1995: The Lives of Muslim Women

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Geraldine Brooks ’83

Geraldine Brooks raised public awareness of the diverse experiences and perspectives of Muslim women in her revealing book, “Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Muslim Women.”

“Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Muslim Women,” from Chapter 1: The Holy Veil

By Geraldine Brooks

The word “hijab” literally means “curtain,” and it is used in the Koran as an instruction to believers of Muhammad’s day on how they should deal with the prophet’s wives: “If you ask his wives for anything, speak to them from behind a curtain. This is purer for your heart and their hearts.” The revelation on hijab came to Muhammad on one of his wedding nights, just as he was about to bed Zeinab, the most controversial of his brides.

Islamic scholars generally agree that the marriage to Zeinab caused the most serious of several scandals surrounding the prophet’s ever growing number of wives. Visiting the house of his adopted son, Muhammad had glimpsed the young man’s wife only partially dressed. The woman was beautiful, and Muhammad quickly turned away, muttering a prayer against temptation. Believing Muhammad desired his wife, the young man divorced her. Muhammad’s subsequent marriage to Zeinab provoked uproar in the community, since it violated the rules of incest already set down in the Koran. The uproar subsided only when Muhammad had a new revelation proclaiming all adoptions invalid, and therefore exempting himself from the rule that barred a father from marrying the wife of his son.

The revelation of hijab put the prophet’s wives, including Zeinab, into seclusion where they would be safer from scandal. The Koran’s instructions for women outside the prophet’s household weren’t as severe: “Tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms.”

In Cairo, when Sahar began wearing hijab, I dug out this quote and argued with her that it made no reference at all to covering hair. What it seemed to me to be asking was that women conform to conservative norms of dress — in our day, to shun see-through blouses and skimpy miniskirts. But Sahar replied that it was necessary to go beyond the Koran for guidance on such matters. She said that the sunnah, the “trodden path” of Muhammad — those things which he had said, done or permitted to be done in his presence — made it clear that “that which is apparent” meant only a woman’s face and hands. The rest of her “adornment” — including ankles, wrists, neck — should be hidden from all men except her husband and a carefully specified list of close male relatives to whom the Koran forbids marriage. That is, her father, brothers, father-in-law, nephews, sons and stepsons. She can also be unveiled, the Koran says, before prepubescent boys and “male attendants who lack vigor,” which in Muhammad’s era probably meant eunuchs or old slaves.

But Sahar’s interpretation wasn’t universal. Some Muslim women believed, as I did, that the religion only required them to dress within contemporary limits of modesty. Others insisted on going beyond a covered head to gloved hands and veiled faces, arguing that the corruption of the modern world made more extreme measures necessary now than in the prophet’s day.

At Cairo airport, the great crossroads of the Islamic world, it was possible to see almost every interpretation of Islamic dress. Women from Pakistan, on their way to jobs in the Gulf, floated by in their deliciously comfortable salwar kameez — silky tunics drifting low over billowing pants with long shawls of matching fabric tossed loosely over their heads. Saudi women trod carefully behind their husbands, peering from behind gauzy face veils and 360-degree black cloaks that made them look, as Guy de Maupassant once wrote, “like death out for a walk.” Afghan women also wore 360-degree coverings, called chadris — colorful crinkly shrouds with an oblong of embroidered latticework over the eyes. Women from Dubai wore stiff, birdlike masks of black and gold that beaked over the nose but left their luminous, treacle-colored eyes exposed. Some Palestinians and Egyptians wore dull-colored, floor-length button-through coats and white head-scarves; others wore bright calf-length skirts with matching scarves held in place by headbands of seed pearls.

The oddest interpretation of Islamic dress I encountered was in the arid expanse of the Algerian Sahara, where the nomadic tribes known as Tuareg hold to the tradition that is is men who should veil their faces after puberty, while women go barefaced. As soon as they are old enough to shave their beards and keep the Ramadan fast, the men must cover all but their eyes in a veil made of yards of indigo cloth. “We warriors veil our faces so that the enemy may not know what is in our minds, peace or war, but women have nothing to hide,” is how one Tuareg man explained the custom. The Tuareg are Muslims, but their interpretation of the faith gives women considerable sexual freedom before marriage and allows close platonic friendships with men after they wed. A Tuareg proverb says: “Men and women toward each other are for the eyes, and for the heart, and not only for the bed.” Other Muslims find Tuareg customs close to heresy. In fact, the word “Tuareg” comes from the Arabic for “The Abandoned of God.”

