By Ziaur Rehman, New Age Islam
04 February, 2015
One of the most important issues discussed in Quran is that of Purdah (veil). The Quran has some verses dedicated to this issue thus outlining the concept of modesty and privacy in Islam. However, the verses on Purdah and modesty have been differently interpreted and misinterpreted making it a most debated issue in Islam. A large section of Ulema are of the view that Purdah is universal for Muslim women and girls, even for female kids. They also believe that Quran enjoins even old widows and older unmarried women to cover themselves from head to toe whereas Quran does not say so. Quran stresses on Haya (modesty) not only on the part of women but also on the part of women. And it also gives some relaxations to women of certain age and circumstances in terms of Purdah. Therefore Purdah is not a universal limitation imposed on women.
Let’s start the verses on Purdah or modesty directed towards men.
“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is acquainted with what they do.”(Al Nur: 30)
And after telling men to be modest and have a lowered gaze, it turns to the women in the next verse and tells them to be modest with a low gaze.
“And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their head-covers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons, their sisters' sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers that you might succeed.”(Al Nur: 31)
The verse clearly gives women the permission to be without a cover while dealing with their male slaves or servants and their subordinate men. Women participating in social affairs and in the larger areas of administration will definitely have to deal with men working under them and also with men who come in contact with them only in terms of business or other worldly affairs and do not have any emotional or romantic attachment with them. Thus the Quran makes relaxations for such women to deal with such men who do not have any gender based feelings about them. The Quran never tells women to be confined to their homes except to the Ahl-e-Bayt (women of the noble family) who it says are not like ordinary women.
Another verse gives relaxation to the women past the age of marriage:
“Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage,- there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty: but it is best for them to be modest: and Allah is One Who sees and knows all things.” (Al Nur: 60)
Thus women who have grown old and do not hope to get married in future are given the choice of laying aside their garments or being without cover before men. At the same time, it also tells them that if they show modesty, it is better in the eyes of Allah. However, the Quran does not force Purdah on such elderly women. This verse can be interpreted as allowing old widows and divorced women also to be without a cover modestly.
There is a verse that tells women to lower part of their garments to prevent them from being distinguished as women of noble families and prevent them from being abused or harassed in public.
“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.” (Al Ahzab: 59)
This verse has a social background. The verse asks women to bring down over themselves part of their garment so that they are known or recognised. A woman who has covered her face cannot be known. Only a woman without a veil can be know or recognised. Why then the Quran says that they should cover their faces so that they can be known?
In the Jahiliyyah period, licentious women would come out into the streets and markets in the evenings to accost men and licentious men would be looking for such women. These women would be uncovered with all their adornments to lure men. So noble women out on some necessary errand covering themselves properly and modestly would send the message that they were women from noble families and not the kind of women they were looking for, thus preventing men from abusing and harassing them. It is in this context that the Quran says that women with proper cover would be known or distinguished.
The Quran also outlines the rules of privacy. It respects the privacy of men and women both outside and inside the house. Privacy was not respected in the Jahiliyyah and so the Quran had to outline rules of privacy.
“O you who have believed, let those whom your right hands possess and those who have not [yet] reached puberty among you ask permission of you [before entering] at three times: before the dawn prayer and when you put aside your clothing [for rest] at noon and after the night prayer. [These are] three times of privacy for you. There is no blame upon you nor upon them beyond these [periods], for they continually circulate among you - some of you, among others. “(Al Nur: 58)
And the minors when they grow up deserve the same right, that is to be asked for permission when enter their rooms as their right to privacy.
“And when the children among you reach puberty, let them ask permission [at all times] as those before them have done. Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses; and Allah is Knowing and Wise.” (Al Nur: 59)
The Quran also asks believers to seek permission before entering a house.
“O ye who believe! enter not houses other than your own, until ye have asked permission and saluted those in them: that is best for you, in order that ye may heed (what is seemly)”. )Al Nur: 27)
Thus the Quran has laid out rules for Purdah and privacy most clearly. It does not confine women to their households but permits them to participate in social affairs where their participation is necessary covering themselves modestly and with a lowered gaze so that bad people do not abuse or harass them. The Quran also gives some relaxation to certain category of women in terms of Purdah and gives them a choice to be covered or not to be covered while stressing that modesty is best for them too. In short, Purdah, according to the holy Quran is not universally imposed on all ages and categories of women as a section of Ulema would have us believe.
Ziaur Rahman is a columnist for New Age Islam.