It is fair to clear some things that will enhance a better understanding of the following concepts.
Islamic culture and Muslim culture don’t have the same values. Despite Muslim culture deriving from Islamic culture, the two don’t always collide as during the centuries Muslim societies diverged from the original Islamic culture. This divergence happened in different ways in many areas of the world, but the result is that nowadays various Muslim societies express/show cultural aspects that don’t reflect the Islamic culture as it was originally conceived. In order to understand women in the contemporary muslim world, it is important to reference to society and the precepts of the Quran. Inside the Quran there are many verses concerning women and their condition, their rights and their duties from a social and religious point of view.
From the religious point of view, Islam puts women and men on the same level. Through the prophet Mohammed (SAW) is God himself (SWT) to declare that good action from both women and men are equally appreciated and rewarded. From the social point view, however, it is undeniable that the Quran is expression of the society that shaped, as to say a society which presented institutions that usually clash with the changes in today’s Muslim societies. In addition, the relation with cultural standards of western women makes it more difficult to understand a culture and a religion much different, that though is living a long process of female emancipation.
Let’s give some answers.
“IS THE VEIL REALLY COMPULSORY?”
“WHY THERE ARE SOME MUSLIM WOMEN WHO WEAR THE VEIL AND OTHERS DON’T?”
Many are the curiosities of the Western world, and not only, regarding the obligation, or not, of the Muslim woman to wear the veil.
For decades, the theme of the Islamic veil has crossed the debate of Western societies as well as of the Middle-Eastern ones, and not only. The veil, which covers the heads of many Muslim women, intersects social, political and philosophical questions among the most discussed. The condition of women, freedom of worship, human dignity, the possibility of self-determination, the relationship between private and public life, are just some of these issues.
This theme has been touched upon and addressed previously, but with this guide we try to meet the curiosity that often arises about the use of the veil.
The text of the Quran does not explicitly speak about the obligation to wear the veil, but for many exegetes it is clear that it prescribes it, while for a minority of reformists it is not possible to reach a similar conclusion. The verses around which the debate revolves are the 31 of Sura XXIV, the 59 and especially the 53 of Sura XXXIII which states: <<And when you ask an object to his brides, ask it behind a curtain: this will serve better the purity of your and their hearts>>.
For historians, the custom for women to cover their heads already existed before the birth of Mohammed (SAW). It was a practice intended for high-ranking women and forbidden to others. For this reason, the Prophet's 11 wives wore the veil, but this did not mean that they were excluded from public life. Some of them (Khadija, Aisha), once Muhammad (SAW) died, had a leading role in the management and expansion of Islam.
Over time, the veil has become an instrument of identity and belonging that could be metaphorically understood as follows: the veil is to Islam what the crucifix is to Christianity. And here it automatic to think that it is certainly not by wearing a crucifix around one's neck that a person qualifies as a good Christian.
There are women who pray, fast during the month of Ramadan, do charity work and want the good of others as much as they want it for themselves, without covering themselves with a veil. This is because they have faith and believe in what they are, without further demonstrations. And, differently, there are women and men who believe that to complete the work one must wear a veil.
The fact that Muslim women have a different way of life from one another is given by the normality for each human being to have his own way of life. Some differences can be found in the fact that Muslim countries have adopted different interpretations of religion over time; others are attributable to personal interpretation of the Koranic text; still others depend on personal choices.
“HAVE MUSLIM WOMEN ALWAYS WORN THE VEIL?”
At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Middle East was crossed by a great debate about whether to abandon the veil. The whole twentieth century, up to the seventies, can be considered the century of its abandonment. The first nation to take this road was Turkey where Kemal expressly forbade it. The same was done in Iran by Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1936. In Tunisia in the '20s there was a real campaign against the veil, while in Egypt, in the '40s and '50s, it was rare to see veiled women in big cities, like in Cairo or Alexandria, even if they resisted in rural areas.
From the 1970s onwards, to the surprise of many, there was a gradual return to the veil. The causes of this return are much debated but among the most certain is the desire to return to the original social and religious precepts, especially for the lack of transition to democracy and economic development. Women have been protagonists, more than victims, of this rebirth. In fact, many women, inserted in this perspective, have encouraged Muslims to return to the Hijab.
“IS IT TRUE THAT OTHER RELIGIONS ALSO REQUIRE THE VEIL TO BE WORN?"