Where women wore the veil, there was money to be made in Islamic fashion. Cairo had the Salam Shopping Center for Veiled Women, a three-floor clothing emporium that stocked nothing but Islamically correct outfits. Most of the store was devoted to what the management though of as “training hijab” — color-coordinated long skirts and scarves, long jackets studded with rhinestones and bulging with oversized shoulder pads — that covered the Islamic minimum. Ideally, explained one manager, customers who started wearing such clothes would gradually become more enlightened and graduate to dowdier colors and longer, more shapeless garments, ending up completely swathed in black cloaks, gloves and face veils. But these plain outfits, which cost around ten dollars, were hard to find amid the racks of more profitable “high-fashion” hijab, where the cost for an Islamically correct evening outfit could run to three or four times a civil servant’s monthly salary.

In Beirut, in the basement of the Great Prophet Mosque, Hezbollah established an Islamic-fashion factory to cash in on the growing worldwide demand for hijab. “My Islam isn’t a bunch of fighters. It’s a revolution of culture, of ideas,” enthused the factory manager, a rotund woman who introduced herself as Hajjia Zahra. Flipping through a German couture catalog, she showed me how the latest styles in pockets, zips and sleeves could be grafted onto the long, figure-hiding dresses the factory turned out by the hundreds. Around us, bolts of cloth soared to the ceiling. She explained that the bright bales, the reds and yellows, would be used for Hezbollah’s hot-selling line of children’s clothes. The muted browns, grays and mossy greens were for the women’s fashions. “These are calm colors,” she explained. “Part of the philosophy of Islamic dress is for a woman to project an aura of calm and tranquillity.


Hijab was the most obvious sign of the Islamic revival that had swept up Sahar and so many other young women. It began in 1967, after Egypt’s catastrophic loss to Israel in the Six-Day War. To explain the humiliation, Muslim philosophers pointed to the secularism of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government, and urged Egyptians to return to the Islamic laws they had abandoned. Slowly, the number of veiled women began to increase.

But the real surge came with Iran’s theocratic revolution, when donning hijab became a political as well as a religious act. In 1935 the shah’s father has banned the chador. Reza Shah wanted his country to look modern and he thought the ancient black cloak didn’t. But devout women, especially the elderly, couldn’t suddenly make so drastic a change. In her memoir, Daughter of Persia, Sattareh Farman Farmaian writes of her mother’s desolation. “When my mother had learned that she was to lose the age-old modesty of her veil, she was beside herself. She and all traditional people regarded Reza’s order as the worst thing he had yet done — worse than his attacking the rights of the clergy; worse even than his confiscations and murders.” Fearing the shah’s displeasure, her husband ordered her to go out in public unveiled. “The next day, weeping with rage and humiliation, she sequestered herself in her bedroom. … As she wept she struggled futilely to hide her beautiful masses of waist-length black hair under the inadequate protection of a small French cloche.”

For others, the so-called liberating edict became a form of imprisonment. Men who had just begun allowing their daughters to attend school revoked their permission when it meant girls walking to class uncovered. Women who disobeyed the shah’s order and ventured into the streets veiled risked having their coverings ripped off and scissored by soldiers. Chador-wearing women were forbidden to use public transportation and denied entry to many stores. Rather than risk such humiliation, many women simply stayed inside. Khomeini’s wife Khadija, for one, didn’t leave her house at all. Such confinement was a particular hardship at a time when most homes didn’t have bathrooms and women gathered to bathe and socialize during the women’s hours at local bathhouses — hamams. The ban was compulsory from 1935 until 1941, when draconian enforcement eased, but unveiling continued to be encouraged and women who wished to veil were derided as backward.

