Modesty not segregation

Published: July 15, 2010
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The writer is professor emerita at the University of Louisville, US

The writer is professor emerita at the University of Louisville, US

KARACHI: It is unfortunate that the basic intent of the Quranic teachings and prescriptions regarding women has frequently been disregarded in Muslim societies and communities. Women are often seen not as mentally and morally capable human beings who can be righteous by choice, but as mentally and morally deficient creatures on whom morality has to be imposed externally.

Not satisfied with “the outer garment” prescribed by the Holy Quran for Muslim women in a specific cultural context, some conservative Muslims (both men and women) have put pressure on women to cover themselves from head to foot leaving only the face and hands uncovered. Some have even gone further and taken the position that the face (except for the eyes) should also be covered. This kind of hijab was not mandated by the Quran nor found in the days of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Nor is it indigenous to urban Pakistani society.  In the context of requiring a woman to cover her face, well-known scholar on Islam, Dr Fathi Osman, has made an important observation: “In pilgrimage, where large numbers of women and men practice together, women do not cover their faces.”

According to Muhammad Asad: “The term hijab denotes anything that intervenes between two things, or conceals, shelters or protects the one from the other. It may be rendered, according to the context, as a ‘barrier’, ‘obstacle’, ‘partition’, ‘screen’, ‘curtain’, ‘veil’, etc., in both the concrete and abstract connotations of these words.”

In traditional societies it is customary to divide the world into ‘private space’ and ‘public space.’  The former is the home where women belong, and the latter is the rest of the world which belongs to men. It is assumed in these societies that an invisible ‘curtain’ (hijab) separates private and public spaces, and that as long as women and men remain in their respective spaces, everything is fine. But the moment the ‘barrier’ is crossed, for instance, by a woman entering the public space, the divinely-devised order is disturbed and all hell breaks loose.

The purpose of the Quranic legislation regarding women’s dress and conduct, was to make it safe for women to go about their daily business — which included the right to engage in gainful activity as stated in the Quran 4:32 — without fear of sexual molestation or harassment. However, a number of Pakistanis who regard the ‘chadar’ and ‘chaar-dewari’ believe that women should wear the hijab which covers most of their bodies (often including the face, except the eyes) and remain in private space. To them the segregation of women from men is crucial to preserving “the integrity of the Islamic way of life”.

However, if a woman loses all male support and has to enter public space to find means of subsistence, she must dress in such a way that she is virtually faceless. In essence hijab and segregation are the same because both aim at confining women and keeping them apart from, and outside the public space. It is important to mention here that confinement to the home was not the norm for chaste Muslim women but, rather, the punishment for unchaste women as stated in 4:15 (Quran): And as for those of your women who become guilty of immoral conduct, call upon four from among you who have witnessed their guilt; and if these bear witness thereto, confine the guilty women to their houses until death takes them away or God opens for them a way (through repentance).

In Dr Fathi Osman’s view, the Quran mandates modesty, not segregation.  He states: “The social role of women requires mixing with men. Islam does not permit any discrimination between men and women, nor does it advocate a segregation between them as it may be widely understood because of cultural practices or views. What Islam forbids actually is that a man and woman cannot stay together in seclusion and privacy (khalwa), if they are not married to each other and a sexual relation between them is possible. But men and women as individuals and groups can meet in public.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • faruq aziz
    Jul 16, 2010 - 6:29AM

    the length of a woman’s dress is a national obsession with the men in our country,how much she is covered is never enough.Hiding their insecurity behind their commands to their women to hide themselves from head to toe,the men in our society use religion as a powerful tool to cloak their misogyny.
    Our society has wrongly put all the onus of honour in a family with the females of the family,the women have to be the custodians of the honour of the men,no matter what the men do,no matter how many women the men sleep with,if a daughter,wife or mother so much as looks at another man,the family’s honour is besmirched.
    When will our society’s hypocrisy & double standards end???Recommend

  • Jul 16, 2010 - 8:49AM

    Excellent article, rather an eye-opener for myopic semi-educated Mullahs. I am a practicing [not preaching] Muslim and once I asked my daughter that while she was praying regularly why was she not wearing hijab. She replied “I wear the dress of modesty”.

    Women do come in contact with men as a matter of routine in everyday life. What the Quran has enjoined is that both men and women conduct themselves in a way which is consistent with the dignity which God has bestowed on all human beings [Surah 17: Al-Isra : 70]. Morality comes from within and cannot be externally imposed through segregation or hijab.

    I congratulate Express Tribune in having the courage to print such views.Recommend

  • Jul 16, 2010 - 9:51AM

    Hmm I guess that means all the reknowned scholars were mistaken. You clearly must have spent your life studying the Quran, Sunnah, Hadith and Islamic History to make this statement right??Recommend

  • Hadi
    Jul 16, 2010 - 10:15AM

    Its a pity to know that Islam for those conservative and fundamentalist maulvis revolve around only women. There are other important issues to address as well, these kind of a people considers modern education a hoax and believe that it would part them away from their religion. they have less regard for modern education and teachings and loves to confine in their own shell.Recommend

  • samina
    Jul 16, 2010 - 11:20AM

    if women were suppose to remain at home then the matter of dress code need not arise at all. Recommend

  • Usama Zafar
    Jul 16, 2010 - 11:36AM

    Excellent article I must say!!Recommend

  • amjad khan
    Jul 16, 2010 - 11:42AM

    @ samina represents a large part of our population who prefer to deny 51% of the population a right to an equal life,a free life.Such over simplified statements appear sweet but hide a myopic,repressive mind that thrives on blaming the victim & letting the perpetrator go free.

    We’ve all seen women like these who blame a rape victim for getting raped,because in their sick,convoluted thinking women are the tempting ones & the poor man can’t be blamed for his actions.Men in our country have to take responsibility for committing rape; but sadly in our country the society very conveniently chooses to blame the females & in this shameful mentality the men & women are equal contributors as women especially those who are housewives,don’t work are jealous of working women because the working women have managed to stand on their own feet,not ask their husbands,fathers,brothers for money to buy even the smallest things.

    In my experiences, it is the housewives who are the greatest supporters of maintaining the status quo, since they themselves didn’t achieve anything out of their houses so they can’t stand to see any other successful working woman.Recommend

  • Talha
    Jul 16, 2010 - 4:03PM

    Excellent indeed, our problem persists not in religion but its interpretation. I suggest hermeneutics to update and reinvent the interpretation.

    I also like what (General?) Mirza Aslam Beg said, it promotes the re-evaluation of our current practices. Recommend

  • danish
    Jul 16, 2010 - 8:30PM

    i think this article is trying to promote the western values and telling us that we can be successful by adopting those values……yes ,women can work but what type of work they can do is questionable.they can do work which does not involve mingling with men unnecessarily…….Recommend

  • Jul 17, 2010 - 12:35AM

    @ TALHA :Thank you for your insightful comments. By the way I am Mr. Mirza Aslam Beg.Recommend

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