The veil is part of the founding myths of all three monotheistic religions. The veil became part of Islam because of the imitation of customs of other peoples, specifically the Assyrians, Greeks and Romans where it was used by women of the upper classes. History, in fact, shows us that this garment has been a custom of the Mediterranean peoples for many centuries, beyond their specific religions.
Taking Christianity as a case in point, in the First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul prescribes as obligatory the rule for Christian women to cover their heads during prayer. Tertullian in De Virginibus Velandis, a controversial text, prescribes the veil for women whenever they leave the house. In the Koran, a not secondary curiosity, the first time the term "Hijab" appears is in relation to Mary, mother of Jesus, who hides behind a veil waiting for her son.
“DOES MAKE WOMEN WEAR THE VEIL ‘SUFFOCATE’ THE DESIRE FOR WOMEN TO SHOW THEMSELVES?”
In the West it is a common idea that a woman who wears the veil does so to make herself invisible to others. In reality, Islam invites the female gender to be discreet, but not mortified. The body must be cared for and valued. In fact, under the veil the hair can live according to the person's taste.
One can perfume oneself, one can make up eyes and lips, one can decorate nails and hands with henna (it is at the discretion of the person to pay attention to the use of halal cosmetics, that is, without alcohol and animal derivatives considered forbidden).
Veiled women usually have a large number of veils to match their clothes. The different types of veils can be customized in different ways. Creativity is very common: pins, pearls and glitter hold the veil still and make it unique at the same time.
A curiosity that is no small thing: in 2013 Muslim countries spent 340 billion euros on clothes and shoes and about 450 billion in 2019. Often haute couture designers, such as Dolce & Gabbana, have launched lines of clothes dedicated to Muslim women, sensing the enormous potential of a similar market.
"DO MUSLIM WOMEN REALLY PRAY FIVE TIMES A DAY?"
Muslim women, like all practicing believers, are invited by Islam to purify themselves and pray five times a day according to five moments of the day. Before the prayers there is the washing of certain parts of the body, since the intention of the prayer is to purify oneself not only spiritually but also materially and physically. The five prayers contain verses from the Koran and are recited in Arabic. The mandatory prayers are Al-Fajr at dawn, Al-Dhur at noon, Al-Asar in the middle of the afternoon, Al-Maghrib at sunset and Al-Isha when night falls.
It should not be forgotten, however, that there is the voluntary prayer that can be done at any time, when you feel the need to get closer to God.
"WHAT FOODS CAN A MUSLIM WOMAN EAT?"
In general, Muslims can't eat pork or food containing it in any form.
This is not only forbidden in the Qur'an, but also in the Bible, and in the book of Deuteronomy, moreover, the pig is considered an impure animal (as is its meat) because it feeds on anything, even its waste, and is an easy vehicle of disease because of the very high concentration of toxins present in its body. It is an animal with poorly functioning kidneys and therefore cannot excrete enough uric acid from the body, and for this reason it tends to fatten easily. So, it is easy to understand why Islam bans these foods for various reasons.
In addition to the ban on eating pigs, any other animal (except fish) can only be eaten if slaughtered according to Islamic law (i.e. bled slowly). Therefore, it is not possible for Muslims to eat any kind of meat sold in butcher shops or supermarkets. There are 'Halal' butchers.
In addition, the meat of animals that have died a natural death, the meat of birds of prey, all insects, pets and animals crawling on their bellies (such as snakes) are also banned. Finally, alcohol is also prohibited.
"DOES ISLAM REALLY SAY THAT A MAN CAN MARRY MORE WOMEN?"
There is the case: polygamy, i.e. the possibility granted only to men to marry up to four wives. This use is recognized as lawful in the Qur'an, but bound to the husband's obligation to treat all wives equally and the willingness to marry only one if he is not certain that he can be fair.
This issue, like all other issues, is seen differently depending on the country and the legislative approach adopted. In fact, some countries, despite being Arab-Muslim, after the process of revolution and modernization, have banned polygamy.
"CAN A MUSLIM WOMAN MARRY A CHRISTIAN MAN?"
"IN MIXED MARRIAGES ONE OF THE TWO MUST CONVERT?"
"WHAT HAPPENS IF A MUSLIM WOMAN BECOMES A CHRISTIAN? AND IF A CHRISTIAN WOMAN BECOMES A MUSLIM?"
