Remembering Ustadha Hind Shalabī

On June 24th, 2021, the Tunisian scholar Hind Shalabi passed away and returned to her Lord. She became a hafidha (someone who has memorized the entire Qur’an) at a young age, and later attended the University of Zitouna where she became a professor. She authored multiple books in the Qur’anic sciences.

Considering the environment she grew up in, Shalabi’s intellectual and academic achievements are all the more inspiring. In the decades following the independence of Tunisia, the 1970s and 1980s, the sefseri (the Tunisian traditional style of the veil) was banned under Habib Bourguiba’s rule. Bourguiba championed himself as a liberator of women, and is infamously recorded on video removing the top part of a sefseri of a woman (one cannot help but recall the public French unveilings of Algerians during colonization). [1] This was a part of a series of progressive laws to refashion the Muslim woman as a modern subject under the modernization campaign. State mandated feminism, of a sort, was to reframed as necessary to protect Muslim women from the supposed exploitative nature of the veil, not unlike the bans in many European countries, India, and even Muslim-majority countries today.

Shalabi publicly critiqued Bougiba’s policies that were inconsistent with the Shari’a. In 1975, in what became a famous incident, she gave a lecture on the status of women in Islam and refused to shake Borguiba’s hand afterwards. Then, in 1981, the government issued an administrative ban (Circular 108) that prohibited veiled women from accessing work and education, redefining the hijab as a sectarian symbol. There was additional scrutiny over women wearing white veils due to its association with the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite controversy, she defied the ban and maintained her veil, and that same year she was appointed as a professor at Zeitouna.

Vestiges of France’s colonial mission still remain, and certainly the psychological violence inflicted still scars the the Muslim conscious. They still face the trauma of secularization — either enforced or through social pressure — not only in countries where they are minorities, such as France and Denmark, but in places where they constitute the majority. In the past decade, many Egyptian universities have instituted a variety of niqab bans; Turkey only recently lifted the ban on veils in public spaces and universities in 2013 and in high schools in 2014. The violent nature of modernity engenders increasing scrutiny and criticism directed towards such laws. Dr. Sahar Ghumkor analyzes the veil in the Tunisian context as follows:

The return to the veil particularly the hijab — can then be understood to signify that the muhajjabah is not the abject, passive and silent figure constructed by the Tunisian government and its feminist supporters; on the contrary, the muhajjabah chooses to see Islam as part of her national heritage, identity and as source of empowerment. In other words, veiling in the political climate of postcolonial Tunisia is a symbolic disruption of the epistemic violence of western modernity. [2]

Ultimately, one need not resort to an analysis of Western modernity to understand the challenge facing Muslims in the next generations: from physical occupation, we are now facing relentless ideological attempts to secularize the Muslim mind and abandon the Shari’a for worldly bounty. Women are often the battlefield upon which these ideological conflicts are wrought — the fallout being the gross, un-Islamic treatment of women and other vulnerable populations, and uptaking of un-Islamic means to seek justice. Ustadha Hind Shalabi’s story is an exemplary of the means by which to oppose repression, in principled alignment with Divine commandments.

May Allah ﷻ reunite Ustadha Hind Shalabi with her family in the highest level of paradise, have mercy on her soul, and grant her family ease and patience.

Works Cited:

[1] Ola Galal, The Politics of Feminist Citizenship: Violence, Law, and Affect in Post-Revolution Tunisia, pp. 68.
[2] Sahar Ghumkor, The Veil and Modernity: The Case of Tunisia

Photo by Karim Ben Van on Unsplash


About the Author: Farhana K. is based out of North America. She is interested in the Islamic sciences and medical ethics.

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