Quran – As-Saf – 61:3
Great is hatred in the sight of Allah that you say what you do not do.
كَبُرَ مَقْتًا عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَنْ تَقُولُوا مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ
On March 27, the very first #MuslimWomensDay, Qasim Rashid made a series of tweets discussing the Islamic concept of “hijab” as it relates to men. The tweets immediately went viral — highlighting the importance of this oft misunderstood concept. Often, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, define the word “hijab” incorrectly and narrowly as an obligation on Muslim women to cover their heads with a veil. But the hijab is a much broader concept of modesty and respect that applies to all genders. Julie Larah of MuslimGirl.com was able to get an exclusive interview with Qasim to talk about the topic.
Muslim Girl: Before we get started, can you introduce yourself and a little bit about the work you do?
Qasim Rashid: Sure, My name is Qasim Rashid. I am an attorney and author — a national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, USA. I am happily married to my wife Ayesha for going on ten years now. I have three wonderful children and my day job is as a Women’s Rights attorney for a non-profit focused on Muslim women’s rights and immigrant rights – particularly within the Muslim community, but in general as well.
Focusing more on the viral tweets which have garnered all the attention for you lately, can you tell us a little bit more about the Islamic concept of “hijab for men?”
Well my father is an Imam and theologian. So, growing up, when we were taught about hijab — we were three brothers and one sister — the way we were taught was that the primary obligation and burden of hijab was on men. That men should control themselves and should control their wandering eyes and men should only look at women with the intent of civility and decency and respect – never as a sexual object – never as anything less than an equal human being.
“And most certainly there is a hijab for women as well, but that’s between women and God. I have no right to intervene or to impose my perspective on them. In fact, me imposing hijab on a woman is me violating my own hijab.”
So for me, the entire concept of hijab growing up throughout high school and college was to control myself, check myself, make sure I’m aware of what I’m doing and that I’m aware of my surroundings. And most certainly there is a hijab for women as well, but that’s between women and God. I have no right to intervene or to impose my perspective on them. In fact, me imposing hijab on a woman is me violating my own hijab. So that was my entire point of view growing up and that’s the framing I’ve always had of hijab. I’m blessed with a beautiful daughter and I also have two sons. I am teaching my sons the same concept that the hijab is their responsibility primarily and they need to maintain that.
Why do you feel it is that there is so much societal focus — from the Muslim community and the non-Muslim community — paid specifically to Muslim women’s physical attire and behavior in regards to hijab but very little of the same attention directed towards Muslim men’s attire and behavior?
Well, patriarchy is a universal “religion.” That’s the best way I can put it. And whether you want to talk about the Christian majority United States or any Muslim majority nation or Hindu dominated India or state atheism in China, you find that patriarchy is the universal “religion.” What I love about the teachings of Islam — about the Holy Quran — is that God the Creator knows the nature of man. And it is because God knows the nature of man that God made hijab primarily focused on them. God primarily addressed men first and made them the primary gender responsible for upholding hijab and modesty. I think that was done because the nature of man is, unfortunately all too often, to disregard those responsibilities.
And I want to be careful because people can take that as a blanket general statement, but I think we need to look no further than the fact that violence against women is the leading cause of injury to a woman in America right now. 1600 women a year are killed in domestic violence in the United States. According to RAINN, 97% of men who commit rape will never see a day in prison. So, I think what we’re seeing in Muslim majority countries and in the west with this obsession over what women are doing or how they’re dressing is a combination of 1.) men absolving themselves of responsibility and 2.) a capitalist environment that is so focused on generating revenue that we’re willing to sacrifice all forms of modesty to get there.
And accordingly the term “modesty” itself has become a taboo term — it’s become a negative things to say. To be proud of modesty is considered, in some circles, to be extremist. I think that it’s extremist when you are imposing modesty on somebody else. But people who focus on their own modesty and their own personal development, I think that should be celebrated and that should be respected.
Why did you choose the first ever Muslim Women’s Day to address this really important topic on your social media?
To be perfectly transparent, I didn’t even know it was going to be Muslim Women’s Day until I saw it trending. I was thrilled later on to find out that Amani was the brain-child behind it. I love her work, so that made me even more happy that she was the one behind this trend. If you look at my first tweet to my last tweet, it only took about 30 minutes for me to tweet out that storm. So it was actually really spontaneous. It was an idea that had been festering in my mind for a while – that I wanted to address hijab as a responsibility on men primarily. I wanted to tweet this earlier, but I thought “when the time is right, I’ll know.” And when I saw [#MuslimWomensDay] trending I thought, “OK this is it. People are paying attention to Muslim Women, and they think that hijab is only a women’s issue. I think now is the time to get a larger audience to recognize this is actually a men’s issue that men need to take responsibility for.” And Alhamdulillah, it paid off.
You often stand up for women’s rights in general, but especially as they relate to Islam. Why do you do this and why is it important for other men to do this as well?
I think that’s the example of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. He was a champion for women’s rights and women’s equality. There’s such an immense beauty in the fact that the first person to accept him as the prophet was his wife. The first martyr of Islam was a woman named Sumayyah – the first one to make the ultimate sacrifice. He said to his companions regarding his wife A’ishah to learn half your faith from A’ishah. There’s so much we see in the way he exemplified what it means to be a man, that I think any man who does not elevate the status of the women in his life is doing himself a disservice and he’s doing women a disservice.
“I think that a society cannot survive, let alone thrive, unless women play an equal role as men.”
