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Islamic Culture Or Cultural Islam ?

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By Nazreen Fazal:

The past few weeks in the UK have given me a lot to think about. Living here in a different culture, going to a mostly western classroom…I really have been forced to step outside my comfort zone. Another reason I have been thinking so much is because I have A LOT to read these days. I am doing two literature classes and one Cultural Politics module so naturally, there’s a ton to read. But for the first time, I don’t mind the reading. I love the library here. It’s so huge and has so many books. I know, Duh. But it is amazing. I love reading about cultural politics as every week we have seminars on our reading where we discuss our individual readings. And since I like anything that involves talking, I’m lovin’ it! We have interesting discussions on identity, cultures, youth, and sexuality. A good thing about being in an international classroom is that you get to hear multiple perspectives. (Our class has a smattering of Australians, French, Chinese and British people.)

Something I realized over the past few weeks is that keeping an open mind is not about just listening to what other people have to say, it’s about taking what they said and thinking about it and comparing it to what you believe in. It’s difficult at first to look at what you have grown up believing in and practising with a critical eye. But I think it’s something we have to routinely engage in. Re evaluation is necessary if we want to avoid intellectual stagnation.
Cultural Politics involves looking into a lot of Western Critical theories and at first, I must admit, I was a little worried about it clashing with what I believe in (in terms of faith). However, what has happened is that studying a lot of them has only reinforced my faith and even cleared some doubts I had about it. I know you maybe a lil’ sceptical about it, but it really did something to the way I think. So many concepts of faith that I was grappling with, were put into perspective. Especially while studying Feminism. Though I do not agree with some of their arguments and the way they set about addressing gender inequality, I do get the essence of it and understand where they are coming from. And as a muslim woman from India, who chooses to add an extra piece of clothing to her wardrobe, I feel have something different to offer to the ongoing discussion.

Another reason I want to add something to the discussion is because there aren’t really many muslim women’s voices talking about these issues. It’s usually a western, non-muslim woman who talks about the headscarf or the veil. Very few people turn to muslim women to know why they really wear it. And if there are muslim women out there who say something about it, their voices aren’t pushed into the public eye with the same enthusiasm as someone who criticises the hijab.

I’ve been wearing the headscarf for some years now and over the years it’s come to be one of the things that defines me. It’s a public declaration of my faith and something which arises out of my desire to place God as my guiding point rather than the culture or society.

Even though I’ve been wearing it for some time now, I really understood the wisdom behind dressing modestly only when I read about the objectification of women in the past (even now). The hypersexualization of woman’s body to sell things to the male audience, it disgusts me. Why do shaving cream adverts require a half naked woman to prance around the man? Why does a sleek sports car need a bikini clad woman to lie on top of it, in order to sell it?

Aren’t they catering to the male gaze? The camera is looking at the female body from a male eye. That’s why in movies we have the extra focus on the woman’s curves and the man’s eyes eroticising them. I can’t even count the number of times I have seen the camera lingering on the woman’s cleavage. Laura Mulvey, when talking about the male gaze in cinema, says he representation of women in cinema has been through projection of male desire on her body. “The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.” By herself, she doesn’t stand for anything, her character is usually that of a seductress, someone who through her sensuality toys with the male lead’s emotions.Her body has become the plane where she interacts with the society.

It’s at this juncture I fully appreciate my hijab. It shields me from this objectification. I am not instigating that the entire male population is out there fantasising over the female body, but what guarantee do I have that when I walk out, wearing whatever I want, none of them would do it? I am in no way justifying the whole notion that ‘she asked for it’. She never did. No woman in her right mind ever does. But what Islam has given me is an option guard myself against the gaze. Doesn’t the requirement of modest clothing, in effect, repel the current patriarchal system which makes women feel they have to dress a certain way(sometimes even at the risk of discomfort, eg: high heels, tight tube tops) to feel attractive and admired?

And the woman is not the only one responsible for avoiding the ‘gaze’. The Quran, in the verse before the one which asks women to cover, says “Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things) and to protect their private parts from illegal sexual acts, etc.) That is purer for them. Verily, Allah is All Aware of what they do.”(24:30)

Hence, the primary obligation is on the MAN to avoid looking at the woman in an inappropriate manner (No matter how she’s dressed).So it’s not as though the burden lies on the woman’s shoulders alone the man is also accountable for the gaze. As a ‘believing man’ HAS to lower it. And only then comes the verse about the believing women covering themselves. And I understand why we have to be particular about the way we dress because no matter how civilized, modern and progressed the society is there will be people out there who will still objectify women with their gaze.

