Status of Women in Islam (9)
Female Seclusion (1)
The Islamic laws regulating the social intercourse of Muslims have often given rise to needless criticism in Europe. In their enthusiasm for social liberty, the Western critics say that these laws are degrading to Muslim women, and are responsible for the low state of morality among Muslims. However, the true fact is that these laws, strict as they are, had for their very aim the preservation of good morals in society. Indeed, preservation of good morals –and not unrestricted freedom of social intercourse among men and women, such as is widespread today in Christian Europe– is the intention of the Islamic laws. Female seclusion is misunderstood in many quarters in foreign countries, for the apparent reason that sanctions of religion and usage have not been kept apart, as they ought to have been but have been grossly mixed one with another. Failing to distinguish between the two, our Western critics have fallen into the very serious fault of disseminating a false notion among their countrymen that Islam is responsible for the seclusion of females, and for all the evils that flow there from.
I will dwell on the subject a little and make an attempt to show whether the religion of Islam actually sanctions the seclusion of women, as is misunderstood by European critics.
The following verse occurs in the Qu’ran, which touch on our present subject:- “Speak unto the female believers that they restrain their eyes, and keep themselves from immodest actions; and that they display not their charms and ornaments, except to their husbands or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers, or their brother’s sons or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male domestics who have no natural force, or to children who distinguish not women’s nakedness. And let them not strike their feet together, so as to discover their hidden ornaments. And be you all turned to God, O you believers, that it may be well with you.” [24:31]
The chief object of these verses is to secure greater purity of heart and increasing chastity of mind; and hence the believers are here reminded that God is well aware of what they do, and that it shall be well for them, if they constantly turn to him. To attain this moral purity, the believing man is first directed to retrain his eyes and observe continence. Then the believing woman is likewise directed to cover her person and ornaments from public view, to restrain her eyes and observe continence. A Muslim woman is at liberty to go out of her house, if necessary, after she has obtained permission from her husband or guardians. Only, she has to take good care to dress herself properly, so as to cover her person from head to foot, and to walk in the street with downcast eyes.
It is needless to point out, that the injunction with respect to looking down, is useless and uncalled for, if the women are never to walk abroad. Likewise the reference to external ornaments too becomes pointless, if women are to appear only before persons mentioned in the verses quoted above. It is allowable for a woman to uncover part of her face, fingers of her hands, soles of her feet, when she feels the necessity of going out. The rest of the body must be concealed before strangers, but before the persons listed in the verses, it is enough that the part from breast to knee remains covered. It is clear then, that the verses quoted above deal with propriety of dress, and forbid women to flirt, in order to gain admirers. On the other hand, they enjoin upon the faithful women modesty of manner, purity of heart and fear of God.
It can be confidently declared that the excellent teachings upon chastity, together with the remedies for incontinence, as contained in Qu’ran, are a peculiarity of Islam. One particular point deserves especial attention. The natural inclination of man is to sexual desire, over which he cannot have full control except by undergoing a thorough transformation. The divine injunction in this respect is, therefore, not that we may look at strange women and their beauty and ornaments, or their gait and dancing, so long as we do it with pure looks, nor that it is lawful for us to listen to their sweet songs, or to the stories of their love and beauty, provided it is done with a pure heart; but that it is never lawful for us, to cast glances at them, whether to lust or otherwise and to listen to their voices, whether with a pure or an impure heart. We are forbidden to do an act, in the doing of which we are not treading upon sure ground. If the eyes are accustomed to look after strange women, there is a fear, lest this practice should, some time, lead to dangerous consequences. That World of God; as revealed in the Glorious Qu’ran, therefore, restrains the carnal desires of man and enjoins upon him, to avoid the occasions, where there is danger of the excitement of the evil passions.
We now advert to another passage in the Qu’ran, where the ‘mothers of the faithful’ are addressed:- “O Wives of the Prophet, you are not as other women. If you fear God, be not too complaisant of speech, lest the man of unhealthy heart should lust after you, but speak with discreet speech. And abide still in your houses, and go not in public, decked as was common in the days of ignorance, but observe prayer and give alms, and obey God and the Apostle: God but desireth to put away all impurity from you. O you the household of the Prophet, and purify you thoroughly. And study what is rehearsed to you in your houses, of the Book of God, and of Wisdom: God is Keen-sighted and Congnisant of all.” [33:32-34]
The wives of the Prophet, who were destined to be patterns for all faithful women, are here given positive injunctions, to fear God, purify their hearts, observe prayer, give alms, obey the Prophet and read constantly the Glorious Qu’ran, - in short to lead a life of purity, devotion and piety. In the sublimity of their thoughts, these noble women were not unmindful of the humbler duties of domestic life. The great lesson which their noble husband taught was that woman’s proper sphere is her house, and the claims of domestic duties should receive her first and best consideration. He set up an ideal before his wives, and through them, to all believing women: it was the ideal of plain living and high thinking.
It is to be remembered, that the wives of the Prophet were all accessible to religious inquiries. Ayesha was, as it were the repository of traditions, and was frequently consulted on matters of religion and rituals. Men came from distant parts of the country and straightway saw the Prophet’s wives, and all of these visitors were certainly not of blameless character. It was quite natural, that the Prophet’s wives should have received guidance with regard to general deportment and propriety of speech. By “discreet speech”, in the above quoted verse, is meant that the Prophet’s wives should speak to these religious inquirers as mothers would do to their sons. The next verse, to which we would like to mention, is called the veil verse, and it occurs further on in the same chapter: “And when you would ask any gift of his wives ask it from behind a veil. Purer will this be for your hearts and for theirs.” [33:53]
According to some commentators, strangers may approach the Prophet’s wives, and talk to them, if they are veiled; and presumably this applies to generality of Muslim women as well. Aiming, as it does, at the heart purification; the verse only forbids too familiar an intercourse between strangers and the Prophet wives. It does not permit the conclusion, that Qu’ran laws are responsible for the fair sex imprisonment.
The occasion of this verse, in accordance with one version, also lends support to the view, that the verse was intended for the Prophet’s wives alone. Omar, who afterwards was elevated to the Caliphate, once happened to come upon the Prophet’s wives, who were still sitting in a mosque in company with many other women. Such a sight was not to Omar’s liking for he was always in favour of the Prophet’s wives seclusion. He there and then exclaimed– “What a happy thing it would have been, if the ‘mothers of the faithful’ had been under veils.” 
 Thus were the wives of the Prophet termed in the Quran.
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