Recalling Nazira Zayn al-Din’s Unveiling and Veiling

Also in the Asia Times, a look at censorship, blasphemy, and another moment in the history of Islam.

Seventy years ago, in April 1928, a 20-year-old girl named Nazira Zayn al-Din wrote a book called Unveiling and Veiling, saying she had read, understood and interpreted the Holy Koran. Therefore, she said, she had the authority and analytical skills to challenge the teachings of Islam’s clerics, men who were far older and wiser than she. Her interpretation of Islam, she boldly said, was that the veil was un-Islamic. If a woman was forced to wear the veil by her father, husband or brother, Zayn al-Din argued, then she should take him to court. Other ideas presented by her were that men and woman should mix socially because this develops moral progress, and that both sexes should be educated in the same classrooms. Men and women, she said, should equally be able to hold public office and vote in government elections.

They must be free to study the Koran themselves, and it should not be dictated on them by an oppressive older generation of clerics, she said. Finally, Zayn al-Din compared the “veiled” Muslim world to the “unveiled” one, saying the unveiled one was better because reason reigned, rather than religion.

Her book caused a thunderstorm in Syria and Lebanon. It was the most outrageous assault on traditional Islam, coming from Zayn al-Din, who was a Druze. The book went into a second edition within two months, and was translated into several languages. Great men from Islam, including the muftis of Beirut and Damascus, wrote against her, arguing that she did not have the authority to speak on Islam and dismiss the veil as un-Islamic. Nobody, however, accused her of treason or blasphemy. They accused her of bad vision resulting from bad Islamic education.

Some clerics banned her book. Some, however, such as the Syrian scholar Mohammad Kurd Ali, actually embraced it, buying 20 copies for the Arab Language Assembly and writing a favorable review.

But despite the uproar, which lasted for two years, the Syrians and the Muslim establishments did not let the issue get out of hand. They did not lead street demonstrations for weeks, as if the Muslim world had no other concern than Nazira Zayn al-Din. Zayn al-Din was still free to roam the streets of Syria and Lebanon, without being harassed or killed by those who hated her views.

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