Purdah and Veiling Women and Islam

Notes & Comments: Behind the Veil: A Muslim Woman’s Status in Islam

A burqah-clad woman fearing as she crosses a street in broad daylight with her child’s hand in her own, the veiled head of a woman whose face cannot be seen and stories of “honour killings” – all these images of women pervade media coverage of the status of women in the Islamic world. The media alone should not however, be blamed for such negative coverage. In some instances, it only reports what it sees and hears. Nations that claim to govern their populations by Islamically-principled law, or Shariah, are perpetuating, through their own practices, images of subjugation in relation to the status of women in Islam. One would be hard pressed to find a legitimate authority on Islamic law and practice that would find today’s treatment of women in Islamic nations in agreement with the guidelines set down in the Holy Qur’an and the traditions of the Holy Prophet(saw). This erroneous distortion of the role of women in Muslim society has to do with the socio- economic and political factors of each respective Islamic nation – but that is a separate issue altogether. The fundamental tenets of Islam offer liberation in its truest sense to women – not by the western standards of the 21st century but by the humanitarian principles of equality and justice. The principal right granted to women in Islam – and some would argue the most important – is that of spiritual equality to the rest of mankind. Whereas Judeo-Christian tradition re- counts the creation of women from the rib of a man, the Holy 4 The Review of Religions – May 2006 Comments &Notes Behind the Veil: A Muslim Woman’s Status in Islam Qur’an explicitly does not talk of which gender begot which: …Fear your Lord who created you from a single being and created therefrom its mate, and from the two spread many men and women. (Ch.4:V.2) As a direct parallel to previous monotheistic religions, the Holy Qur’an could not be clearer in telling us that there exists no inferiority in the status of women. Yet in another account, the Bible relates the story of Adam and Eve and holds Eve culpable as a temptress and persuader of evil. The Holy Qur’an tells the same story without any isolated blame on Eve: But Satan caused them both [Adam and Eve] to slip by means of it and drove them out of the state in which they were… (Ch.2:V.37) With the absence of particular blame held over Eve, it is clear that women are not perceived as harbingers of evil and temptation in Islam. Some would argue that Islam dictates that women are inherent sources of temptation for men – and that donning the veil counteracts this temptation. Some go so far as to say that the veil is worn for the sole purpose of keeping men’s temptations at bay. Again, this is a grievous misconception. The veil is utilised as a means of protection for women; it is a physically manifested barrier between herself and the harm that may befall her. It is widely known that incorporating the veil into one’s external appearance effectively instils confidence in one’s persona. No longer must a woman completely rely on her physical beauty to achieve her goals and be successful in society. This proves to be especially true in western countries. The rights granted by Islam in the seventh century were revolutionary and incredibly 5 NOTES AND COMMENTS The Review of Religions – May 2006 progressive for the time. In a period when female infanticide was prevalent and women were bartered like livestock, Islam broke the chain of social norms and elevated women to new heights. The roles of women as mothers and wives are highly revered in Islam. The Prophet Muhammad(saw) elevated the status of women through his own example of the treatment of women in his life. Not once did he abuse his wives physically or mistreat them in any manner. Rather, he is reported to have said, ‘The best among you is he who treats his wife the best.’ Concerning respect for mothers, the Prophet Muhammad(saw) has established that they are due three times over the respect that is due to fathers. In light of these precedents, how can Islam be thought unjust in its treatment of women? When certain rights such as voting, inheritance, initiating divorce, alimony, child support, property ownership and the like were given to women in the West in the 20th century, how can Islam be barbaric and backward in its granting of these same rights in the early seventh century? In addition to these particular rights, the duties and responsibilities of a woman are defined according to her capacity. Contrary to popular opinion in the West, Islam does not deprive women of their rights and elevated status in society but provides for women in a way that is not wholly recognised by the cultural norms of western society. Khullat Munir, New York, USA. 6 NOTES AND COMMENTS The Review of Religions – May 2006