Now, coming to the problem at hand. What has happened is that the majority of the muslim community places more emphasis on the part about the woman covering herself than the man lowering his gaze. Which is why most people end up believing that Islam asks too much of women. In muslim majority areas, a woman not wearing hijab faces more criticism than a man who does not control his gaze. This maybe because by its nature the hijab is a very physical act, the gaze, on the other hand, is more capable of escaping the public eye. Again, can we hold religion accountable for something which man is accountable for. So the focus should be on reformation of cultural notions which cause people to twist religion rather than the religion itself. In order to get the essence of the any religion we have to look at it in isolation of the cultural baggage it has come to accumulate. So to understand Islam we don’t look at Afghans, Pakistanis, Malaysians or Arabs. We look at the scripture. We then hold up what it says against the wider social context and see how and where religion and the present day practises deviate. So we look at Honour Killings- Culture. Female infanticide- Culture. Racism- Human idiocy. More often than not, it’s these deviations which the media have been pushing as ‘Religious backwardness’.

Islam asks people to think, to reason, to ponder. It tells us not to blindly follow everything our fore fathers did. So even those of us who are born muslims, we have to ask questions. We need to know the difference between what our book says and what our people practise We need to question whether what we have grown up believing in is cultural or religious. We have to open our critical eye.

Marx said religion is the opium of the people. I think not. I think religion in general and Islam in particular was very counter cultural when it came to the mankind.

It opposed most of what culture dictated. Example? In pre-islamic arabia, female infanticide was a common practise. But Islam strongly condemned this and questioned the idiocy of the practise.

“And when the girl [who was ] buried alive is asked. For what sin she was killed.” (Quran, 81: 8-9)

During those times there were also clashes between tribes and there existed this feeling of Arab superiority over the others. What does Islam say about this? “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is knowing and Acquainted.” (Quran, 49:13)

What did the Prophet say about racism? “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a nonArab over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”

The rich are obligated to look after the poor. Neighbours have to look after each other. The society has to take care of its orphans and widows. The husband has to treat his wife kindly. The environment has rights over the people. We have to fight for the oppressed. Justice inspite of class or familial superiority…

Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous. (Quran, 2:177)

Replacing the million little things in this world which enslave us (Family, friends, peers, culture, society, career, fashion…) with submission to just One Master.

This is what religion is about.

And if this is still opium for you then yes, I am an addict.

You must be to comment.
  1. Ridhi Chugh

    And what does Islam say about women gazing at men? It was interesting read but I cannot agree to most of what has been pointed out in your article. One, I would really want to ask you, “Why you are you afraid of the male gaze?” It is not as if the men will bite you. I would go even further to add that the fear of the male gaze seems not only unnecessary but also symbolizes a kind of suppressed acceptance of physical inferiority. Obviously you would defend it till the end but I cannot think of any other explanation of what I feel is a very lame and superficial reason for dressing as you do. Not that I am against your dress code but yes the justification is pretty lame (and not to say quite unnecessary also).

    Next the crux of your article was supposed to be culture versus religion. But what I could garner is that it was more of religion over culture. What makes you think that a religion of a particular region is independent of the culture of the time during which it evolved? As a matter of fact I do not think it is culture versus religion, it is actually culture leading to one kind of religious interpretation against the one leading to another kind of religious interpretation. I think you would have to agree with me on this. Or maybe you think that the interpretation of Quran in Arab region is much more accurate than the one you would find in India? Or maybe you think that Quran in itself unlike any other text is free of any interpretation differences?

    Then, you talk that women who wear high heels and short skirts are actually the target (or the product) of hypersexualization of women and for which it is the men to be blamed (obviously you pointed that not all men but still kept using the term men in general). Or maybe you think that women who dress as such are not modest enough. Your own words, ” I really understood the wisdom behind dressing modestly..” And what makes you think you will no longer be objectified? Ever heard of the phrase ‘his eyes undressing me’. I guess you understand what I mean.

    Here you just done what you blame the non- muslim western woman of doing. You did not take into account their reason of wearing short skirts and high heels. Maybe they do it because they like it, and it has nothing to do with the male gaze. Or maybe they do so for attracting potential mating partner.

    Next you speak about Feminism. Now there are different ideologies existing under this umbrella term. And I find your use of the term to be extremely narrow and one which only justifies your own self-interest. According to one of the universal and modern ideology of the term: a feminist never differentiates between a man and woman. When you talk about a husband is supposed to treat his wife kindly you are talking in context of their societal roles precisely the kind of typecasting that Feminists are against. Why a man, why not a woman?

