Once upon a time, a poet of the British Isles remarked “the flower of sweetest smell is shy and lowly”. He wrote in praise of a beauty that was hidden, a charm that was veiled and a loveliness that sought no advertisement. A flower whose fragrance was all the more sweeter and lush for its lowliness and modesty.
Such a reverence for the modest has sadly dwindled from among us. Somewhere in the tumult of history, the shy, lowly flower has been swept away by the winds of modernity. Winds that feed and nurture only the bright, the brilliant and the bold.
So it is that modesty has become a relic of a bygone era. Those who still cling onto antiquated notions like it are told they are like birds, whose unseeing eyes are unaware of the bars of their own cage. We, they instruct us, need only shed our chains and be released from our prison.
There is a kind of humour in this. As Muslim women, our worldview, like that of our sisters of other faiths, is centred not on gaining some token of liberation or trophy of empowerment but on being submissive to the will of God. For it is our conviction that true happiness lies in striving to establish a connection with the Divine and in living life according to the principles He has laid out, principles which if followed bring peace to the heart and contentment to the spirit for they are so perfectly in tune with our natures.
As Muslim women, feminist icons will never be our role models. Instead, we look to the example of the one saintly woman whose praises were extolled in our scripture, a holy personage revered and loved by Christians and Muslims alike, Hadhrat Maryam (peace be upon her) otherwise known as Mary.
Mary is addressed in chapter three, verses 43-4 of the Qur’an which state.
And remember when the angels said, ‘O Mary, Allah has chosen thee and purified thee and chosen thee above the women of all peoples.
‘O Mary, be obedient to thy Lord and prostrate thyself and worship God alone with those who worship.’ (3: 43-4)
These verses enjoin purity, piety and complete devotion. Mary (peace be upon her) exemplified all of these virtues. And as we know, one of the most iconic aspects of Mary’s image was of course her veil.
Islam, being a complete system of life, for every moral exercise or virtue it seeks to inculcate has an ‘outward form’ or practical step. To build a connection with the Divine, we pray. To be compassionate, we give alms. To learn sacrifice and suffering, we fast. And to increase in modesty and inner light, we cover ourselves and conduct ourselves accordingly.
In this connection, the Qur’an enjoys women to ‘show not of their beauty’ and to “draw their head-coverings over their bosoms” for that is closer to modesty. As with all things, the choice lies with the woman whether or not she wishes to act upon this teaching.
The Qur’an is a scripture that encourages this attitude in its followers, “Say, ‘My Prayer and my sacrifice and my life and my death are all for Allah, the Lord of the worlds”. (6: 163)
Love and devotion of this degree must always come from the heart. And if we truly do see the headscarf as a garment of devotion, then we must allow women the agency to enter into this bond of devotion themselves out of love and love alone.
So, the philosophy behind veiling is simple. It is an attitude to life that places at its centre devotion to God and that does away with the objectification of the female form that consumerism encourages and engenders. It is freedom itself. Well a kind of freedom rooted in submission.
However, we aspire to no more. For it is as Wordsworth said in a moving poem dedicated to his wife
True beauty dwells in deep retreats,
Whose veil is unremoved