Yemen’s Mother: The Image that Drew the Line between Hijab, Intellect and Civilization.


This morning while reviewing my Facebook, I found this image of Tawakkul Karman better known as “Yemen’s Mother.” For those who are not familiar with Karman, she is a Peace Nobel Prize winner for her involvement in Yemen’s revolution. She is one of the few Muslim women (along Shirin Ebadi) to have won a Nobel Prize and she is one of the youngest recipients.

                Her image, although not necessarily well-known for many, tends to be one of strength and female leadership. Her political accomplishments have somehow demonstrated that Muslim women can be at the front rows making a difference for society. Yet, the image presented above troubled me a bit. The quote is not recent; it seems to be from last year.

The picture was shared in my newsfeed by Nausheen Dabahoy a film maker friend of mine. When I saw the image there were two things that troubled me. First, the justification for the use of hijab. Don’t get me wrong, Allah bless all those sisters who choose to wear hijab. Nonetheless, I don’t think that hijab should be justified in terms of women’s intellect, or that it should be explained at all in terms of human civilization. Equating nakedness with ignorance and hijab with high intellect is one of those things that can go badly, and that just excludes those sisters who do not wear hijab. Similarly, it resembles the very well-known argument that often times Islamic scholars use to place a separation between the West and Islam: Western women are deviant and naked, thus Muslim women should cover and be virtuous. The West seems to use a similar reasoning when deeming hijabi and niqabi women oppressed by a constant and eternal male figure. As flawed as these arguments are, they are quite successful and widely used by Muslims and non-Muslims in trying to impose particular dress codes on women.

The second issue I had with the picture was the language. While I acknowledge that Karman’s first language is not English, just as it is not mine, the wide use of the quote regardless of gender connotations seems troubling. Let me illustrate why. Few years ago a female professor of religious studies told our class that she felt perfectly comfortable with the use of “men” as inclusive of men and women because she believed in gender equality. The problem with that statement is not only whether one “feels” included in “men” and “mankind,” but also whether or not one is meant to be included. There is a lot written in terms of grammatical use of such gendered conventions and explanations on why this is important to avoid them. However,  I feel that one of the most important things to keep in mind is that speaking in the language of “men” makes the rest of us “feminine” beings [as women, men, transsexual and transgendered persons, etc.] invitees-only of whatever conversation is taking place. The masculine language is an “exclusive” club where we are invited once in a while, and where we are required to leave femininity at the side to acquire whatever “masculine” treats particular groups impose on us.

The combination of the sexist language used in this quote along with the issue of intellect just reinforces, for me anyway, the idea that hijab provides women with femininity but grants them the “male” treat of intellect. Most Muslim women would know that their hijabs or niqabs have nothing to do with their intellect, and one does not rely on the other. Likewise, one’s choice to either wear a hijab or to remove it does not make civilization move forward or backwards.

Perhaps this is an unimportant issue for some, but it made me think, if this is the language and the values pushed forward by female role models, what is expected from us as Muslim women? How does that help us transcend the challenges of gender? Or is it even meant to help us “transcend”?

8 thoughts on “Yemen’s Mother: The Image that Drew the Line between Hijab, Intellect and Civilization.

  1. maryam1hispanic says:

    It is very sad and shameful someone who was just receiving an award expressed herself in that way! That kind of answer definetely supported the journalist´s assumption: the piece of cloth on her head didn´t go with her “intelect”. That kind of argument was among the ones used by European colonialists who masacrated and almost totally extinguished our Native American Indians because they were “uncivilized, unbelievers, savages, etc”. And she won a Peace Nobel Prize???? Please!

    • Elizabeth Asmaa Valencia says:

      With the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

      assalamu alaykum

      God in the Qur’an reminds us to stay away from the tabarruj of jahiliyyah (display from the times of ignorance). The author of the above article states “Equating nakedness with ignorance and hijab with high intellect is one of those things that can go badly,”

      I can see why it can offend someone to equate dressing modestly with higher intellect if they don’t dress that way and they feel judged (many people do a lot more easily these days it seems). My thought on it, as a convert Muslim woman that has chosen to wear hijab, is that if God commands me to wear something and I do it, then I have chosen with my God-given intellect a Higher Path. So I can see exactly what our sister Tawakkul means by higher intellect.

      Nakedness is ignorance. The majority of mankind acknowledges this fact and that is why most do not walk around naked. But there are varying degrees of nakedness, so what are we referring to here? I recall a Prophetic statement where our Beloved Messenger of God, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said that close to the end of times more people would be naked and wearing clothing at the same time. My point with this is to show that the way of taqwa – God awareness – is to cover our bodies.

