Words By: Freya Hall
Image Credit: Muslim Village
To read An Idiot’s Guide to Islam: Part 1 click here:
Part 2: Women and Islam
Why do Muslim women ‘cover up’?
Many people use the word ‘hijab’ to describe head coverings worn by Muslim women. However, hijab also refers, more broadly, to the Islamic dress and behaviour code that requires both men and women to dress and conduct themselves in a manner that befits their dignity, and which does not ignite temptation in others.
For Muslim women this often means covering their hair, which is considered by many to be a substantial indicator of one’s physical attractiveness or sexual allure. However, the belief that a woman’s hair should be covered due to modesty is not unique to the Islamic faith, many Christian nuns and orthodox Jewish women also cover their hair for this same reason.
To observe hijab, many Muslim women wear some form of headscarf or veil – but they are not all called ‘burqas’. Burqas are the most modest of all Islamic veils and conceal the entire face and body of the woman with only a mesh screen to see through. However, other less conservative veils and headscarves include the al-amira, shayla, khimar, chador, and niqab. For a visual explanation click here.
Also, not all Muslim women wear hijab, and not all wear it for the same reasons. Some wear it because they find it religiously or culturally empowering, others wear it for modesty, some wear it for fashion, and others wear it to liberate themselves from the male gaze.
Why is Muslim dress controversial?
In 2010 a law was introduced in France that made it illegal for anyone to cover or conceal their face in a public place. While this ban also extends to balaclavas, helmets, and masks, the ban was largely considered to be, and labelled as, a ‘ban on the burqa’.
Under this new law, people found wearing face-covering veils can receive fines of up to 150 euros, and those found forcing a woman to wear a face-concealing veil can be charged up to 30,000 euros and face a year in prison.
The reasoning behind these different penalties, and calls around the world for similar bans, stems from a belief that the hijab is a symbol of female subjugation. Others argue, however, that such veils should be banned on the basis of security, given they render the wearer unidentifiable.
Similar debate has been raised in Australia over recent decades, but all calls to ‘ban the burqa’ have ultimately floundered. A recent Heat Group poll demonstrated the tension that exists between Australian women’s desire to uphold individual freedoms versus their desire to enforce collective safety rights and standards. This poll found that even though 70% of respondents felt that the burqa posed a security threat, 60% of them still believed that wearing one was a woman’s right.
Does Islam allow polygamy?
Muhammad is believed to have had 11 wives in his lifetime. The Prophet was married to his first wife for 25 years and remained in a monogamous relationship with her until her death. The Prophet’s 10 proceeding marriages were considered political or religious unions that were based on compassion or strategic viability, rather than sexual desire. For example, some of these marriages were made with the view of caring for women whose husbands had died defending the Muslim faith, and others were made with the hope of mending relationships between tribes.
Islam did not invent polygamy. In fact, during the time that Muhammad lived plural marriages were considered an essential feature of social existence. This is evidenced in both the Bible and the Torah, which also tell of polygamous prophets such as Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon.
Muslims believe that Islam regulated this already widespread tradition by providing conditions and restrictions upon its practice. Firstly, in order to marry more than one wife a Muslim man must be capable of dealing with them justly. This includes being just in food, clothes, housing, interest, and treatment. Secondly, a man must be capable of financially providing for the expanded family, and thirdly, a man must not marry more than four wives.
However, Islam views monogamy as the preferred marital relationship, with polygamy considered an anathema by the vast majority of Muslims. For example, it was recently estimated that there were only 4000 polygamous relationships in existence within the United Kingdom’s Muslim population. Even in predominantly Muslim countries, the practice is unpopular. For example, polygamy is illegal in Tunisia, a nation where 99% of the population identifies as Sunni Muslim.
Why was the Prophet allowed 11 wives, but everyone else only 4?
Before the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad, there was no limit on the number of wives a man could have, and therefore it was not uncommon for men to have 11 wives or more. It is believed that once the revelation regarding polygamy was revealed to Muhammad, he took no more wives in respect of it.