Sarah Swick, Minaret of Freedom Institute, www.minaret.org
I was recently invited to represent the Minaret of Freedom Institute at an international conference in Cologne, Germany sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (Foundation). The topic of the conference was “Women in Islam: Between Oppression and (self-) Empowerment.”
The Conference brought together Muslim and non-Muslim women from around the World to discuss ways to improve the status of Muslim women.. The credentials and passion of the women assembled impressed me, however I was distressed by the constant confrontations over the “hijab”, both by women pro and con hijab (headscarf). It seemed we could not get beyond the issue and lost valuable time in which we could have spent more time discussing the more vital issues, such as divorce, forced marriage, domestic violence, and discrimination. However, these heated, if not repetitive, debates about the hijab allowed me to come to a personal ‘revelation’: women, themselves, are largely to blame for the constant attention paid to a piece of cloth, inhibiting real progress on the vital issues mentioned above.
On the ‘con’ side, I was disappointed in the close-minded discourse presented. For example, a respected Moroccan female academic even went so far as to say, “I do not believe a woman can be free if she wears the scarf.” I don’t believe that we can determine someone’s freedom simply on the basis of their clothing. Moreover, a representative of the Forum Progressive Muslims of Switzerland argued at the conference that female teachers should not be allowed to wear the scarf, as in her view, such women are not good role models for children. Again, I would argue that one cannot judge someone’s morality by their clothing, moreover I would insist that ‘judging of morality’ is not an exercise for humans, rather it should be left to the Divine.
Similarly, problematic is the discourse on the ‘pro’ hijab side. At the conference, and even more generally in the Muslim community, there is a feeling that a woman not wearing the scarf is somehow ‘less Muslim’ or ‘not-as-good of a Muslim’ as one who does wear it. This judging of piety on the basis of clothing is also very problematic in my mind, and, again, should be left to the Divine.
Morality and piety are personal and internal to the mind and heart. As the cliché goes “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” I also implore Muslims not to judge a woman by her cover (or lack thereof)! For me, this all comes down to individual and personal liberty. In deciding which interpretation of the Qur’an to follow, I believe that, in addition to using intellect and reason, we should remember to listen to our hearts as Allah guides our hearts. So, for example, Dr. Asma Barlas (who was a speaker on that panel) and I may disagree about what the Qur’an says about the hijab. My intellect and heart tells me something different than how she understands it, but that does not mean I am any more right or more ‘guided’ than she or vice-versa. I believe that it is only with such an approach, which stresses the personal liberty and responsibility to reflect on the Qur’an, that we can be healed by the plague of the hijab issue and move on to greater illnesses in our ummah.
As part of a three part series on this conference, the next of my blog comments will be on “How we should understand the role of the Qur’an in our lives today?”
 There were also a few men in attendance.
 The scarf that covers the head and not the face.
 “No kind of calamity can occur, except by the leave of God. and if any one believes in God, (God) guides his heart (aright): for God knows all things.” Qur’an, 64:11 (Yusuf Ali translation).