#Queeringtheveil: An Interview With Dr. Aqsa Shaikh On Modesty And Veiling in Islam

The words – veil and closet – have something in common. Both denote shutting oneself within. Perhaps it is out of fear, to escape the prying eyes of the world, ones that leers or mocks. Perhaps it is out of compulsion, where coming out may invoke some punishment. Maybe it arises out of a need to feel secure by oneself or be at one with God. Or maybe one is completely content with the way one is, and unveiling or coming out is not what one seeks at all. The point is, each one shares a unique and complex relationship be it with the veil or the closet. And what we create from these relationships is multiplicity of meanings and of lived experiences, that is, of veils and of closets – in the plural.

The Eurocentric lens has largely done the crime of reducing both the veil and the closet to the binaries, of in and out, of oppressed and emancipated. Thus the veil – common to multiple religious faiths but largely associated with Islam in the modern day – signifies backwardness and nothing else. Similarly the only way to attain something close to happiness is getting out of that closet and hopping straight onto the brand-sponsored Pride float. The West, by speaking about us on our behalf, continues to define as well as defile our identities. And true freedom lies in speaking for ourselves.

For this piece we are going to talk about veiling practices in Islam. Veiling is one of the manifestations of modesty, which is fundamental to Islamic faith. Modesty, rooted in the Latin word ‘keeping within measure’ has multiple meanings and associations. One could speak of it as the decencies, of behavior, speech, and fashion. One could mean it purely in terms of dress and deportment, of refraining from encouraging sexual attraction in others, the onus largely placed on women. The fashion industry today has even capitalized on modesty which has become a rage among people across faiths. Modesty could also refer to something more holistic – to shun vanity, egotism, boastfulness, or pretention. To value egalitarianism, one where fundamental human worth is similar to that of others, and in our everyday bearing. The word itself gets robbed of all its nuances if it is purely associated with clothing, but that has unfortunately become the scenario today. A woman who dresses ‘modestly’ as per society is either placed on a pedestal she never even asked for or called a prude and a blight on feminism. Likewise a woman who doesn’t abide by society’s rules of modesty is either celebrated as brave and feminist, or cursed as a whore and (in the current times) maybe an ‘anti-national’. The question is – who is really deciding who we are?

In Islam, as in the case of other Abrahamic religions, the practice of modesty stems directly from the Holy book, as a word of God. Though it is so much more than clothing, today the highly stereotypical idea of Islamic modesty is an image of woman covered from head to toe, with only her eyes being visible to us, and sometimes even that is concealed from our view. The stereotype marks her as a woman without a face and without a voice, a woman made invisible from the world, by her ‘man’, by ‘religion’, by ‘patriarchy’, you name it. Yet just months back when the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 was passed, the same ‘oppressed’ veiled women stormed the streets of the country in thousands alongside other women – some with their head covered, others without – and shook the establishment to the core. These women weren’t ideally supposed to act that way, isn’t it?

Muslim women-led protests erupted across the country post Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. Source: Al Jazeera

Through their act – of protest and of resistance as opposed to expected submission and subservience – the veil had been queered, in a sense. It broke the binary conventions imposed upon it, by the West, by men, by White cis feminists, by Hindutva forces, and so on. The veil has been reclaimed today by some within the queer Muslim community as well, as a way to reconcile with their faith, as a way to hold on to their culture, or maybe just for style. We spoke to Dr. Aqsa Shaikh – a person of many hats, a medical educator in Delhi, a regular blogger for spaces like Youth Ki Awaaz and Times of India, a passionate poet, and a committed advocate for transgender community in India – on modesty in Islam, the misconceptions surrounding veiling, and her own lived experiences as a queer person who veils. 