    For that matter when you talk of it being the duty of a man to look away, I cannot even fathom why he should do something like that? He is a man after all, and as you are a woman. If he likes a girl he will look at her. Or maybe you have a special gift of differentiating between the right kind of look (genuine and loving), and the wrong one (objectifying as you say). Or even still you are against mingling with the men for the fear that they might gaze at women and objectifying her. Does his thoughts effect you so much?

    And to stress upon this point is why I asked you my first question, “And what does Islam say about women gazing at men?” From your own words it seems that maybe it doesn’t even talk about it or maybe women expressing their sexuality wasn’t a thought of reality when Islam evolved when it did and where it did.

    Denying sexual expression often leads to sexual frustration. You might want to read upon this.

    Moving on further you completely have shifted from your ‘point’ of discussion to solely defending Islam. And I have no idea why you are doing so because it didn’t seem that the article was supposed to be a kind of response and least a defense and against ‘of I have no idea what’. So there is no real point talking about this particular digression.

    Personally I feel a more objective style and analysis of the content should have been presented to address much more important and wider questions relating to Islamic Culture or Cultural Islam. Sorry, you see the difference is still not very clear.

    Rest, I have responded because it is fair for any reader to analyze both the ends of the ‘Feminist spectrum’.

    And also I would like to end by saying that my questions and opinions are not directed towards any particular religion or dress code but solely at the writer in question and her own personal opinions. With this I rest my case.

    1. Tiger


      “Tell the
      believing men that they should reduce/lower (يغضوا)
      their gaze/vision and guard their private parts”


      “Tell the
      believing women that they should reduce/lower (يغضضن)
      their gaze/vision and guard their private parts”

      Here is the answer to your question. The author has cleverly/cunningly omitted the verse right after the one which tells men to lower their gaze, to suit her needs.

  2. Aslam

    Masha Allah! Good article Nazreen. Proud of you.

    am now putting on my “Islamic thought” hat here and would like to offer
    some further pointers, which, IA, will benefit you and others of your

    Insha Allah, you are thinking in the right direction, and I
    urge you to continue these ponderings. I also think the time is ripe for
    you to read Islamic books of next level. Insha Allah, I will offer a
    few recommendations at the end. Before that a few musings…

    Islamic Culture Or Cultural Islam ?
    Both these terms have a reality and represents clear notions.

    is a set of value propositions; in some cases it goes onto define very
    detailed interpretation of those values, whereas in other cases, it
    leaves at the principles.

    Islam doesn’t exist in vacuum as an
    abstract set of principles. Islam takes its form in a cultural context.
    Any culture that conforms to Islamic principles and operates within its
    boundary constraints is Islamic culture. Islam can manifest in many
    forms: thus, you have Moroccan Muslim culture, Egyptian Muslim culture,
    Middle eastern Muslim culture, Indian muslim culture (and sub cultures),
    American Muslim culture etc

    Islamic law recognizes the notion of
    culture (urf – customs and traditions of people) in its legal
    interpretation. Therefore, urf appears as one of the secondary
    principles of Islamic jurisprudence (usulul Fiqh). This is very
    important to understand. Therefore, ideally, when Islam goes into new
    place,it doesn’t obliterate the local culture, but replaces only those
    elements that are unacceptable to islamic principles. e.g.: forms of
    dress, labor division within family, women’s role in the society etc.

    Islam: I have the understanding that you have used this term in a
    negative connotation to mean that culture has taken a corrupted form
    influenced by various elements alien to Islamic principles that are
    outside of its boundaries. This is how this term is generally
    understood. And your examples are accurate.

    I urge you to read the books
    On the Question of Culture by Malik Ben Nabi, an Algerian scholar and thinker.
    Islam at the Crossroads by Mohammed Asad

    Also, think about the relationship between values and cultures.

    this try to understand Maqasid al-Sharia. Start online then move onto a
    book. Right now the authors name doesn’t come to my mind (mental
    block:). IA, I will post that list separately. This is a serious book,
    but you will benefit considerably and will be proud of our scholars.
    You are capable of grasping the concepts covered in the book.

  3. niloofer nizar

    Masha Allah..nicely penned down nazreen:).quite inspiring..

  4. Pruthviraj

    Awesome Article Sis!

    Keep going!

  5. Nupur Dogra

    i totally agree @a4a89a1e8c39ab56002f36bcd6a1be13:disqus
    the writer it seems is doing nothing exept promoting a particular religion !!
    such beleives actually widens the gap between the two genders which ofcourse are meant to complete each other.
    hiding yourself from the male gaze, only showing face to your husband ,..veil in front of your brother in law etc…all such beleives actually provokes the situation you want to avoid.
    I CALL IT PSYCHOLOGY….when human is told something is “forbidden” takes birth the “curosity” of why and how??
    a proper detailed explaination to the curosity solves the problem ( veil is certainly not the option)… you have to veil otherwise u get objectified or raped or harrassed will reinforce the notion of a man that “i am right in objectifying or raping because she is not wearing a veil……..when men and women interact show trust and come together their arises a mutual respect for each other !! when they are kept seggregated for a single reason of “sex” then only this single reason is on their mind ….men and women can do more productive work together ..

    dresscodes are personal choices… i wear shorts skirts that does not mean i am asking to be objectifyied….remember u have to see the world with a point of view u want them to look with, at you !!

