The 'Iron Curtain'
Apart from the elite, the common
Muslim woman had to work in the fields, go to the markets and thus
be exposed to a large number of men. In order not to be 'seduced' by
women's beauty and active sexuality, the Muslims developed another
system of seclusion. They wanted to make sure that women's 'sexual
charms' would not be exposed if they did have to leave their houses.
Thus they introduced the hijab (the veil), and justified it by
reciting verses from the Koran:
Believers, do not enter the houses of the
Prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time, unless you
are given leave. But if you are invited, enter; and when you have
eaten, disperse. Do not engage in familiar talk, for this would
annoy the Prophet and he would be ashamed to bid you go; but if
the truth Allah is not ashamed. If you ask his wives for anything,
speak to them from behind a curtain. This is more chaste for your
hearts and their hearts.17
However, one cannot understand koranic passages
without learning about their historical context. According to one
version of the background to this particular verse, Muhammed had
just married Zaynab, his adopted son's former wife. His footman and
Companion Anas ibn Malik had invited many to the wedding supper and
a multitude attended. According to al-Tabari, Muhammed was anxious
to be alone with his newly-wed and became impatient since some of
his guests had no intention of leaving. When they finally had left,
Muhammed stepped into Zaynab's room and beyond the curtain (sitr)
and the 'verse of the hijab' descended.18 It was
thus revealed by 'Allah' because Muhammed wanted to consummate their
wedding in Zaynab's bed and was irritated because of the delay.
These verses do not, in fact, give us
satisfactory reasons to assume that they are referring to Muslim
women's compulsion to be veiled. They only mention that when a man
speaks to Muhammed's wives, he should not see them when doing so.
Hijab literally means 'to hide' and is used in the Koran for example
to express the dwelling of 'Allah' from the eyes of men. This
concept also means to separate a space in two, and in Muhammed's
case the hijab separated Zaynab's room between him and Anas, who was
standing inside the door.19 What Muhammed was
saying can be interpreted as: 'Between my wives and you there is a
veil and I am the only one allowed to enter therein.' Beyond the
veil was his household -separate from public space. Muhammed's
modest and understandable demand for privacy has been interpreted as
the complete opposite to the original intention. It might also be
that the Muslims' desire to marry Muhammed's wives after his death,
which seems to have been the case, was one of the main reasons the
verse of the hijab 'descended'. The Muslims' fear of women's active
sexuality, as believed by al-Ghazali and perhaps other early
Muslims, has caused men to deprive women of their fundamental rights
as practised during Muhammed's time.
All this seems to have nothing to do with
a face-covering and refers only to Muhammed's wives. Women in his
time, even at his Farewell pilgrimage, did not wear a veil and most
certainly did not live in women's abodes. Since Muslim laws have to
be justified by Muhammed in order to establish their validity, it is
hard to explain the Umayyads' introduction of - and later
institution - of the hijab,20 by other means than
to refer to the culture of medieval Syria or Iraq, as its source.
However the contemporary practice of the hijab, it seems, did not
originate from Muhammed, although the advocates of those
subordinating systems claim it did. As the Muslim scholar Mazhar
Khan states: "These claims, however, are not supported by any
evidence, derived either from the Holy Quran and the Sunna of the
Prophet... or from the social life and condition of the early
Muslims."21 If neither the Koran nor
Muhammed's sunna are the justification for those discriminating
methods, why did the Muslims embark upon them in the first place?
The Muslims consider everything Muhammed did as sunna. Concerning
marriages and sexuality, his own words are clear:
Marriage is of my sunna; whoever refrains
from my sunna refrains from me.
So it seems those who 'refrained' from the
sunna in order to discriminate against women were not 'of Muhammed',
but followed unauthorised innovations (bid'a). However, since there
is no doubt that Muhammed's marriages were to be considered as sunna,
at least in theory, his relationships with women are of vital
Marriage is of my sunna; whoever likes my
fitrah (natural disposition), let him follow my sunna. Whoever
refrains from my sunna, he is not of me, and marriage is part of
my sunna; whoever loves me, let him follow my sunna.22
17 The Koran 33:53.
18 Fatima Mernissi, The
Veil and the Male Elite (Massachusetts, 1991), 85-88.
19 Mernissi, The Veil, 92-95.
20 Mernissi, The Veil,
21 Khan, Purdah and
22 Quoted in Farah, Marriage
and Sexuality, 48.