After the Veil

When the veil was first prescribed, the young community in Medina, the first capital of Islam, changed as women became expected to adhere to a form of clothing that was different. Yet some argue that the change was not as dramatic as originally thought. As explained earlier, a woman, at the time of jahiliya, in line with her customs already used to put a form of head cover that would extend behind her back. The Qur’anic injunction directed the believing women to extend the loose ends to the front concealing the head, the neck, and the upper part of the bosom. Another Qur’anic verse directed women to lower their ( jalabib) which is a form of loose garment. Those types of dress were not new. What was new was a new way of putting them on.

Those few verses in the Qur’an have been the center of debate for centuries, still counting. The veil, and its various forms and symbolisms, have taken different routes. Some, though markedly few, understand the verses and the behaviors of the early Muslim society to direct women to be fully covered, almost totally secluded from the presence of men. Others acknowledge that Muslim women have to adhere to a dress code that is different from men. Yet, this is not necessarily linked to impediments to participation in the public and economic lives.

Abu-Shuqqah,26 in a major contemporary encyclopedic effort to trace the behaviors of the early Muslim society after the veil was prescribed, narrates dozens of examples of economic and social interactions between men and women. He concludes that the veil was not an impediment to their public involvement in social and economic affairs of their communities. It is sometimes the case that the veil meets institutional arrangements that impede women’s growth and involvement. This is when the combination of those forces, put together, would lead to lack of women participation.

So there is nothing—in theory—that prohibits a woman with a veil (khimar or head cover) from participating in the public sphere. Yet, the issue became complicated when the Qur’an came with special arrangements for the wives of the Prophet as discussed above. If the verse is thought to be generally applicable to all Muslim men and women, women’s involvement in public affairs becomes extremely curtailed. This controversy is referred to as the controversy of ikhtilat (social mingling between the sexes). Some scholars assert that ikhtilat is strictly forbidden while others argue that ikhtilat is inevitable and would be allowed under certain conditions. Al-Qaradawi,27 for example, notes that the concept of ikhtilat has most probably crept into the Islamic contemporary lexicon, not based on earlier jurist rulings, but in later periods.

What is the significance of this controversy? The implications of either position are myriad. In those communities where ikhtilat is considered forbidden, women are mostly shut out from public life except within women circles. This explains the situation of women in some countries where the over-riding religious understanding is that ikhtilat is totally forbidden. In those contexts, women are allowed to work with other women, only within their own networks. They are not allowed to work with men or among men. They are not allowed to seek most positions of public office as those almost always require interaction with the other sex. In some extreme—though rare—cases, women even shop separately from men, go to separate channels of entertainment away from the other sex, or are not allowed to drive.

For those communities which adopt the second perspective, the interaction of women with men is allowed under a set of principles.28 For example, a woman cannot be in the same location with a man alone. In addition, the type and tone of discussions have to reflect the type of needed interaction. In a business meeting, a certain level of expected professionalism has to govern the communication. Thus the free mingling of sexes without any limitations is not condoned under either position. Yet, under the second perspective, women’s participation in public life becomes easier. Women can buy, sell, respond to a superior’s request, issue order to work subordinates, discuss issues with peers, participate in meetings, work within the same vicinity of other women and men, and do most of the things that are usually expected in a work environment. This leaves some things that cannot be done by men or women in such interactions. This includes engaging in the sort of free, playful, or extremely informal interactions that sometimes occur in office environments. This would sometimes exclude Muslim workers, both male and female, from engaging in events such as after-work parties or drinks. Other than that, the proponents of the second position argue, there are no reasons that would restrict women’s participation in the economic, public, and other aspects of social life.

Some schools of thought within Islam have thus drawn legitimacy from the above verses to offer a strict perspective towards women’s involvement in the public sphere. But what led to the position among some scholars that women need to stay separate from public life? How did some schools of thought develop a closed perspective about women and their role in society?

One of the main reasons that could explain why narrow understandings of the role of women overpowered what would be considered a better reflection of Islamic principles, relates to the fact that patriarchal forces were able to reorganize after they were relatively weakened by Islam. One famous story illustrates how this might have happened just a few years after the Prophet died.

Abdullah b. Umar [a companion of the Prophet] reported: I heard God’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) say: Don’t prevent your women from going to the mosque. Bilal b. ‘Abdullah [his son] said: By God, we shall certainly prevent them. On this Abdullah b. Umar turned towards him and reprimanded him harshly as I had never heard him do before. He (Abdullah b. Umar) said: I am narrating to you that which comes from the Messenger of God (may peace be upon him) and you (have the audacity) to say: By God, we shall certainly prevent them.29

This story tells of a person who objected to the participation of women in the public space of worship even after he was told by his father—who was a close companion of the Prophet—that his religion forbade him to do so. This is not a lone case of one person. It shows that some elements within the Muslim society were against the integration of women, even within the boundaries set by Islam. Unfortunately we do not know much about the context of this story. We don’t know whether this was said in a small-circle discussion between the father and his son and perhaps a few others, or whether it was in some sort of a public forum. Yet, because this short discussion existed and was transmitted year after year, it is open to any student of history to deduce what would have been a context for this dialogue.

A historic event that resonates well with Muslims till this day is how a woman publicly objected to a decision made by the second Caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab (586?-644).30 He eventually yielded to her objection and said: “The woman is right, and Omar is wrong.” Aisha Bint Abi Bakr31 (604-678), the wife of the Prophet, was politically active during the major rift that occurred shortly after the Prophet’s death. These examples, among many others, are often brought forward to illustrate that women in the early Islamic period were not shy to take action and make their voices heard.

Fatima Mernissi32 (1940-2015) gives several examples of active women in Islamic history whom she calls “the forgotten queens of Islam.”33 She explains how those women were able to have power in a context that continued to be dominated by males. Beyond what Mernissi describes, the examples of female ultimate decision-makers are rare. Yet there is evidence to suggest that they were impactful decision-makers at various instances ofIslamic history. As time passed, however, women’s participation declined, and their societal and political voices dwindled. By the early nineteenth century, the situation ofwomen paralleled the decay of Muslim societies. In many corners of the Arab and Muslim world, women became secluded within closely guarded private spaces. They were offered limited education and had little say in public affairs.34

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