It is curious that a single contemporary analogy has come to be used so often across such a massive and diverse swathe of the earth’s population. The analogy is essentially a simple but effective (for some) argument regarding the hijab worn by many Muslim women.
The analogy normally involves the presentation of a picture of 2 lollipops; one wrapped, and the other not. If you came across these two, which would you prefer? Which is more clean, or ‘pure’? Obviously, we’d all prefer a wrapped lollipop… to eat. And apparently this logic should apply to the way men should view women, in the realms of purity and marriage and all the associated social spheres of life.
I do apologise for the crudeness of the aforementioned example; I cringed a little when writing it. I’m not sure what is more objectionable; comparing the ‘valuation’ of women to the selection of a lollipop, or justifying the hijab through the lens of a man’s worldview. Often the rather vocal critics of this line of thought go too far, and end up arguing that such patronizing characterisations of women ought to lead us to reject outright things like the hijab and cast off the oppressive chains of tradition and misogyny.
Whilst this critique goes beyond the pale, the point is legitimate. Far too often the key intuitive parts of the religious discussion on hijab include somewhat crude and patronising examples. If these arguments have worked in some parts of the world at other times in the past, they certainly threaten to do more harm than good with younger generations today.
It is essential these arguments are refined from within the mainstream Muslim tradition. Each Prophet came with language and narratives that appealed to their nation’s culture, and so we must do the same. Failure to do so will only push more and more disenfranchised Muslims away from religion and towards the dangerous realms of rejecting long-established pillars of the faith.
Primarily, it should always be remembered that the hijab was never initiated for the benefit of men; it is a deeply personal commandment that punctuates the individual Muslim woman’s relationship with God.
In addition, it really is not the place for random Muslim men to be enforcing rules of modesty on random unsuspecting Muslim women. I have heard too many horror stories of this kind of paternalistic enforcement in some more conservative parts of the community, and it just seems distasteful.
Furthermore, we need to bring more gender-balance to our discussion of modesty. A hijab and rules of modesty have been prescribed for both men and women. They are different, because men and women are simultaneously both equal and different, but responsibility lies on both to live their lives in an upright manner. Far too often we prize the chastity of women, whilst casting a blind eye to the comparatively adventurous exploits of men. That is a cultural imbalance that seems to manifest itself in various parts of the Muslim world, and one we could probably do without.
Such critiques are an urgent necessity – without them, others will inevitably move to throw the baby out with the bathwater. A more balanced approach is a vital step in giving people a legitimate avenue of criticism, in order to salvage the broader point on the timeless dignity of modesty.