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  • I'm going to take you back in time, 1400 years,

  • to the city of Medina, Saudi Arabia.

  • To a time when Prophet Mouhammed was given the task

  • of finding a solution to women in the city being attacked and molested.

  • The situation was this:

  • It was around the year 680,

  • long before the modern convenience,

  • of plumbing.

  • When a woman awoke in the middle of the night

  • with the urge to relieve herself,

  • she would have to walk out,

  • past the outskirts of the city, and into the wild by herself,

  • for privacy.

  • Believe it or not,

  • a group of men actually began to see an opportunity

  • in women's nightly tracks,

  • and started to linger at the outskirts of the city -

  • their identities hidden in the dark, watching.

  • If a woman walked by,

  • and she happened to be wearing a jilbab,

  • which was a garment like a coat,

  • the men knew to leave her alone.

  • A jilbab of centuries ago was a status symbol,

  • like a Burberry trench or a Chanel jacket.

  • It announced that the woman was free,

  • and a free woman was protected by her clan.

  • She would have no problems speaking out against the attacker

  • and identifying him.

  • But if the woman walking out at night wasn't wearing a jilbab,

  • if she happened to be dressed a bit more freely,

  • then the men knew she was a slave,

  • and they attacked her.

  • Concerned members of the community brought the situation to the Prophet,

  • and like so many other social, political, and familial issues

  • that Muhammed faced during his Prophethood,

  • he turned this particular matter over to God,

  • and a verse was revealed for the Quran,

  • the Muslim holy book.

  • "O Prophet," it reads,

  • "tell your wives, your daughters, and the women of the believers

  • to draw upon themselves their garments.

  • This is better, so that they not be known and molested."

  • Basically, the verse advises that all women dress similarly,

  • so that they can't be picked out from one another,

  • zeroed in on, and attacked.

  • Now, on the surface,

  • this may seem like a relatively easy solution to the problem,

  • but turns out it wasn't.

  • The early Muslim community was tribal, and so deeply entrenched in social status,

  • and the idea that a slave would look like a free woman,

  • that was almost insulting.

  • And then there was the matter of practicality.

  • How would a slave do her work?

  • How would she function, if her body was constricted by a coat?

  • How would she cook, clean, fetch water?

  • In the end, the early Muslim scholars ruled

  • that a woman's way of dress should be based on two considerations:

  • a woman's function in society -

  • her role, what we might consider her job -

  • and the society's specific customs.

  • Or, in another way: when in Rome.

  • Muslims like to take historical rulings and apply them to the modern era.

  • So, let's do that.

  • A woman's way of dress should be based on custom and function.

  • So, what does that mean for a Muslim woman living in America today,

  • for someone like me?

  • First, it means that I have a function, a role in society, a contribution

  • that I can make.

  • Second, it means

  • that while I'm making that contribution,

  • and living in a society where veiling is not the custom,

  • and where, in fact, if I veil it might actually lead to harassment,

  • then wearing what is the custom,

  • such as a dress, a pair of jeans or even yoga pants,

  • is not only acceptable,

  • it's recommended.

  • But wait, could that be right?

  • After all, haven't we all come to assume

  • that a Muslim woman must veil,

  • that veiling is a requirement of her faith?

  • There is even a term

  • that we've all come to associate with the Muslim woman's veil,

  • an Arabic term that we've all heard use,

  • whether or not we've been aware of it:

  • "Hijab."

  • So, maybe I missed it.

  • Maybe the requirement that a woman veil is in a different part of the Quran.

  • For those of you who don't know, the Quran consists of 114 chapters,

  • each chapter is written out in verses, like poetry.

  • There are more than 6,000 verses in the Quran.

  • Out of the 6,000 plus verses,

  • three refer to how a woman should dress.

  • The first is the verse I've already told you about.

  • The second is a verse that directly speaks to the Prophet's wives,

  • asking that they begin to dress a bit more modestly

  • because of their role, their function in society as his wives.

  • And the third verse is similar to the first,

  • in that it was revealed in direct response to a historical situation.

  • Early records show that the custom,

  • the fashion during the pre-Islamic era,

  • was for women to wear a scarf on the head, called a khimar,

  • which would be tucked behind the ears and allowed to flow behind the back.

  • In the front, a woman wore a tight vest or a bodice,

  • which she left open exposing her breasts -

  • sort of like the images you've seen in Game of Thrones.

  • (Laughter)

  • When Islam spread through the Arabian Peninsula,

  • a verse was sent down asking that women use this scarf,

  • or any other garment,

  • to cover the breasts.

  • And that's it.

  • That's basically all there is in the Quran concerning how a woman should dress.

  • Turns out, God doesn't give a bullet point of all the parts on a woman's body

  • that he wants hidden from view.

  • And in fact, it might be argued, and it is argued,

  • I cannot stress enough that it is argued by many Muslim scholars

  • that the reason these verses were left intentionally vague

  • is so that a woman could choose for herself how to dress

  • according to her specific culture

  • and the progression of time.

  • And that the term "hijab,"

  • guess what?

  • It's not in any of these three verses.

  • In fact, it's nowhere in the Quran, directly meaning a woman's veil.

