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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 55: Gender and the Veil: Part 1




By Ziauddin Sardar

September 29, 2008


You are absolutely right Madeleine. Much of religious thought sees women's sexuality as something to be controlled and managed by men. Muslim scholars and jurists, classical and contemporary, have seen women as dangerous entities, to be kept on a tight leash, and secluded from the public gaze. And, to be honest, I do think that some verses in the Qur'an can be interpreted to justify such attitudes. But it need not be so.

Indeed, if I may say so, Madeleine, you are yourself are interpreting24:30 from a male perspective by suggesting that it "sexualises women" simply because it talks about "their charms". But before I look at 24:30, let me set the scene.

The discussion on women in Islam largely revolves around Hijab which, in my opinion, is one of the main instruments of control. The word Hijab is used seven times in the Qur'an in 19:1738:32;17:4541:542:517:46 and 33:53.

Literally, hijab means a curtain, partition or screen. In some verses of the Qur'an it is used metaphorically to refer to a separation, as verse 7:46 where it signifies the separation between the inmates of paradise and the inmates of the fire. In42:51 it is used to intimate how God communicates with mankind: as a voice from behind a veil.

Verse 33:53 returns to the place where we left off in the last blog, in a very specific way. It addresses the people of Medina telling them not to enter the prophet's house without permission. Then it adds: "And if you ask his wives for some favour, do so from behind a screen (Hijab); this is more chaste for both your hearts and theirs." And that is the extent of the multifaceted use of the term hijab in the Qur'an. So the question is how this term, used in such various contexts came to be the universally recognised term for Muslim women's head covering?

It is clear that verse 33:53 takes a general principle we have already considered and applies it to a very particular context: the special status of the Prophet Muhammad within the community, and by extension that of his wives. Obviously, the prophet was a person with whom everybody wished to spend time. But, the meaning of the verse is that even prophets need privacy and time to themselves.

The case of the prophet's wives is rather different. We know that they too were persons of great interest to the community, but they also could be controversial and attracted comment, gossip and even scandal. We know that allegations of immoral behaviour made against a wife of the prophet were the specific context in which verses dealing with the rules of evidence in cases of adultery and prohibitions on gossip and impugning the virtue of women were revealed. But the verses dealing with charges of adultery and backbiting were cast in general terms, clearly phrased as principles to be applied universally to all comparably instances. Verse 33:53would appear to reverse the procedure. Universal principles, respect for privacy and modesty, are applied to a very specific instance, in the case of the prophet and his wives. There will never be comparable circumstances because Muhammad is the last prophet, so there can never be other women who are wives of the prophet.

However, there are many verses addressed to the prophet which have universal significance. So the question here is how we distinguish between the specific and the universal. Should behaviour required towards a unique individual and his unique household be the model for all Muslim households? Or does this verse extend a general principle to circumstances that can never arise again? A reasoned and proportionate answer, I think, is to see this verse as an exception that is particular, time-bound and distinct from the general rule.

To treat everyone, and especially every woman, according to what was especially deemed appropriate for a prophet and his wives strikes me as a presumption too far. In practice, it has led to a vast and generalised injustice to women since this has been used to justify not just the seclusion of women but as a consequence a denial of education as well as other limitations which severely affect women's ability to be active agents in creating and working for just and equitable societies, a duty which the Qur'an specifically and repeatedly addresses to believing men and believing women. And still we have not come upon any reference to mode of dress!

A reference to mode of dress occurs in 33:59: "O prophet, tell your wives, your daughters and women believers to wrap their outer garments closely around them, for this makes it more likely that they be recognised and not be harassed. God is all-forgiving, compassionate to each." Here we have clearly moved from the specific to the general by the inclusion of "believing women". However, it is not seclusion from society but specifically going out and about which is the context in which mode of dress is mentioned. And what is mentioned is "outer garments" - the word used is Jalabib (singular, jilbab) which can mean a mantle or cloak. We can be confident the purpose of wrapping the outer garments closely around the body is to be modest and to identify these people to the rest of the community as modest women since that is the subject of the entire passage in which the verse occurs. But to understand what it means in terms of type of apparel we need to know more about the conventions of Medina at the time of the prophet, which is where24:31 comes in and it is my topic for tomorrow.




No Equality Here

By Madeleine Bunting

September 29, 2008

Well, it was predictable that I wasn't going to like these verses much. One line in 24:30 is devoted to men's modesty and then there's a whole paragraph detailing the restrictions on women. The emphasis is clear, that women are the real focus for this teaching. But there is an even bigger problem, which is that these lines sexualise women.

The fondness for women is evident in the description of "their charms". It is a characterisation of women from a male perspective and one that is full of desire. It seems clear to me that in this type of verse one can see the roots of a tradition in which women's sexuality has often been perceived as something to be ordered and tightly controlled by men. This has been equally true of other religious traditions, and as a result, all of them face a profound challenge to their structures of authority and scripture. Islam, given its literal reading of the Qur'an, is confronted by a particularly intense challenge: how can it ever reconcile its commitment to Qur'anic absolute truth and women's equality?


URL of Part 54: