Gender issues

The Smothering of Femininity in Ramadan

Chaima Lahsini

Rabat - Ramadan, the holy month during which Muslims everywhere embark in a spiritual journey to strengthen their bond with God, can be a bit of a clothing dilemma for Muslim women.

The sacred month comes with many rules and changes, from the schedule of prayers, the adequate behaviors to adopt, the do’s and don'ts, to the right dress code to obey.

Islam has set up a particular dress code for Muslim women. Modesty is key, and showing off your body, sometimes even your hair, is frowned upon. In Ramadan, this particular rule seems to be doubly enforced.

For Hayat El Ouahrani, a professor of Sharia Law at the University of Fes, “Ramadan is like doing your prayer. You should not eat, you should not drink or look around.” The professor explained to Morocco World News that, during the holy month, “you are standing before Allah. So you have to pay careful attention to your daily behavior, including how you dress.”

Women’s clothing has been the subject of many fatwas throughout history. Ramadan or not, Muslim Ulemas always had an opinion on what women should and should not wear.  What is so controversial about it? The answer to that question often rubs feminists and Westerners the wrong way.

First of all, the way women are perceived in Islam is very particular. “If you walk down the street with your hair flowing down your back, your skin glowing under the sun, your attractive figure in full display, you’ll be fruit of temptation to fasting men,” explains El Ouahrani.

Men: the key to decipher Islam’s perception of women. “Women are asked to cover themselves for a reason. It is not out of discrimination or oppression as many would think. It comes from a place of love,” the professor goes on.

“Allah wanted to protect women when he recommended the Hijab, protect them from the ravenous gazes of men, from temptation and from sin,” she adds.

El Ouahrani stresses however that it is still a matter of choice. “No woman should be forced to do something she doesn’t want to. If she doesn’t want to wear the hijab, it is her fundamental freedom and no one has the right to intervene with it.”

However, this freedom according the professor comes with consequences, mainly “fitnah.” The Arabic word fitnah bears the meaning of trial, discord, affliction, temptation and civil war, and any other strife “that ruptures the community’s unity and pits Muslim against fellow Muslim.”

In this context, the word is used to refers to women as temptation.  The professor quotes one of the Prophet’s hadiths saying: “I have not left behind me any fitnah more harmful to men than women.” So is it more that men are weaker in their nature and get easily tempted, or that it’s women which causes men to fall into fitnah against their will?

To answer this question, El Ouahrani quotes God in the Holy Qur’an: “Made beautiful for mankind is the love of desires for women and offspring, of hoarded heaps of gold and silver, of branded horses, cattle and plantations.”[3:14]

“Although the Quran speaks elsewhere of such things in a positive manner, as blessings for which people should be grateful, here they are spoken of seductively in terms of objects which men lust over, crave and covet,” the professor explains.

Unsurprisingly, women top the list.

“Ramadan holds a special position in every Muslim’s heart. It is a month of worship and meditation when the gates of heaven are open to every believer. But it is also a month of challenge and discipline, where Muslims test their faith and limits,” El Ouahrani explains. “Fasting is not starving yourself from food. It is abstaining from the lusts of dunya, and keeping away from temptations, the biggest of which is the sin of flesh.”

Blessing, temptations, trial, sin— all words used to refer to women. This harsh terminology raises many questions.

“In Islam, the feminine form which is desirable, alluring and sensuous, shouldn’t be made to appear so in the public sphere. It’s not just the objectifying male gaze that demeans or threatens women; sometimes some women need saving from their own intemperate selves,” further explains the professor.

Ramadan is the occasion to break out from a world “awashed with sin, porn and over sexualisation of women,” El Ouahrani says. “I am well aware that such wisdom is unlikely to be received with openness nowadays, especially in a time where notions of modesty, decency and respectability with regard to how women and men should interact are viciously twisted.”

“Many feminists shout out misogyny and sexism when Islam suggests a modest and dignified way of being lady like, especially when we talk about how women should dress.”

But for El Ouahrani, modesty is not just about clothing. “It’s about how one behaves, carries themselves. It’s about the heart’s purity and its attachment to Allah.”

In Morocco, Ramadan is not just a religious celebration. It is a deeply rooted cultural one that comes with specific traditions that reflects the unique Moroccan culture. “These principles (modesty) have been engraved in our Moroccan culture, which while being a conservative and Muslim one, is also known for being flexible and moderate.”

“If certain outfits are to be avoided, this does not prevent women from adorning themselves with their best clothes,” explains El Ouahrani.

Admittedly, the professor says that “Ramadan is an opportunity for Muslim women to make themselves beautiful while being subject to certain conditions.”

Conditions. Dress code. Rules. It appears that the Muslim holy month comes with many more limitations for women than for men.

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