      The purpose of covering our bodies is to identify as believing women in God. God in the Qur’an says that it is so that we are known as believing women and so that we are not bothered (please read the various tafaseer of this ayah insha’Allah) (33:59). يَا أَيُّهَا النَّبِيُّ قُل لِّأَزْوَاجِكَ وَبَنَاتِكَ وَنِسَاءِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ يُدْنِينَ عَلَيْهِنَّ مِن جَلَابِيبِهِنَّ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَدْنَىٰ أَن يُعْرَفْنَ فَلَا يُؤْذَيْنَ ۗ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ غَفُورًا رَّحِيمًا

      Covering our bodies is the God ordained way for our own well being. Fighting this God chosen way is ignorance. What is ignorance but lack of knowledge/education/awareness? That is why even the very spiritual and religious women in orthodox Judaism and Christianity and Catholicism still adopt it, although with variances in their dress.

      We have to recognize that not everyone can wear it due to various situations but that is not the point here at all. The sister gave her view and it is backed by the Qur’an.

      “Likewise, one’s choice to either wear a hijab or to remove it does not make civilization move forward or backwards.”

      I disagree. It certainly would improve many things if more of us applied our faith better today. God in the Qur’an states (translation of the meaning) ” Indeed, God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (13:11) And so, by changing ourselves for the better (through submission to God and HIS Law), God Himself WILL improve our condition.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. They allowed me to think a lot more and I think it is good for all of us to dialogue (without looking down on anyone just because we disagree…reminder to mi hermana Maryam1hispanic).

      May God increase you all in goodness in this world and the next. Ameen

      wassalam

      Sister/Hermana Asmaa

      • Eren Arruna Cervantes says:

        Hi Elizabeth, thanks for your thoughts. There is few reasons why I disagree. First, hijab does not necessarily equate faith. One can wear niqab and layers of clothing and be as impious as someone that does not wear anything. Similarly, one can not wear hijab and be in close relationship with Allah. Now, in terms of civilization the easy-non-Muslim answer would be: If hijab helps civilization, how come most MUslim countries are third world countries and Muslim women in the West enjoy more priviledges that many women elsewhere in the Muslim world… Although I don’t necessarily see a correlation, I do think that equating hijab with civilization takes us to a very problematic argument that neither helps nor it resolves the issue. Saying that nakedness is ignorance is a non-objective argument because there is no hard proof of it. Actually, for many scholars in different sects of Islam there was a lot of discussion on whether or not hijab was mandatory or optional, the same with niqab. Some of us choose to wear it and justify it and others choose not too and they justify it too.
        Now, in the context in which Tawakkul was speaking she actually told the media what they wanted to hear: A Muslim woman trying to justify her way of dressing not based on her personal choice but rather based on her own biases in terms of civilization and the divide between Islam and the West. That’s what the Western media wants!

      • maryam1hispanic says:

        Sister Asmaa. As a convert myself for over 17 years I went through different stages in my life. Now I would like to ask you this question: How do you know that Allah, Almighty wants you to wear and all the women around the globe a piece of clothe on the head to show to that they are believers? Please, sit down and reflect on this sister. You and me we are both converts, and at one time we used our “reasoning” and that is why we chose Islam.
        I´m going to share with you the following:

