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Muslim Dress in Dangerous Times

In the current climate of escalated religiously-motivated violence since the terrible attacks of September 11, Muslim women in hijab (headscarf) are particularly vulnerable because, for many years, western media and literature have consistently portrayed covered women as the predominant image of Islam. As a result, Muslim women in headscarves and other Muslim-style clothing are often the first and easiest targets of hate violence. American Muslim women should keep all this in mind as they decide how to dress in the next weeks and months. If a Muslim woman senses a possible danger to herself, adjusting her attire to minimize the chances of physical attack is a logical and Islamically permissible precaution that falls squarely within the fiqh principles of necessity and hardship. Whatever whatever one ultimately feels is the best attire for a Muslim woman, the Quran is also clear that Islamic dress is something to help us avoid harassment. (Quran 33:59) Moreover, older women who are less able to defend themselves are perhaps the most vulnerable population. With regard to these women, it must be remembered that the Quran specifically states that they are under no obligation to wear hijab at all. (Quran 24:60). Many of these women have grown so accustomed to hijab, and feel it an added reward to continue to wear it, that it would be nearly impossible to not do so. Nevertheless, the danger still remains and there is no harm on those altering their appearance for their own safety.

While Muslim women in the United States wear Islamic dress in many different ways, all are proud to be identified as Muslims, and equally proud as Americans that this is a place where everyone has the right to free and open expression of their identity. Islamic law protects this same free exercise of religion, enabling people of all faiths to have lived peacefully in Muslim lands for centuries. But Islamic law also recognizes what life is like for people living in dangerous or oppressive circumstances, where they or their beliefs are threatened. In such situations, individual life and personal safety take precedence over normal Islamic rules. As established in a primary principle of Islamic jurisprudence, "necessity renders the forbidden permissible." (Said Ramadan, Islamic Law: Its Scope and Equity 71 (1970)).

The sad reality is that, in the aftermath of the heinous attacks on New York and Washington, DC on September 11, 2001, Muslim Americans and others have become the targets of violence and harassment by some Americans misguidedly expressing their anger and hate. The types of hate crimes documented thus far include verbal abuse, threats, vandalism, physical assault, murder and possibly rape. The situation may worsen as the war on terrorism escalates. The villains have been presented as "radical Islamic fundamentalist militants." Unfortunately, most Americans have no idea what the difference is between a "militant" and someone who is outwardly observant of her or his faith. This, coupled with a basic ignorance about Islam, means we could all become victims of hate crimes, especially those who dress in a way that is popularly identifiable as Muslim.

Islam has tools to help us protect ourselves in dangerous times such as these. In its acknowledgment of the role of necessity, our law has built in a flexibility of which many American Muslims would do well to remind themselves now. Islamic jurisprudence is built around the promotion and protection of five essential values: religion, life, intellect, lineage, and property. (Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence 271-73 (1991)) It also emphasizes the avoidance of hardship in the application of the law and applies flexibility when danger or hardship is presented. Thus, for example, the prayer of the traveler is shortened, and fasting is temporarily waived for the sick or the pregnant. When the possibility of physical danger threatening life is present, this flexibility is expanded, lifting serious prohibitions such as the consumption of alcohol, pork, and even the outward denunciation of one's faith, all in order to preserve life. (Ramadan 71, Kamali 331) In the words of the Quran itself:

- "As for anyone who denies God after having once attained to faith - and this, to be sure, does not apply to one who does it under duress, the while his heart remains true to his faith, but [only to] him who willingly opens up his heart to a denial of the truth - upon all such [falls] God's condemnation" (16:106)

- "Today I have perfected your religious law for you, and have bestowed upon you the full measure of My blessings, and willed that self-surrender unto Me shall be your religion. As for the one who, who is driven [to what is forbidden] by dire necessity and not by an inclination to sinning, behold, God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace." 5:3)

- "We do not burden any human being with more than what is well able to bear: for with Us is a record that speaks the truth, and none shall be wronged." (23:62) Thus, it is a basic tenet of Islamic law that necessity renders permissible things that might not be allowed in normal circumstances.

The propriety and legitimacy of a Muslim woman adjusting her dress when danger is perceived is attested to by statements of American Muslim leaders such as Hamza Yusuf validating Muslim women wearing non-obvious alternate attire (such as hats, neckscarves, etc.) when they go out in public at this time. (Personal electronic communication with Hamza Yusuf spokesperson, via www.zaytuna.org.) And in the days surrounding the tragedy itself, many American Muslim organizations publicly advised Muslim women to downplay their visibility as Muslim women in order to protect themselves. This is as it should be, as it is the responsibility of the Muslim leadership and community to protect and advise its members.

What should not happen is pressure on Muslim women to defiantly maintain their hijab in the face of fear and danger as some sort of ultimate test of faith. The strength of one's faith is not manifested in one's outward appearance, but rather in the courage of one's actions to justice and truth in surrendering to God. In these times, that may mean reaching out to help the victims of calamity, teaching others the nature of Islam or strengthening one's spiritual connection with God.

This is a time when Muslims must think actively and act sensibly. For many, this may mean adjusting one's dress only in certain (more unsafe) surroundings, but maintaining hijab in places of more security. For others, it may mean changing one's lifestyle to avoid public spaces. In many circles, Muslim women who wear hijab are staying home, allowing their husbands to assume responsibilities that involve public interaction. This is an appropriate response for some, but it is not an option for those women in hijab who must work, attend school or are single mothers. Therefore, each individual should make a decision according to her own circumstances, and this will vary for each person each day. Our community's responsibility is to have sensitivity to the difficult, physically dangerous position Muslim women now face and show understanding and awareness that a woman who takes precautions to protect herself from harm is engaging in an honorable endeavor grounded in Islamic legal principles.

We sincerely hope that the current dangerous climate is a temporary one and that these measures will only be necessary for a short time. The temporary nature of the situation, however, does not detract from its seriousness. The danger is real. It is our duty to protect against it. Above all, we must avoid passing judgment against those women who make decisions with which we might disagree. We know that judgment rests with God alone who knows our deeds, intentions and degree of taqwa or God-consciousness. We pray for His mercy and sustenance during this difficult time.

"Piety lies in . . . being firm and patient in pain (and suffering) and adversity and throughout periods of panic. Such are the people of Truth, God fearing." (Quran 2:177)

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