Most Muslims are blissfully unaware of the fact that in early Islam, the hijab was a status symbol that slave women were not allowed to wear. ‘Umar, one of the Prophet’s most important companions and a caliph himself, forbade slaves from wearing hijab and is said to have actually hit a slave woman for daring to cover herself. Slave women walked around topless in public, and it was not considered ‘immodest’ for Muslim men to look at their breasts. As Laury Silverswrites,
“Modesty” was reserved as a social marker for free women; the “private parts” of enslaved women were only from navel to knee. The second Caliph Umar reportedly became enraged with enslaved women, to the point of beating one of them, who tried to wear the outer wrap (jilbab), perhaps to cover their breasts and heads, because it would make them indistinguishable from free women.
Hamza Yusuf himself even mentions this awkward bit of history during an attempt to get Muslims to stop obsessing over the hijab and ‘Islamic modesty’. I’m guessing that Sana Saeed, along with everyone else who suggested the video was immodest, is referring to the ‘Islamic modesty’ that Muslims have fabricated for themselves in the latter portion of Islamic history, and not the ‘Islamic modesty’ that reinforced the dehumanizing division between free women and slave women back when some of Islam’s most important personalities walked the earth. (See this article for a detailed analysis.) One writer asks,
I wonder what all the Muslim feminists who defend hijab in the name of modesty would think, if given a full accounting of this history, where Muslim women were in fact punished if they tried to be modest?
Personally, I wonder whether such an accounting might motivate Saeed and others to be ‘modest’ enough to stop wielding ‘Islamic modesty’ as a weapon against women whose ”tude’ and fashion choices they dislike. ‘Islamic modesty’ and morality have transformed beyond recognition since the days when slaves walked around topless and it wasn’t considered ‘cheating’ for a married man to have sex with concubines. Surely ‘Islamic modesty’ can accommodate a few sharply-dressed hijabis goofing around on video. I don’t mean to ‘go all Kecia Ali‘ on everyone, but people in glass headscarves shouldn’t throw stones.
Also, as a correction made by Laury Silvery,
…we do not know at all what was meant by enslaved women not being allowed to cover as free women did. Their hair may have been wrapped but their breasts exposed. They may have been wearing shifts that opened deeply exposing their breasts easily, or they may have been wearing a waist wrap. The outer wrap most likely would have covered their who body. But really we don’t know exactly, we just know that our present articulation of “modesty” is our own. Forms and conceptions of modesty have always been particular to and contested for various reasons in distinct places and times. But that is not a critique, just a clarification. In many ways, your piece sets the right tone on this issue for me.
via a Mipsterz Thread