A FOREIGN journalist friend working in Pakistan was perplexed after visiting the family of Salmaan Taseer’s assassin near Islamabad. She was intrigued that the men from the assassin’s family while talking to her did not look at her even once.
She is not the first westerner who has mentioned this, as many regard this either as an insult or a sign that the other person does not like her. This is also unlike what the same woman experiences in the streets when nearly everybody stares at her. So how does one explain this phenomenon?
The Holy Quran says that “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do” (24:30). It also states: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of shame; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. … (24:31).
The cited verse clarifies many things. For instance, it is not stated that the women should cover their faces. If their faces had to be covered then there was no reason for them and for the men to lower their gaze. Secondly, they are directed not to display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear. This direction can be interpreted in many ways. One interpretation could be not to ostensibly display one’s beauty and ornaments but the woman need not conceal what is ordinarily visible.
Thirdly, bosoms must be covered with a veil. This perhaps explains the dupatta in South Asia which provides adequate veiling. Another verse (33:59) says almost the same thing that “believing women … should cast their outer garments over their persons (when outside): that is most convenient; that they should be known (as such) and not molested….” This condition, too, is relaxed in the case of men or older women.
The question is where does the head-to-toe-covering come from? It is clearly an attempt by men to subjugate women and keep them within strict limits. Otherwise, there is nothing in the above verses which can lead to such a strict interpretation.
Islamic hijab is best seen in the ehraam of women pilgrims, with the body covered by loose clothing and the face clearly visible, as ordained by God.
Women are not required to observe the kind of purdah many say they must in our society. Modestly dressed, they can work alongside men and appear in photographs and in the electronic media. Ogling is not permitted for reasons of decency and modesty. The Holy Quran in another verse (33:32), says that the wives of the Prophet (PBUH) are not like any of the other women and in the next verse (33:33) tells them to “…stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former times of ignorance; and establish regular prayer, and give regular charity; and obey God and His Apostle. And Allah only wishes to remove all abomination from you, ye members of the family, and to make you pure and spotless.”
The wives of the Prophet were thus the only exception to the general rule of veiling applied to believing women. Could one then argue that the condition is inapplicable to ordinary women whom the Saudi government, for instance, tries to restrict and not even permits to drive? The last part of the cited verse (24:31), along with the directions to the Prophet’s wives not to make a dazzling display clearly prohibits women from striking “…their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments….” Does this mean that there is a case for outlawing dance or even walking in such a fashion that women’s hidden ornaments are heard?
I think not, and here’s why: dance recitals and catwalks held in many Muslim countries are hardly the scenes of lewd behaviour. Where such behaviour ensues, there are laws to deal with rowdiness and those laws are enforced, with men and women enjoying equal freedoms. Thus modern-day laws have ensured that vice is not the necessary outcome of striking parity between men and women in what they do in a public space.
This is an indication that times have changed and human societies have evolved to a degree where segregation can be a matter of personal choice but need not be the norm, as is the case in the vast majority of Muslim countries today. A strict enforcement of purdah by the state, as done in Saudi Arabia, Iran and during the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, is no longer required to keep order in society. Women today are educated and work alongside qualified men in professional capacities.
An unsaid code of decent behaviour in the public sphere is observed without any coercion in most Muslim societies where the state does not force women behind a head-to-toe purdah. Therefore, it should not be a matter for the state to be concerned with, but that of the individual’s choice.