Purdah and Veiling

Women in Islam

Women in Islam (Selma Mubaraka Khan) God in His wisdom has offered full equality to men and women. This does not mean, however, that our roles or functions are the same. The Holy Ouran states that God has created all species in pairs: “And of His signs is that He has created wives for you from among yourselves that you may find peace of mind in them, and He has put love and tenderness between you. In that, surely, are Signs for a people who reflect.” (30:22). Islam teaches that various faculties and capacities bestowed by God are a Divine bounty and must be beneficently employed: “And Allah brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers while you knew nothing, and gave you ears and eyes and hearts, that you might be grateful.” (16:79). Some religions have laid the responsibility of man’s fall upon woman and declared her to be an instrument of the devil and have claimed celibacy to be more exalted than conjugal life. This belief and attitude is not upheld by Islam which has raised women to a position of spiritural equality with men. It teaches that men and women complement one another and are the means of mutual fulfilment. It teaches that the rights of men and women produce a harmonious whole emphasising the equal importance of both sexes. At the same time it does not ignore or overlook their different capacities and therefore their different roles in life. Islam does not encourage living in a state of unreality or wishful thinking. The teachings of Islam are practical and fully take into account the biological and emotional facts of life. Almighty Allah obviously knew all the controversies which would take place in our time concerning the equality of the sexes and so provided clear guidance on this matter to avoid misunderstandings. We read in the Holy Ouran: WOMEN IN ISLAM “Surely, men who submit themselves to God and women who submit themselves to Him, and believing men and believing women, and obedient men and obedient women, and truthful men and truthful women, and men steadfast in their faith and steadfast women, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their chastity and women who guard their chastity and men who remember Allah and women who remember Him – Allah has prepared for all of them forgiveness and a great reward.” 21 (33:36). There are also other verses in the Quran testifying to the spiritual equality of men and women. I would now like to refer to some aspects of Islam which are often made the butt of criticism in the West. Emancipation of Women Criticism levied at the door of Islam in this respect is entirely the result of ignorance because its teachings emancipated women fourteen centuries ago by giving them their full rights. Islam has given women complete economic independence. Not only do they have the right to inherit property but even after marriage they have the right to retain it independently. Also it is part of the marriage contract that the husband should offer a substantial amount of dowry to his wife – according to his means – which becomes her sole possession. Women may persue a professional career, business or other kind of profitable activity. It should not be carried out (keeping in view, of course, her circumstances) at the expense of her marital or domestic obligations. Islam teaches that the family unit has priority and its safety and true prosperity in every respect should be considered sacrosanct. We are a spiritual community. Nations are unable to advance if members of the younger generation are not of the right calibre. We have to train our children to observe the teachings of Islam if we wish to ensure that the Community continues to progress successfully. This task largely falls on the shoulders of the mother and, perhaps, this is why the Holy Prophet of Islam said “Paradise lies under the feet of your mother.” As a wife and a mother the primary and normal sphere of her activities is in the home. A social system, based on the wisdom of Islamic teachings, brings about a perfect balance and accord between husband, wife and family. It is not a matter of equality or inequality. It is simply a matter of natural capacity as we are designed by nature to function in this way. A woman is naturally more caring and protective in nurturing her children. Also she is more vulnerable and needs man’s protection, strength and support. 22 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS Islam stresses the maintenance of chastity. It is unfortunate that in the West chastity is no longer considered a virtue. In fact it has become a reproach! Perversion and sensuality inside and outside of marriage are thought to be the true purpose and aim of sex. Woman has been degraded into a mere instrument for sexual indulgence. Thank God for Islam which treats the whole subject of conjugal relationships at the highest level of moral and spiritual consciousness. The Holy Quran likens a husband and wife as being garments for one another. They are a source of protection and dignity for each other. While on this subject I would like to add a few words on arranged marriages. First of all the validity of a marriage requires the public consent of both parties. The consent of the bride is vital otherwise it is not permissible to conduct the marriage. The forcing of a girl into marriage against her will is contrary to Islamic teaching. All marriages of any kind are arranged in one way or another but according to Islam the selection should go much deeper than mere physical attraction which is often the main reason in the West. Education The Holy Prophet of Islam has said: “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman.” (Bukhari). Women are not only entitled to education but it is essential that they be educated to the highest level. In some respects the education of women is more important than that of men because it is the mother whose influence most effects the next generation and is therefore of vital importance. Purdah Veiling is an aspect of Islam which seems to meet with the disapproval of many people. The casting down of the eyes is ‘a part of purdah but it is