As explained in the book entitled 'Islam in relation to campaigns of skepticism' by Dr. Mahmud Hamdi Zaqzuq, marriage in Islam is based on affection and understanding and continuity. <<Islam respects all previously revealed religions (Judaism and Christianity).>>>
<<If a Muslim marries a Christian/Jewish woman, he is obliged to respect the dogmas of his wife and is forbidden to prevent his wife from practicing her religion.>> It therefore appears that Islam guarantees respect for the cult of the spouse.
However, if a Muslim woman marries a non-Muslim, i.e. a Christian or a Jew, or a person of another religious profession, the man will be at fault in respecting his wife's cult, because the non-Muslim does not believe in Muhammad (SAW) and does not recognize him. And if mutual respect is at the basis of the couple's relationship, in this case it is lacking. This is why the following message passes: <<a Muslim woman can only marry a Muslim man, while a Muslim man can marry a Christian or Jewish woman>>.
One cannot deny the gap between religions and therefore the difficult confrontation that is created within mixed couples. But, always through an approach of understanding, it is hoped that each story will find its own way of being lived.
The choice to convert is influenced by one's religion, but it remains a personal choice.
"ARE THERE STILL ARRANGED MARRIAGES?"
Arranged marriages in the past have been a widespread custom not only in the Islamic community but also in many other parts of the world. Today, as traditional society no longer exists, it is no longer usual practice. Muslim women, like all women in the world, have (and must have) the freedom to choose their life partner. The phenomenon of arranged marriages and child-marriages, although sporadic and now limited, must be faced in the countries where it is still practiced.
"WHAT IS THOUGHT ABOUT DIVORCE?"
Divorce, under Islamic law, can only occur because of the repudiation of the wife by her husband. The repudiated wife is separated from her children and often finds herself in misery. All that remains is for her to live on behalf of her family of origin or independently.
From a more modern and open-minded perspective, the Muslim women who divorce today are many more than in the past. The numbers have changed because the mentality and societies of these countries are going through this complex process of change and emancipation of women.
"WHAT HAPPENS TO WOMEN WHO BETRAY THEIR MAN?"
If we look closely at what the Qur'an says about adultery, what we notice is that it places men and women on the same level, establishing public flogging for both.
As said at the beginning, some Islamic countries, defined as 'fundamentalist', have a rigid application of religious laws. In these countries, precisely regarding adultery, flogging, for example, is flanked by stoning, a horrendous practice that involves throwing stones at the two adulterers until their death. Obviously, this applies specifically to these countries with particularly harsh and 'radical' practices.
"WHEN IT COMES TO INHERITANCE, WHAT DOES THE WOMAN GET?"
In the area of inheritance, too, the provisions of the Qur'an certainly represented an improvement in the condition of women. Thanks to the Qu'ran, in fact, it was established that both male and female children can inherit, although the former to a greater extent. Let us also bear in mind here that in many cultures at the time of Qur'anic origin, women had no rights in matters of inheritance and private property, and everything she had belonged to the men of the house.
The Qu'ranic Revelation certainly led to an improvement in the condition of women in Islamic countries as it revolutionized the way of seeing women. As already seen in the 'GUIDE: WOMEN IN THE ARABIC WORLD', women were in fact given full legal personality, like men, and were given the right to inherit property and administer their own assets (and much more).
"IS THERE ONLY ISLAM IN ARAB COUNTRIES?"
"ARE ALL ARAB COUNTRIES MUSLIM?"
It is a fact: not all Arab countries adopt only Islam, just as it is true that not all people of Muslim religion come from Arab countries.
The 'Arab world' represents the twenty-two Nations that make up the League of Arab States in the world, namely: Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Comoros, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Djibouti, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen.
These are therefore countries that have Arabic as their majority official language and that boast Islam as the most widespread religion. These are States, however, which also include other significant religious minorities including Christianity and Judaism. In addition to these twenty-two countries, situated between the Middle East and Africa, there are those which, very close to the areas concerned, have a high rate of Muslims, such as Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia, but which are not properly Arab countries.
At the conclusion of this small guide, it is possible to highlight that:
- As far as human identity is concerned, men and women are equal in condition and status according to Islamic teachings. According to Islam, men and women have the same right and ability to achieve excellence and strive for perfection;
- Muslim culture, by encouraging social interaction between human beings, recognizes women as free to participate in social life (and beyond);
- Islam reserves a special respect for women as an essential part of humanity.
Translation by Francesca Cioffi
Original version by Sofia Abourachid