  6. Racahs

    Religion binds people still it distracts them from attaining salvation. Moreover it should be more of a personal commitment and less societal. Great post 🙂

    Weakest LINK

  7. manisha bhadoria

    i would like to say that why in your islam god has differentiated between men and women. i think if god gives some directions then he doesnt say them according to your gender. i have seen many muslim husbands wearing shorts in public and their wives on the other hand are wearing burkha next to them. why??? arent men supposed to dress up properly too??? who is going to see if men have lowered their eyes or not??? but everyone sees ur burkha. i am not saying that dressing up properly is wrong. but the point is that if you are wearing a simply salwar suit then what is the point in covering your hair by a hijab???

    1. Habib

      @e303dde53b1e999151d4915e85ca350e:disqus Islam never differentiated between men and women, I think you are not aware of Aurangzeb, He had never looked at the sky without covering head with a cloth. He’s the true follower of Qur’an. Islam never allowed men to go out in shorts. Men also have proper dressing for them. But here the emphasis is on women because the society is treating them as toys to play, and we can’t say that society is Islamic Hindu or whatever. Giving hijab and burkha to women protects them from dirty eyes of male dominated society. Its the society which differentiated not Islam.

    2. Anshuman Saxena

      @da4bee0a250eea70b469bb7129b80782:disqus this is surah 4:34 .

      Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

      if there is a similar verse giving women such rights over disobedient husbands, then please enlighten us.

    3. Rithesh

      The same Aurangzeb who tormented Hindu’s like crazy ,destroyed Hindu temples like toys and basically even committed atrocities against his own family like hmm I don’t know..Killing his own brother and having his father Imprisoned for the rest of his life ?? If that person is a true Muslim then I rest may case.

    4. Tripthi

      But Islam should teach men to not look at women and objectify them.Instead it burdens women to wear a veil so that they are protected.Its like giving crutches to the lame.It will help him walk but it will not cure him permanently.

  8. san dan

    There has been several points raised in the comments which Nazreen needs to respond to. Will Nazreen be brave enough to answer some of the questions directed at her article. I hope Ms Fazal takes her own article seriously to answer these questions or else her intellectual credentials are going to be quite suspect.

  9. Rigya Singh

    I wonder if you’d still be wearing a hijab had you not been a muslim. I am not accusing, but I have often thought this.
    I grew up in a family which has no opinions on hijab. Being a girl living in Delhi, I sometimes want to get away from the prying eyes. But I still do not plan on wearing a hijab.

  10. Anshuman Saxena

    And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.

    this is the full 24:31 surah. it is far more elaborated on the topic of women, while in the case of men, its just what you posted. tiger why did you omit the rest of the passage??

  11. Shilpi

    Intoxication helps you not to feel the pain inflicted gal… U choose it so fine!!
    JUST FOR YOU-Hijab symbolises the control of society over the freedom of women that has taken deep roots in their psyche, which has altered their perception to accept it as their identity. By calling hijab their identity, women reduce their worth to a piece of cloth, bringing entire focus on their bodies. This is no different from using a woman’s naked body to sell products. The blatant sexualisation of body in both cases perceives women nothing more than source of temptation, pleasure and sin. However, the projection of such views is different in conservative and free societies – where one is exposed unnecessarily, the other is hid behind layers of unnecessary clothes. In both the societies, the choice is NOT the woman’s!!!!! Thats the ground reality…u can make your castles…in your intoxicated state… but by endorsing this…you are endorsing the subjugation of women rights..and you have no rights to talk about equality!!!! Remeber- ALL RELIGIONS OF THE WORLD objectifies ,veils and oppress women…liberate yourself from the inferiority complex of being a woman!!!!!

  12. Prerna Dubey

    I think you’ve got the notion wrong. Irrespective of whether you wear a hijab/saree/salwar kameez/mini skirt, men with letch at you! Sorry to burst your bubble but its true. If you’re from Mumbai, you’d be aware that no woman, i repeat no woman, irrespective of age and dress, gets out untouched at Kurla Railway Station. I agree that precaution is better than cure but this, my friend, is not precaution!

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        A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
        biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

        Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
        campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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