their advice on this matter and had a closer and accurate look at the verse that orders the muslim women to wear the veil (jilbab in the Quran), that is sura 33 verse 59. The verse 24:31 demands the veil for the muslim women as well, but verse 33:59 clarifies its real meaning and implications much better.
“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful”. (Sahih international)
“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful”. (Pickthall)
Sura 33 came down across the two years that spanned between the battle of Uhud and the battle of the Trench. At that time Mohammed and his followers had already settled down in Medina with the aim of further establishing their power before carrying out new military campaigns against the Meccan people. Moreover, this is the period muslims call “the social reformation”, some of which are available as “revelations” right in this chapter of the Quran.
The society of Medina was quite diverse, with several cults and tribes, including a significant jewish population.
In this verse the mighty, wise and merciful God of islam focuses on what is mandatory for women to do every time they are to get out of their houses so that they have the chance of walking around without being harassed: wear a veil to be spotted as believing (i.e. muslim) women by the muslim men and thus not be harassed by the latter.
In spite of his divine nature and authority, it is pretty clear how Allah himself is willing to accept muslim men harassing women as a matter of fact, as he’d rather order women to cover themselves than teach the believing men that harassing a woman is absolutely wrong, despicable and should never be done regardless of the woman being muslim or not. Allah doesn’t point this out, not even barely. He prefers instead focussing on the nature of women as source of “sin and temptation” as brought up in the last sentence “And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful”. This sentence is addressed to those muslim women who didn’t wear the veil until this command was revealed, thus being sinful. There is no word in this verse that ever brings up the idea that harassing a woman is an evil deed. We see the opposite happening, that is a useful revelation suitably show up to reassure muslim women about being forgiven by Allah for the time they spent without this cloak on until this very point. This is the real priority in Allah’s views. In agreement with the islamic ideology, women are once again those who have to beg for forgiveness, while there is no chance of warning or potential punishment towards the men who harass them.
The related tafsir from ibn Kathir remarks the idea that muslim women are to be spotted exactly as “believing women”, so that they can be told apart from slaves or prostitutes and get out of “troubles”. Mister ibn Kathir is definitely not a proper gentleman: if women are veiled they are good believing women, otherwise they are nothing but kafirs (misbelievers), slaves or prostitutes.
We can find these derogatory views on women in the Hadiths where new details about this revelation are available. By reading through the hadiths we find out it was Umar bin Al-Khattab who came forward with the idea of forcing the veil on the Muslim women. It was not even Muhammad’s idea but Umar’s, the second of the four rightly-guided caliphs who were in charge after the death of the founder of Islam.
Narrated Aishah .The wives of the Prophet used to go to Al- Manai’, a vast open place (near Baqi’ at Al- Madina) to answer the call of nature at night. Umar used to say to the Prophet “Let your wives be veiled”, but Allah’s Messenger did not do so. One night Sauda bint Zam’a the wife of the Prophet went out at ‘Ishia’ time and she was a tall lady. ‘Umar addressed her and said, “I have recognized you, O Sauda.” He said so, as he desired eagerly that the Verses of Al-Hijab (the observing of veils by the Muslim women) may be revealed. So Allah revealed the verses of Al-Hijab (a complete body cover excluding the eyes). – Sahih Al Bukhari vol. 1, book 4, n.146
The same historical background can be found in the following hadiths, Sahih Muslim vol. 6, libro 39, n. 2170 a-b-c-d:
Umar and his companions used to hang out in Medina and would frequently attend places where women were more exposed and vulnerable to sexual harassment, especially in the night time. Among such places were those fields where women would go to take care of their physiological needs.
However, the likely presence of muslim women on the same spot could turn out to be a problem for the sexual violence related activities Umar and his friends would carry out, since any righteous muslim woman could mistakenly become a victim of sexual assault at any given moment.
Umar knew this very well, so he brought up the issue to Mohammed and demanded that the muslim women cover themselves in order to be properly spotted and thus not raped. The prophet of islam was reluctant to accept the request, mostly because he didn’t want to use a “revelation” out of a specific request coming directly from a companion.
One night Umar and his friends bumped into Sawdah bint Zamah right on the spot they would carry out their sexual raids. According to various hadiths Sawdah, one of Mohammed’s wives,was a big lady, then she was easier to recognise than the other wives of Mohammed.
Umar didn’t miss the chance and took advantage of the situation by telling her that he and his followers had recognised her in the dark because of her size and she was lucky because of that, as she could have been sexually assaulted for not wearing the veil as he had previously advised his prophet to recommend.
By doing so, Umar hoped he could finally get what he wanted: the implementation of the islamic veil so that the muslim men could tell a muslim woman apart from a kafir one and not affect the first with their harassment.
That’s exactly what happened, indeed: Sawdah told Mohammed about the “accident” and after that, he agreed to receive a “revelation” specifically designed for the veil.
Umar was a very influential person on Mohammed’s decisions and he shows off his role in the “higher ranks” in this hadith where he points out how he succeeded in “grabbing” three revelations of his own from his leader, one of which being the one on the veil (33:59)
Narrated ‘Umar (bin Al-Khattãb) My Lord agreed (accepted my invocation) with me in three things: […] And as regards the (Verse of) the veiling of the women, I said, ‘O Allah’s Messenger! I wish you ordered your wives to cover themselves from the men because good and bad ones talk to them.’ So the Verse of the veiling of the women was revealed. [V.24:31 and V.33:59] – Sahih Al Bukhari vol. 1, book 8, n. 402
We can see a certain degree of confidence in Umar, to the point where he even turns out threatening and bullying towards the women who refuse to wear the hijab, as we can see when he suggests that “bad men could address the muslim women and this could be unpleasant”, thus implying that muslim men found it was right for them to mistreat any woman they thought was a prostitute or a slave simply for being unveiled.
Does it sound any familiar? How many times have we come across muslim leaders or imams claiming that kafir women are just “whores”? What about the assaults on 2016 new year’s eve in Cologne and other cities?
One muslim person may point out that the prescription in this verse actually refers to the misbelievers who used to harass the muslim women who in turn, had to protect themselves.
This doesn’t make any sense for two reasons at least. First of all, if the misbelievers really had had such a bad behavior towards the Muslim women, then a simple veil wouldn’t have been enough effective to put them off, especially when such a selective and peculiar prescription came from a man whose prophetic authority the misbelievers didn’t acknowledge.
Secondly, if the Muslim women of Medina had really been targeted as such by the harassment of the misbelievers, then there would have been no point in making them even easier to spot and more exposed to that threat. The veil would have acted as a sort of identifier for the Muslim women resulting in them being an even much easier target. A “mimetic” approach would instead turn out more useful in terms of safety.
The veil works as a double pass. It prevents women from being harassed by the Muslim men who in turn could easily spot their “sisters” by the veil, leave them alone and go on to harass the kafir women of Medina.
We can see some analogy with the current situation in the west, where Muslim women wear the hijab in full safety, while the western non-Muslim ones who don’t show that “pass”, become target of Islamically motivated harassment or assault.
It is evident how the prescription of the hijab and the other Islamic veils doesn’t come out of nowhere and doesn’t stand for modesty. The veil Muslim women wear represents the men’s refusal to control their urges, whose burden the Muslim women accept to carry on their shoulders as a sign of “acknowledged guilt” along with their passive choice to become some sort of breathing ideological tool to mark the territory for the sake of Islam.