As revolutionary pressure mounted in the late 1970s, wearing the chador became a symbol of protest against the shah and his Western backers. Some clerics advocated it for predictable reasons. If all women wore it, reasoned the Iranian cleric Ibrahim Amini, wives “could rest assured that their husbands, when not at home, would not encounter a lewd woman who might draw his attention away.” In Britain, the Muslim scholar Shabbir Akhtar came up with an alternative rationale. The aim of the veil, he wrote, “is to create a truly erotic culture in which one dispenses with the need for the artificial excitement that pornography provides.” In both cases, women are expected to sacrifice their comfort and freedom to service the requirements of male sexuality: either to repress or to stimulate the male sex urge.

Neither of these arguments carried so much weight with young intellectuals such as my Iranian interpreter, Hamideh Marefat. For her, wearing the chador was, first and foremost, a political act. Growing up in a middle-class home, she had never thought of veiling until she started attending clandestine lectures by a charismatic young intellectual named Ali Shariati. Shariati, Iranian-born and Sorbonne-educated, married his knowledge of Marxism to his own Iranian Shiite Islam, with its roots in rebellion against the status quo after Muhammad’s deat — and came up with a revolutionary creed designed to uplift the masses and challenge despots. Western dress, he said, was a form of imperialism, turning women’s beauty into a product of capitalism to be bought and sold, at the same time as it made third-world women dependent consumers of fast-obsolete fashions. Muslim women, he urged, should assert their freedom by adopting Islamic dress. To young women such as Hamideh Marefat, the chador served much the same purpose as the denim overalls worn by the militant American feminist Andrea Dworkin. To Hamideh, the chador symbolized liberation. She put it on a year before the Iranian revolution of 1978, and when she occupied the U.S. Embassy, she wore it like a flag.

But by the time I met her, ten years later, the revolutionary thrill had started to wear off. Every time we got out of the sight of men, she’d shrug off the big black cloth with relief. “I wish I’d never put it on,” she confided one day. “In the beginning, it was important, to prove your revolutionary views. But now we don’t have to prove that. You can be a revolutionary with just a scarf and coat.”

When I went to visit her at home, Hamideh looked preppy in pleated skirts, silk blouses and discreet gold jewelry. But when she went out, she donned the full uniform of revolutionary Islam. For me, it was easier to deal with Hamideh in her chador. The things she said somehow seemed less jolting coming out of that anonymous darkness. In her family’s tastefully furnished living room, as we chatted about neutral subjects like Persian poetry or the difficulty of meeting eligible men, it was easy to begin to see her as just another smart woman my own age with whom I had a lot in common. Then she would run a hand through her bobbed chestnut hair and deliver an opinion devastating in its extremism. “Israel has to be obliterated,” she would say, reaching for her teacup and taking a delicate sip. “I’m looking forward to taking part in the war for its destruction.”

While Sunni Muslims assume a direct relationship between believers and God, Shiites believe in the mediation of a highly trained clergy. Usually, each Shiite chooses a high-ranking clerical thinker and follows any religious ruling, or fatwa, from that person. Hamideh had chosen Khomeini, which meant that she ordered every detail of her life according to the opinions he set out in his eighteen volumes of religious interpretation. “Some ayatollahs say women must wear gloves,” she explained, “but Imam Khomeini says that the lower part of the hand can be uncovered.” Other ayatollahs considered the female voice arousing and barred women from speaking in mixed gatherings unless they first put a stone in their mouths to distort the sound. Khomeini, citing the prophet’s meetings with mixed groups of men and women, had no problems with the female speaking voice.

I asked Hamideh if Khomeini could ever be wrong in a religious ruling. “For sure,” she said. “We don’t believe any human being is infallible. But if I follow his fatwa, and it’s wrong — say I kill someone he orders me to, and the person is innocent — the person I killed will go to paradise, and the sin of the killing is on the one who issued the fatwa, not on me.”

Now that Khomeini was dead, Hamideh felt she couldn’t abandon the chador. To suddenly stop wearing it after his death might look as if her commitment to his line had weakened. Articles in newspapers constantly reminded women that the chador was a “trench against Western values.” And men in positions of power believed it. One friend had gone to an interview for a government job covering her hair and curves with an Islamically impeccable coat and scarf. “You’re naked,” the interviewer snarled, and declined to hire her.

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