Purdah and Veiling Women and Islam


The Facts Behind the ‘Veil’ The Leader of the UK’s House of Commons, Jack Straw, recently sparked a row by writing in an article that he asked Muslim women to take off their veils at his constituency surgeries. These ill-advised and ill-timed remarks by the former Foreign Secretary about the Muslim observance of the veil in his endeavour for better community relations have started a debate which seems disproportionate at best. The Prime Minister and many cabinet members have joined this debate and the media abounds with their and other people’s irresponsible comments. Most of the opinions that are allowed to be voiced are of those who are completely against it or those for whom the veil is an oddity. No real effort is seen to be made to understand the other side of the argument. Most noticeably the media was prompt to inform us all that no where does the Qur’an stipulate covering of the face. Many have put it down to specific cultures. It needs to be said that the covering of the face is in line with the interpretation of the Holy Prophet(saw) of the Qur’anic verses that specify general covering up for women. We understand from the Holy Prophet’s(saw) Traditions that indeed the veil was observed in his time and as such forms part of the Sunnah precept that we follow. In order to understand the phenomenon of the observance of the ‘veil’ by Muslim women, an attempt needs to be made to recognise its intrinsic worth rather than casually dismiss it as male subjugation or cultural icon. The Muslim faith is a complete code of conduct and a way of life. Each of its tenets compliments the other. Observed in isolation, some beliefs or practices might appear irrational to the uninformed. However, the 2 The Review of Religions – October 2006 Shermeem Butt– Cambridge, UK EDITORIAL COMMENT teaching of Islam is based on the rationale of the human psyche; it recognises the disparity of the gender and boldly addresses it. It is a natural human instinct to preserve all faculties we are endowed with and ensure that they are not abused. A woman’s physical beauty, just like her personality and intellect, is one such precious gift and needs to be cherished and its exploitation avoided. Correspondingly, the reality of the female beauty and the scope of reaction it generates are acknowledged in Islam. Measures are put in place to avoid any potential social mishaps. It is for this reason that the injunction is to cover the natural beauty of a woman when going out or facing men outside the immediate family. The Holy Qur’an states: Say to the believing men thay they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts … And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and they not display their beauty and embellis- hments except that which is apparent thereof and that they draw their head covers over their bosoms… (Ch.24:Vs.31-32) Furthermore, the use of an outer cloak is enjoined. The veil and the philosophy behind it is a means to prevent the free mixing of the sexes and the subsequent milieu that creates general wantonness which in turn leads to fraught issues such as rape, unwanted pregnancy, forced abortion – negative aspects that cause the breakdown of the family and can ultimately tear the fabric of society. By definition, the veil discredits the concept of women as an open object of desire, recognises the rightful dignity of women on merit alone and thus works towards neutralising this social collapse. Perhaps it is not out of place to mention here the overtly alluring female imagery that is employed in the West in the field of 3 EDITORIAL COMMENT The Review of Religions – October 2006 advertising to name one. Some claim it is by virtue of Western women’s emancipation that they are allowed to take control of their lives. On reflection, it is the depth of true male subjugation that has turned women into commodity. In such a social environment, when liaisons go wrong, the man casually walks off and it is always the woman who bears the brunt. The veil is a defence against analogous matters getting out of hand. In recent times some cultures within Islam have presented a distorted depiction of the belief where the concept of veil has been taken to preposterous limits. This stems from illiteracy among the masses and the subsequent inaccurate misin- terpretation of the teachings of Islam. This is plainly repre- hensible and has resulted in a grave negative perception in the West about the veil. Contrary to popular belief, Islam does not solely enjoin women to ‘hold back’. In fact, the Muslim doctrine initially instructs men to restrain their eyes, followed by instruction to women to cover. The specific guidelines given in the Holy Qur’an are to Muslim women to cover their heads and to wear a loose outer covering when going out. However, in essence, the veil is a state of mind, its physical shape varying from culture to culture. The spirit of the veil, adopted by Muslim women in compliance to the word of the Holy Qur’an, is to cherish the feminine beauty granted by God and to guard it. It is a direct demonstration of this mindset and perhaps, in that sense, an icon of Islamic values. The concept of the veil is in concordance with the wider Islamic social values. It is not designed to oppress and is not a symbol of male tyranny. Islam lays great emphasis on a woman’s role as a mother and wife. She is a homemaker and the prime nurturer of the future generation. These roles are granted elevated status. While much is made of the fact that, in Islam, man is appointed a guardian over his family, the 4 EDITORIAL COMMENT The Review of Religions – October 2006 detail that he is solely responsible for the livelihood and general wellbeing of the family is totally disregarded. There is indeed balance in the allocation of duties between men and women. However, women are also expected to seek education and if desired to go out to work. There is no conflict in the observance of veil and leading a fulfilled working life. As a matter of fact, incongruous as it may seem to the outside world, the veil is a liberating experience. In defusing the manifest feminine charm, it brings women on an even keel with men on an intellectual and cerebral level and opens a way for them to be judged on their merit. By Shermeen Butt, UK. 5 EDITORIAL COMMENT The Review of Religions – October 2006 References to the Holy Qur’an item count ‘Bismillah…’ (In the Name of Allah…) as the first verse of each Chapter. In some non-standard texts, this is not counted and should the reader refer to such texts, the verse quoted in The Review of Religions will be found at one verse less than the number quoted. In this journal, for the ease of non- Muslim readers, ‘(saw)’ or ‘saw’ after the words, ‘Holy Prophet’, or the name ‘Muhammad’, are used. They stand for ‘SallAllahu ‘alaihi wa sallam’ meaning ‘Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him’. Likewise, the letters ‘(as)’ or ‘as’ after the name of all other prophets is an abbreviation meaning ‘Peace be upon him’ derived from ‘Alaihis salatu wassalam’ which are words that a Muslim utters out of respect whenever he or she comes across that name. The abbreviation ‘ra’ or (ra) stands for ‘RadhiAllahu Ta’ala anhu and is used for Companions of a Prophet, meaning Allah be pleased with him or her (when followed by the relevant Arabic pronoun). Finally, ‘ru’ or (ru) for Rahemahullahu Ta’ala means the Mercy of Allah the Exalted be upon him. In keeping with current universal practice, local transliterations are preferred to their anglicised versions, e.g. Makkah instead of Mecca, etc.