One of the aspects of women's subordination in Islamic countries is their confinement to their houses. This issue has occasionally been subjected to severe criticism, on the basis that such seclusion can hardly be justified by either the Koran or Muhammed's sunna.2. The Hijab
According to tradition, Muhammed referred indirectly to the woman's confinement in her quarter of the house (zenina). He said: "I am indeed a jealous man and none is free from jealousy save one whose heart is degenerate. The only way to avoid jealousy is by having no man enter upon her [the wife] and by preventing her from going into the marketplaces."12 Another argument is taken from sura 33.
Wives of the Prophet, you are not like other women. If you fear Allah , do not be too complaisant in your speech, lest the lecherous-hearted should lust after you. Show discretion in what you say. Stay in your homes and do not display your finery as women do in the days of ignorance [pre-Islamic time]. Attend your prayers, give alms and obey Allah and his apostle.13This verse has been used to justify women's confinement in their houses, yet, it is not as it seems. The Arabic word for 'stay' is 'qrn' which most jurists have understood as 'qarna' which can be translated as stay. However, many jurists and historians, including the authentic al-Tabari, have understood 'qrn' as 'qirna' which means 'to be honourable' or 'quiet'. The verse of women's seclusion might thus be translated as; 'be honourable in your homes', which should bring radical changes to women's status in Islam. Also, one cannot conclude otherwise than that those verses are referring to Muhammed's wives only, not women in general. According to the Muslim scholar Mazhar Khan, reliable evidences point out that women's seclusion was introduced a long time after the death of Muhammed and his Companions, and thus not practised during early Islam. The
system of female exclusion from social life, first appeared among the ruling aristocracies of the late Umayyads. The causes were their increasing profligacy, unrestricted polygamy and concubinage and the inevitable male jealousy and prudery to conceal his innumerable wives and concubines from public eyes. This was the genesis of the medieval Purdah institution of harim... Final steps were taken by the Abbasid Caliph Qadir b'Illah (991-1030 AD), who proclaimed female seclusion as an Islamic institution by his royal edicts.14The system of confinement of women in their houses, as we have seen, does not have a substantial koranic support. Indeed, there is a koranic verse which is not often quoted, it reads:
And for those of your women who are guilty of lewdness [usually translated as adultery or fornication] call to witness four of you against them. And if they testify (to the truth of the allegation) then confine them to the houses until death take them or (until) appoint for them a way (through new legislation).Thus, confinement is justified, if the woman has committed adultery, and four witnesses testify against her. However, Muhammed added: "And as for the two of you who are guilty thereof, punish them both. And if they repent and improve, then let them be. Lo! Allah is Relenting, Merciful." 15
Muhammed, who in these passages, was speaking out of his own reason and intelligence, ordered his followers to punish the adulterer and the adulteress who have been caught, except if 'Allah' would reveal new legislation. And he indeed did, and in sura 24:2-5 it says, that they should be scourged with hundred strokes, but if they repent, they should be pardoned. Thus, the Koran gives only one legal passage that absolutely concerns women's confinement, and that only if she commits adultery and does not repent. If this is the enforcement in Islam, there must be a lot of adultery going on.
Thus, if women's seclusion is a sound Islamic theory, which it seems not to be, its maker was not very practical. In most Islamic countries the bulk of Muslims cannot afford to confine women to the zenina. That is especially true in villages and towns where agriculture and small industries are the main sources of income. In fact, the women's detainment in their houses is an elite institution suitable only for the upper part of society. The conclusion must then be that most men are bound to come into contact with a large number of women and be 'victimised' by their beauty and sexuality.
Al-Ghazali seems to support seclusion with enthusiasm. He quotes the Prophet on women's status and comes to the following conclusion:
She should remain in the inner sanctum of her house and tend to her spinning; she should not enter and exit excessively; she should speak infrequently with her neighbours and visit them only when the situation requires it; she should safeguard her husband in his absence and in his presence; she should seek his pleasure in all affairs and refrain from betraying him through herself or his possessions; she should not leave his home without permission, she should conceal herself in worn-out clothes and choose the less frequented places rather than the main avenues and market places...16If this is the traditional status of women as advocated by Islam, one can understand why Muslim feminists have taken a tough stand against the classical interpretation. As one perceives their situation, women were made prisoners in their own homes and denied the minimum freedom of movement. This also relates to women's neo-Islamic dressing.