Q. The Qu’ran regards modesty one of the central aspects of Islam. Could you explain to us why?  

Islam is a religion which advocates humility, softness and modesty. Prior to the arrival of Islam in Arabia, nudity was common. It has been recorded that many pilgrims to Mecca before Prophethood of Muhammad PBUH did circumambulation of Kaaba (The House of Allah) in naked state. Illicit sexual affairs (mostly forced by men on women and slaves) were common. Women and adolescents were raped. Slaves had no rights. Animals were tortured. People used to bury alive their girl children. The message of Islam with reference to modesty has to be seen in this context. In addition to directing men and women to wear modest dress, Islam asks its followers to lower their gaze. Islam provided a legal rights-based framework for marriage where in women had rights – to enter marriage and exit marriage, right to meher – bride gift money, right in property. Islam gave rulings on illicit sexual intercourse, on rape and molestation and also on false accusations on women. Islam also defined who are the near relatives with whom Hijab is not required. In addition to this, Islam advocates moderation. Bashful display of wealth, clothing and jewellery or even children or land is looked down upon. Islam asked its followers to be concerned about their neighbours and other vulnerable groups. Islam asked people to not abuse (even Gods of other religion) and to respect Churches and Synagogues. Even Kings/ Caliphs/ Emirs were supposed to live modest and honest life.

Q. Coming to clothing in particular, the Qu’ran has prescribed what is permissible for both the binary categories of women and men. There exist differences however among the various translated versions especially as on what women should wear. What are your observations on this?     

Indeed there are different interpretations of what exactly Islam talks about dressing – especially women’s dressing. My interpretation is that face covering is not mandatory of women in general. It was only for Wives of Prophet PBUH. Islam asks that our face be shown when we do Hajj, at the most sacred of all places. Islam asked to cover breasts and adornments like jewellery. Even head covering is not mandatory except in prayer, is my interpretation. What is important is that women be given right to practice modesty as per their understanding and faith and that it should not be forced – either veiling or unveiling.

Q. There are widespread misconceptions about Islam in general and veiling, be it the head or the face, has been quite a contentious issue be in the West where Muslims are protesting in Brussels over the campus ban on veiling or even in a Muslim-majority country like Egypt where the elite segment associates it with conservatism. One of the biggest critiques is that veiling is a tool to oppress all Muslim women. What according to you has brought about some of the misconceptions as well as the polarized reactions that surround veiling?

I think it’s because of religious decrees around head cover and some states like Iran making it mandatory in public life. So people tend to associate it with religion. Head covering is common in many religions and cultures and not just Islam. There is no compulsion in Islam to do anything – we are all able to exercise our free will. Any legislation which forces women to wear or snatches away their right to wear – both are discriminatory.

Q. What does modesty mean for you as a queer Muslim and how you reconcile your identities as queer and as a Muslim who veils? 

I have been a practicing Muslim since many years and hence on transition Hijab was a natural next step for me. Though I personally believe that it is better but not mandatory to cover head. Also, I had male pattern baldness and short hair and head covering  helped me in hiding that.  Besides that I noticed that during transition it was much easier to pass as a female with my Hijab on as compared to without hijab as only women wear Hijab while kurtas and pajamas are almost unisex. So, in a way Hijab allowed me to exert my femininity during my transition. Also, being in Hijab people (especially Muslims) respected me and my decision more.

Q. What are the things that you believe should needs to change in society – both within the Muslim community and beyond – to foster more inclusivity for queer Muslims, particularly those who choose to cover and/or not conforming to the binary cis-heterosexual norms?

I think that free will, choice, and liberty should be the core principles we should be pursuing when seeking dignified and rights-based living of queer and Muslims in India. Just like Muslims should be allowed to live as per their rituals and customs unless its hampering on rights of someone else, queer folks should also be allowed to live and do as they like unless it hampers someone else’s rights. And this includes the right to cover or not to cover. Often, queer and Muslim identities are considered to be at the loggerheads and mutually exclusive and queer Muslim is considered an oxymoron – but some of us have proven it wrong by being a Practicing, out-and-proud queer Muslims.

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Career-wise, I am passionate about media and education. My inspirations include Meryl Streep, Joan Rivers, Nicki Minaj, and the movie Singin’ in the Rain. I walk the tightrope of being serious, kind-hearted & optimistic while at the same time I can be wreckless about laughter, be critical of things around and cry ‘f*** the world’ aloud from rooftops.

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