I don’t see anything I’m doing as particularly special or unique. I see myself way behind the standards set forth by the prophet of Islam. And then, I’m also a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and we’re also united under an Islamic khalifa – a spiritual Khalifa, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad — who has been, in my opinion, the foremost champion of women’s rights throughout the world since he came to office in 2003. In February he gave a lecture to British Muslim women where he went at length to speak of women’s empowerment and said that unequivocally in Islam, let it be crystal clear that in no respect is a woman’s status less than that of a man. They are complete equals. And he championed both the idea of women attaining higher education – women becoming professionals in medicine, in law, in journalism – while also celebrating women as mothers and as daughters, which are roles which society unfortunately sees as detrimental to women. I think that the balance of recognizing and celebrating women as mothers but then also as scholars, the khalifa has done such a powerful job of training the men of the Ahmadiyya community. In many parts of the world where we have chapters, the women of our community have higher education than the men of our community.
My own wife for example — I have a graduate degree and my wife has two graduate degrees. And the only reason she doesn’t have a Ph.D. is because kids got in the way and she made the conscious choice to let me get my graduate degree. Otherwise she would have had two graduate degrees and a Ph.D. and I would have had only a Bachelor’s! So, it’s one of those things I have been very blessed to be in this environment. I think that a society cannot survive, let alone thrive, unless women play an equal role as men.
How do you negotiate that fine line between being an “ally” to women and speaking “over” or “for” them?
The first thing, I consult with my wife a lot — I mean, a lot. Any time I write anything related to women’s issues, I always make sure my wife sees it first before it goes out to the public. I trust her 110%. And she, without fail, always gives me excellent advice on how to present something or reminds me of something that I may not have considered or I may not have thought about. I am not a woman, I cannot think from that perspective obviously – it’s not my experience. The second thing I do is, I try to stay in my lane. Let’s take this hijab thread for example. I very well could have made a thread on how important it is for women to observe hijab. But that would have been an example of me speaking over women, because that’s not my place to have that conversation.
Right, and I did notice that every time a person would respond to your social media and kind of instigate you to say an opinion of yours that would speak for women, you very consciously and clearly and politely would shut it down and clarify “you’d have to ask a woman for that.” And I just personally appreciated that so much – seeing you constantly repeat that over and over and over again in your replies on social media was very empowering and also very consistent.
Well thank you, and that’s exactly what my mission was. Even the very last tweet in the thread was, “if you want to know about hijab for women in Islam, I suggest you ask them.” It turns out contrary to what the patriarchy wants you to believe, women can, in fact, speak for themselves and articulate themselves. And you’re right – it is a fine line and I know I’m not perfect and I know I’ve probably stepped over the line unintentionally, but I try to make a concerted effort to know my lane and insure that I am not speaking over women. There’s a scholar, Dr. Su’ad, who I love her work, where she had a quote – something to the effect of “you don’t always need to speak up for those who are voiceless, just pass the mic.” I love that because it reminds me that it’s an unnecessary burden to put on yourself to speak up for every marginalized community, but I think it’s also a form of arrogance to think that you can or to think that the marginalized community can’t speak for themselves. So if you have a platform, elevate it and give them that platform. I try to make sure that if someone messages me saying ‘hey, can you back this campaign I’m running or give it a signal boost’ I try to do that because that’s how you stay in your lane and make sure you don’t infringe on other people’s voices, while elevating their voices. I’m not perfect and I don’t always succeed, but I try and that struggle is ongoing.
“…my advice to men is that: if hijab for women is important to you, then lead by example, and observe strict hijab yourself.”
If you had just one simple recommendation for other Muslim men regarding their hijab, what would it be?
There’s a verse in the Quran that says “most hateful in the eyes of Allah is that you say that which you do not do yourself.” So my advice to men is that: if hijab for women is important to you, then lead by example, and observe strict hijab yourself. Whatever level you are willing to observe, lead by example first. But don’t be that guy who demands your wife wears a niqab while you’re at the club every night dancing and partying. What are you doing? And I’ve seen that and it drives me nuts! I have women message me in my professional capacity as a women’s rights lawyer that say ‘What’s your advice? How do I deal with this frustration?’ It’s just such a difficult situation. So my one piece of advice for men is: be strict in your hijab and don’t be a hypocrite.
Qasim’s insight into the Islamic concept of “hijab for men” should not be ignored. Qasim asserted that it is the men’s responsibility to observe hijab first and not place all responsibility on women. For a man to impose himself on a woman’s choice is, in itself, a violation of his hijab. One’s modesty is up to their own choosing and not to be dictated or imposed on them by another. But as patriarchy is a universal problem, there is an increasing pressure on men to ignore their own hijab responsibilities in lieu of hyper-focusing on the attire and behavior of women. Qasim stated it was no mistake that Allah put the onus of hijab on men first, as 1,600 women are killed every year due to domestic violence in USA alone and 97% of American men who commit rape never go to prison. Women are not to blame for these statistics.
The prophet Muhammad (PBUH) exemplified what it means to elevate the status of women with his actions, and those behaviors which respect women as equals are supported in the Quranic texts. Qasim insisted that no society can survive, let alone thrive, if it does not treat women equals to men. Women’s roles as scholars and/or mothers must be equally valued, and it behooves of men to not speak for or over women. Rather, women are perfectly capable of articulating themselves and men should use their privilege in such a way that elevates women to the platform, and then the men need to step off it. It is only by respecting women’s autonomy and observing strict hijab oneself that men can ever truly value women as equals.