important to emphasise that this practice is not enjoined on women alone. The outer form of purdah is not meant to be a substitute for casting down one’s looks and protecting one’s senses – in the widest meaning of the word- but rather to nurture and develop this attitude of heart and mind. Women should dress modestly and not exhibit their physical beauty which calls for the wearing of an over-garment or coat and a head covering. Purdah was never meant nor must it be allowed to stand in the way of education or to prevent women from playing their full and appropriate role in society. Basically purdah is meant to protect society from unnecessary and frequently dangerous or, at least, risky encounters between members of the opposite sex. I do not think much argument is necessary to prove the validity of this WOMEN IN ISLAM 23 Islamic viewpoint. The evidence is monumental and overwhelming. One has only to look at Western society which has indulged in unrestricted and unlimited mixing of the sexes to see the terrible damage it has wrought upon the entire fabric of society. It has led to the ever increasing incidence of broken homes, broken marriages, misery and unhappiness. One in every three marriages in Britain breaks down and approximately four hundred and fifty children are daily uprooted through divorces. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I do not think it requires much power of analysis or wisdom to reach the conclusion that the Islamic injunctions restricting the free intermingling of the sexes is a price too high to pay for conjugal harmony, contentment and for a happy, peaceful domestic environment in which to bring up one’s family. Polygamy Another oft repeated criticism against Islam is the subject of polygamy. I must confess that at one time I found this teaching difficult to accept until I gave it logical reflection. It should l?e_well remembered that Islam is the only religion which has restricted to four the number of wives a man can have at one time. The scriptures of no other religion have put any restriction on the number of wives a person may have. Some of the prophets of God mentioned in those scriptures took unlimited number of wives. Monogamy, as imposed by law of the land, should be clearly distinguished from the teachings of the scripture accepted by the people of the land. No doubt the subject is a sensitive one but one should try to analyse it rationally without emotion. Furthermore it should be rembered that Islam does not enjoin polygamy but simply permits it under certain conditions involving heavy restrictions. These conditions and restrictions ensure that Islamic polygamy may not be embarked upon merely for lustful purposes coupled with selfish indiscipline. The personal suffering and anguish engendered by lack of such provision is well illustrated, I think, in the famous English classical novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Poor Rochester is married to a crazy wife who is kept locked up in part of the house and unable to fulfil the needs of a wife being attended all the time by a nurse. As a result he was unable to marry Jane. What a sensible solution they would have found in Islam which would have catered for the betterment and happiness of all three of them. The desirability of polygamy is well illustrated by the conditions and circumstances which prevailed in Europe following the last two world wars. The absence of this safety valve led to moral degradation and promiscuity. Once morals are set on a lower peg it is extremely hard – if not impossible – to raise them without Divine help on a national level. The West is still living with these consequences even though the ratio of the male and female population has corrected itself with the passage of time. 24 REVIEW OF RELIGIONS Divorce The Holy Prophet of Islam declared that while divorce is permitted it is the most abhorrent of permitted things. It can be initiated by either husband or wife. There are detailed instructions regarding divorce. These are designed to ensure that proceedings are not pursued with in a mood of petulent emotions or in a carefree manner. The procedure is somewhat drawn out thus providing an opportunity for reconciliation before the divorce becomes irrevocable. A divorce cannot be gained, as often erroneously believed, merely by pronouncing “I divorce you” three times in quick succession. The minimum waiting time is three months which not only provides time for re- consideration but also gives time for any unsuspected pregnancy to come to light thereby safeguarding the rights of the unborn child. In any case divorce may riot be granted during the period of pregnancy which is a very wise ruling decreed fourteen hundred years ago. Recently it has been discovered how hormonal disturbances psychologically effect women during pregnancy. During the period of waiting an arbiter is chosen to try to reconcile the couple. They endeavour to find a solution to patch things up. If unsuccessful then the intention to divorce is announced once a month. After the third announcement divorce becomes final and irrevocable. She is not permitted to re-marry her former husband unless she first marries someone else and he either dies or divorces her. If one reflects, this is a further protection for women in Islam. She may not be divorced and re-married by a man at will. The fact that she first has to marry someone else is a great deterrent to a husband acting in a frivolous way or holding his wife in a suspended state. As half the population of the world is female, Muslim women have a great task to do regarding preaching and social work. In the end I would like to state that terrible treatment was meted out to women before the advent of Islam. No religion had come to their rescue. Where the status of women has been raised it has been due to public outcry and not by the efforts of religious leaders and the teachings of their respective religions. Islam did not wait for women to press their claims for freedom and for the recognition of their rights. It made provision for them fourteen hundred years ago for a balanced adjusted social order.