  • That's not to say that the word doesn't appear in the Quran

  • because it does appear.

  • But when it appears, it's actually used correctly,

  • to mean a barrier or a divide.

  • Such as the barrier or divide that exists between us humans and the divine,

  • or between believers and non-believers.

  • Or it means a barrier, like a physical screen,

  • that men during Muhammad's time were asked to stand behind

  • when speaking to his wives.

  • Or it means the seclusion, the separation that Mary sought

  • when she was giving birth to Jesus.

  • That separation and seclusion,

  • that means hijab;

  • that physical screen,

  • that means hijab;

  • that barrier, that divide,

  • that means hijab.

  • Hijab doesn't mean a woman's veil.

  • And yet, isn't it strange that what the term actually means,

  • being screened off, divided away, barred, separated out,

  • these are the very terms that come to our minds

  • when we think of a Muslim woman?

  • Why shouldn't they?

  • We have all seen the way some Muslim women are treated around the world:

  • if she attempts to go to school,

  • she's shot in the head;

  • if she attempts to drive a car,

  • she's jailed;

  • if she attempts to take part

  • in the political uprisings happening in her own country,

  • to be heard, to be counted,

  • she is publicly assaulted.

  • Forget about hiding out in the dark at the outskirts of the city,

  • some men now feel comfortable enough to assault a woman on the sidewalk,

  • for the world to see.

  • And they don't care to hide their identities,

  • they're more interested in making international headlines.

  • They're too busy making videos and uploading them onto YouTube,

  • bragging about what they've done.

  • Why don't they care to hide their crimes?

  • They don't feel like they've committed any crimes.

  • It's the women who've committed the crimes.

  • It's the women who got these funny ideas in their heads,

  • ideas that actually led them out of the house,

  • led them into society,

  • believing that they can make a contribution,

  • and we all know,

  • honorable women, they stay at home;

  • honorable women stay invisible.

  • Just as it was the custom for honorable women to do

  • during the Prophet's time.

  • Is that true?

  • 1400 years ago is long before feminism.

  • Were women locked away behind doors, screened off by veils?

  • Well, it turns out that the Prophet's first wife

  • was what we would define today

  • as a CEO.

  • She was a successful merchant

  • whose caravan equaled the caravans of all the other traders put together.

  • She essentially headed up a successful import-export company.

  • When she hired Muhammed to work for her,

  • she was so taken with his honesty

  • that eventually she proposed.

  • (Laughter)

  • I'm not sure how many women feel comfortable

  • proposing marriage to a man today.

  • And Muhammad's second wife?

  • She was no slacker either.

  • She rode into battle on the back of a camel,

  • which is equivalent to a woman riding into battle today

  • inside of a Humvee or a tank.

  • And what of the other women?

  • Early records show that women demanded to be included

  • in the Islamic revolution taking place around the Prophet.

  • One woman became famous as a general

  • when she led her army of men into battle and crushed a rebellion.

  • Men and women freely associated with one another, exchanged gifts.

  • It was custom for a woman to select her own husband and propose.

  • And when things didn't work out,

  • to initiate divorce.

  • Women even loudly debated with the Prophet himself.

  • Seems to me that if fundamentalists

  • want to return current Muslim society to 680 AD,

  • it might be a huge step forward.

  • (Laughter)

  • Progress.

  • (Applause)

  • But we still have to answer an important question.

  • If not from Islamic history, and if not from the Quran,

  • how is it that we, in the modern era,

  • have come to associate Muslim women with hijab?

  • With being separated out from society,

  • secluded and isolated,

  • barred from the most basic human rights?

  • I hope it's not any surprise to you that this isn't by accident.

  • For the past few decades, the very people who have been given the important task

  • of reading and interpreting the Quran

  • in a variety of different Muslim communities,

  • certain clerics have been inserting a certain meaning

  • into those three verses concerning women.

  • For instance that verse I told you about earlier:

  • "O Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters,

  • and the women of the believers to draw upon themselves their garments,

  • this is better, so that they not be known and molested."

  • Some clerics, not all, some clerics

  • have added a few words to that,

  • so that in certain translations of the Quran,

  • that verse reads like this:

  • "O Prophet, tell your wives, your daughters,

  • and the women of the believers, to draw upon themselves their garments,

  • parentheses, a garment is a veil

  • that covers the entire head and the face,

  • the neck and the breast all the way down to the ankles

  • and all the way to the wrists.

  • Everything on a woman's body is covered except for one eye

  • because she must see where she is headed,

  • and the hands must be covered in gloves.

  • Because, of course,

  • there was certainly a lot of gloves back in the desert of Saudi Arabia.

  • (Laughter)

  • Etc., etc., etc., etc., on, and on, and on,

  • end of parentheses,

  • so that she not be known and molested."

  • And what these so-called clerics

  • have concluded based on these types of insertions

  • is that a woman only has one function.

  • To understand what that function is,

  • all you have to do is read some of the fatwas or legal rulings

  • that these so-called clerics have actually gone ahead and issued.

  • Let me give you a sampling.

  • A woman need only finish elementary school

  • before she gets married.

  • Which puts her, what, at the ripe old age of 11, 12 years old?

  • A woman cannot fulfill her spiritual obligations to God