        To begin with, in all the Surahs the Qu´ran makes reference to the word hijab, in none of them is refereing to covering one´s head with a piece of cloth. It has different meanings and connotations that most scholars agree on. Another point to consider is that in pre-islamic and islamic era the veil had a social status since that was a sign of belonging to an upper class. For that reason the same Caliph Umar did not allow slave women to wear it and that is well documented in islamic history.
        Also when we examinate the following Ayat:
        “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.” (Quran 33:59)
        We can easily understand that the purpose of covering besides having a sociological connotation as we have already explained, it is to be recognized in one´s society as pious and decent woman.
        In most Western societies the dressing code for a pious religious woman is loose clothes, long sleeves, and long skirts.
        The Qu´ran also main purpose is that women don´t get annoyed by men by “drawing their attention”. Whenever a woman passes in front of a group of men dressed with a simple long sleeve blouse, long skirt, and a ponny tail, that lady would rarely be looked at and in some cases she might even be considered as an old-fashioned person. On the other hand, a lady with a colorful hijab in some non-islamic societies would invite all men to look at her and some even might say “bye linda” (beauty) as it happens in my country. So if I really want to follow what the Qu´ran main message is, I would go by the first option which is wearing long loose clothes and a simple ponny tail.
        Islam is a religion that welcomes all cultures without impossing any specific dress style, food, etc. There is a beautiful story in the Qu´ran about cultures and ways of living that I would like to share with you:
        18:86 Until, when he reached the setting of the sun, he found it set in a spring of murky water: Near it he found a People: We said: “O Zul-qarnain! (thou hast authority,) either to punish them, or to treat them with kindness.”
        18:87 He said: “Whoever doth wrong, him shall we punish; then shall he be sent back to his Lord; and He will punish him with a punishment unheard-of (before).
        18:88 “But whoever believes, and works righteousness,- he shall have a goodly reward, and easy will be his task as We order it by our Command.”
        18:89 Then followed he (another) way,
        18:90 Until, when he came to the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no covering protection against the sun.
        18:91 (He left them) as they were: We completely understood what was before him.
        The Prophet Zulqurnain pbuh is given authority to punish. He sees a people with no covering protection against the sun. This could mean few trees, roofless homes or people wearing few clothes. Such people exist in the world today as so close to me in South America or in some parts of Africa. They wear few clothes, limited property, and they live in harmony with nature. The Prophet Zulqurnain PBU had left such people as they were. He didn’t punish them for not wearing more clothes. He left them alone because it was THEIR CULTURE and WAY OF LIVING.
        Also let us not forget what is really the best clothes to wear in front of Allah, S.W.A. which is stated very clear in the Qu´ran:
        [7:26] O children of Adam, we have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as for luxury. But the best garment is the garment of righteousness.
        So, I guess nobody at this point could dispute the beautiful message from above verse reducing the Path of Allah to a piece of clothe on the head.
        Me being hispanic with a beautiful historical cultural heritage, there is no need for me to adopt a dressing code that was meant only at one specific historical time to distinguish social classes in Arabia. I rather opt to wear the Garment of Rightousness.
        O mankind! We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another. Truly, the most honored of you in God’s sight is the greatest of you in piety. God is All-Knowing, All Aware (49:13)
        If you believe there is other garment for a human being tp wear than the garment of righteousness, then I leave it between you and Allah 🙂
        At one time in my muslim life I used to repeat hadiths,tafseersl, and interpretations of “renowed- scholars” while the message of the Holy Quran is very easy and simple: BE A RIGHTEOUS PERSON in words and deeds!

  2. Yasmin Khan says:

    actually she is not the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize – Shirin Ebadi won it about 10 years ago!

  3. maryam1hispanic says:

    There is something very interesting: in some cultures like in tthe depth of the Amazon, where the aborigins wear very few clothes or none, how many child abuses occure? How many rapes? How many cases of sodomy? I invite everybody including myself to go for scientific research and you will find out that very few cases happen there. Why if they are almost “naked”? When the islands of Cuba and Dominican Republic were discovered, most indian population died in less than 200 years from different diseases which they were never exposed before such as gonorea ans sifilis (sexual transmited diseases) that the Spaniard “well covered” brought with them. How many Indonesians, Indians, Filipines maids are everyday raped in the Arab world where “most women are covered”? How about the case of the 14 years old Sara ElKhatib who went to perform Umrah with her dad from France and was brutally raped and murdered by Saudi men http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N59XLVN7YDk
    As sister Eren said, the muslim world right now as it is should not even say a word that by wearing hijab a woman gets more respecte and she achieve “a higher intelect”, with the kind things the do, I think I¨m safer living among the aborigins in the Amazon or in Australia 🙂
    Sorry if I sound a little harsh, I get frustrated that some people in our Ummah are still focused on hijab (Alhamdulillah there are many people who are awaking from the slogans “My hijab, my dignity, my honor, etc.”) while overlooking serious matters that are can distroy us 😦

    • Chris says:

      “in some cultures like in tthe depth of the Amazon, where the aborigins wear very few clothes or none, how many child abuses occure? How many rapes? How many cases of sodomy? I invite everybody including myself to go for scientific research and you will find out that very few cases happen there. Why if they are almost “naked”? When the islands of Cuba and Dominican Republic were discovered, most indian population died in less than 200 years from different diseases which they were never exposed before such as gonorea ans sifilis (sexual transmited diseases) that the Spaniard “well covered” brought with them. How many Indonesians, Indians, Filipines maids are everyday raped in the Arab world where “most women are covered”? ”

      Thank you very much for this point. While I do not believe that the grass is necessarily greener on the other side, and while I do not believe everything is perfect in the supposedly less “civilized”, tribal and native societies (speaking of underage marriage, non-consensual marriage etc), I get a surprised and basically agreeing response by African and sometimes also Middle Eastern Muslim friends and conversation partners when I ask them to reevaluate their cultural bias (which the European colonizers absolutely shared): Are these “uncovered” tribal and native societies really worse than the covered conquerors, Muslim and non-Muslim? Were they not in many aspects of their society more civilized, respecting territory and peace treaties with their neighbours rather than going about, better covered and better armed, raping and submitting their enemies? (This holds for both Arab and European colonizers in history – none of them necessarily behaved very decently toward the “naked” native populations, especially not toward their women.)

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