Nobody likes to argue or discuss serious subjects like local traditions and religious injunctions with the people one happens to meet in the departure lounge of an airport. But there are occasions when you feel drawn to an argument or debate against your best judgment, as I learned at the lounge of the Riyadh airport last week.
Most of the passengers at the airport were people going to Makkah to perform Umrah. Whether locals or those coming from abroad, men in ihraam and women in pure white garbs have always fascinated me. They are a reminder that although there may be a lot of evil people in the world, there are many more who are good. They come from far-away lands and endure all kinds of hardships to reach out to Allah and ask for His blessings and forgiveness and pray for the good of mankind. They also remind us (Saudis) of how blessed we are to be part of this holy land and be able to perform Umrah whenever we wish - especially when you are someone like me who lives in Jeddah.
Yes, we the people who inhabit this land are privileged. Should not this make us all the more responsible to honour the holy places and save Islam from those who distort it or misinterpret its teachings? My thoughts were running along these lines when three women wearing the niqab (full veil that left only the eyes uncovered) walked into the ladies lounge.
There were a few pamphlets on the table about Haj and Umrah and one of the women reached for one pamphlet and started reading it aloud. Apparently, they were going to Makkah for Umrah and wanted to know as much about the rituals of Umrah as possible. I could not help but listen to their conversation, with great interest at first and with a little bewilderment later. I guessed that the woman who was reading was the mother of the other two. She was eager to inform her daughters about the important rulings for women performing the Haj and Umrah. She stressed that one of the essential guidelines mentioned in the pamphlet was the need for women to cover their faces completely during Umrah and not to wear the niqab that shows their eyes through slits.
When I heard that, I could not keep quiet. I interrupted to say that this was not true and it is a clear distortion of all the religious teachings that I was taught and raised with and I indicated that I was born in Makkah and my uncle was one of Saudi Arabia's prominent judges and a scholar who taught in the Holy Mosque. As a little girl I used to accompany him on Umrahs. I know for a fact that women are forbidden to cover their faces during Haj and Umrah.
However, the mother pointed out that the author of one of the pamphlets too was a prominent religious scholar in Saudi Arabia. I urged them not to believe those who follow their own rulings and disregard the four Muslim schools of thought. The mother had no comment; however the girls answered me in a very friendly manner and said that people in the Makkah region have different beliefs and a lifestyle that does not compel them to cover their faces.
I argued that I respect their culture and their way of life; however, when it comes to religious teachings we should abide by Islamic rulings and not allow customs and traditions to disregard what is in the Qur'an and the Sunnah. I continued to argue my point with one of the women who was soft-spoken and a charming conversationalist. However, I was taken aback when she told me that she was a graduate of microbiology from the US. I could not believe that a woman with her educational background and her exposure to such societies could cling to such rigid notions.
Although she was highly educated, she was blindly following the instructions of the hard-line religious scholars of her region that women should be completely veiled and that they should remain faceless even during Umrah and Haj when in fact, according to the Sunnah, a woman should sacrifice a lamb in atonement for the violation of covering her face. At this point, the elderly lady read another guideline that she thought was equally important for us to know. She said women should not wear white clothes during Haj and Umrah because that would be emulating the ihraam clothes that men wear during pilgrimage. This was another baseless fact. All of us, I said, including women from all over the world wear white clothes when they perform Haj or Umrah. It is a symbol of purity, nothing more. There is nothing wrong or indecent in sharing the white colour with men. Why should it be forbidden or frowned upon? Before I could hear their answer we had to leave the room, as it was time to board the plane.
I felt really sad and frustrated with these women who, no matter how educated, are still being brainwashed by hard-liners who want them to remain faceless and shrouded in black. I had dreams of a new generation of educated Saudi women who would lead the Muslim women and debate issues that promote peace and global prosperity, rather than indulge in superficial rulings that serve no purpose. We need Muslim scholars to encourage Saudi women to contribute positively to the Saudi culture and to the image of the global Muslim society. This negative image of women who do not care to assert their identity has harmed Islam the world over.
Our scholars must give their blessings to allow Saudi professional women to be part of the international community and appear in proper hijab and be distinguished in adopting fashions that include contemporary, yet conservative, styles representing modest Muslim women. It is unfortunate that there are many in our society who criticise women who wear abayas that are more elegant. The official code of dress continues to be something that should be unattractive to look at. How sad! In my book and according to the majority of Muslim women in the world, this is totally un-Islamic. There are so many interpretations of what is appropriate for Muslim women to wear; however being faceless and shrouded in black should not be an option.
We need to correct the image of Saudi women who have unfortunately become the symbol of all Muslim women in the global community. We must put a stop to the wrong preaching and the brainwashing that goes on isolating Muslim women from the rest of the world. Our scholars must decide on a more appropriate dress code for the Saudi woman enabling her to lead and command the respect of all Muslims and help her assert her identity as an equal partner in the international community. The government must stop the distribution of these pamphlets that convey a distorted interpretation of Islam. The moderate and more enlightened scholars need to speak out against the preaching of scholars who issue baseless fatwas that are adopted by the masses in this country.
Many Muslims today hold it against us Saudis for spreading a rigid interpretation of Islam and influencing innocent and ignorant Muslims who are under the impression that Saudi scholars could never say anything that is wrong. It is time we addressed these issues before more harm is inflicted on Muslims and Islam.
Samar Fatany is a Saudi radio journalist. She is based in Jeddah and can be contacted at [email protected]
Source: Khaleej Times
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