The Rebel Road…

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Purdah: a religious injunction?

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“A burqa, you know, is something a person outside sees. You are inside it. You do not see it, or think it is strange. It is there to stop others from seeing you, not you from watching them. You see everything. Inside, you feel free, all alone with yourself. You do not have any impertinent eyes coming in when you want to be left alone” (Molteno, M: A Language in Common, London: The Women’s Press, 1987).

“Purdah has been instituted in society for almost as long as there have been patriarchal divides between males and females. It was fully established during the 10th and 11th centuries AD, sanctified by the theologians of the Abbasid Caliphate” (Khan, M: Purdah and Polygamy, Peshawar, Imperial Press, 1972, p. 17). Today, it has become such an important part of Muslim culture that even a non-Muslim woman is taken as a Muslim if she wears a veil.

Burqa is a form of purdah. It is an attire that not only covers the female body, but also the face, sometimes even the eyes, depending on the type of burqa. “When women observe this custom, it means that from the age of puberty they mix only with near relatives and women friends in private, and must wear the veil or the burqa in public” — (Burqa-Inside…free). “It is believed that the purdah was existent in India since ancient Aryan times” (Altekar 167-170) (Indra 73) (Shamram 24) (Ojha-Culture 66-67). They may not have worn burqas in the current format, but the Hindu veil that is a precursor to burqa was introduced by the Hindus thousands of years ago. This is proved in Gangayadeva’s coins (one of the Kalachuri rulers of Dahala, the country around Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh 1019-1042 AD) …“the female is shown as having a veil on her head, which hangs down to the shoulders and upper arms” (Gupta coins, p. 39) (Shanker, Deb: Origins of the veil, 2002).

Today, the vast majority of females who were previously using the traditional burqa have switched to convenient forms of purdah. My research focuses on whether burqa is a religious compulsion or not. For this, we need to know the teachings of the Quran and the viewpoint of the Islamic scholars. I believe that burqa is more of a cultural feature rather than a religious requirement, and I will use concrete arguments and examples to prove that people’s attitude towards burqa have changed during the last four decades. The basic reasons for this transition are education, economic necessity (the need for more women to go out and look for work), and exposure to the electronic media.

The best example of complete purdah or burqa is practiced in Afghanistan. The walled City of Delhi is the largest Muslim population in India and the largest number of burqa-clad women are found there. In the small towns and villages of Turkey, veiling spread rapidly in the post-World War II period. However, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk criticised the veil in Turkey, degrading it, calling it a hindrance for development. Iran is the only non-communist country ever to outlaw the veil under Reza Shah in 1936. Even at the time of the partition of India and Pakistan, women used to wear burqa, but the majority discarded it after some years.

“Beyond the Near East, the practice of hiding one’s face and largely living in seclusion appeared in classical Greece, in the Byzantine Christian world, in Persia and in India among upper caste Rajput women”. (Women in the Muslim World. (2002). The Burqa, Chadar, Veil and Hijaab! A Historical Perspective On Islamic Dress. Women in World History curriculum. Retrieved May 7th, 2005, http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/essay-01.html). Muslims in the beginning were not strict about female purdah. Islamic history shows that only a part of the urban citizens used veils while the majority of the people, the rural population did not.

“By the middle of the 19th century, intellectuals and scholars began to talk about changing the status of women in society. Qasim Amin, who wrote the Emancipation of Woman, called for new interpretations of the Quran concerning limited divorce, polygamy and wearing the veil”. (Women in the Muslim World. (2002). The Burqa, Chadar, Veil and Hijaab! A Historical Perspective On Islamic Dress. Women in World History curriculum. Retrieved May 7th, 2005, http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/essay-01.html). Nationalist movements also had a say in the rejection of the veil. The intellectuals were of the opinion that by altering the role of women they could prove to the colonial rulers that they (the colonised) were ready for independence. Women were encouraged to join nationalist parties. Due to this, the educated women in Turkey began to go out without a face veil, but with a hijab (a scarf that covers the head and the neck).

Today, however, with the changing attitudes towards burqa as a form of purdah, women have shifted to the modest covering of the hijab. The argument over the appropriate form of purdah continues amongst the religious scholars and feminist groups. For example, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) in Pakistan, says that no dress should be imposed upon women as a necessity.

So far, we have looked at the history and the changing attitudes of people towards burqa. We now need to look at what the Quran says about the covering of the face by females. For an Islamic perspective and literature review, I will rely heavily on the writings of Mohammad Mazharuddin Siddiqui, in his book Women in Islam (Lahore Imperial Print Shop, 1990).

We know that purdah is binding on women in Islam, but the question is: what form of purdah? The Quran has several passages explaining the importance of purdah.

“O Prophet (PBUH), say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down over them, their jilaab (over-garment); this will be more proper that they may be known and thus will not be molested” (Siddiqui, M. M: Women in Islam, p. 123).

Scholars differ in their opinion regarding the exact meaning of the word ‘jilaab’. “According to Alsui, the author of Ruh-al-Ma’ani, ‘jilaab’ means an over-garment a woman wears over her ordinary clothes to cover her body from the neck to the feet” (Siddiqui, M. M: Women in Islam, p. 125). This is understood by some scholars to mean that Islam requires ladies to cover their faces as well.

“And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and not display their ornaments except what appears thereof…” (Siddiqui, M. M: Women in Islam, p. 123).

The question whether women going out of their houses should uncover their faces depends on the interpretation of “what appears thereof…”

“According to an authority, Ibn Umar, ‘what appears thereof…’ means face, hands, and signet. He believes that if women cover their hands, they cannot buy and sell; if they do not expose their face, they cannot act as witness nor seek the hand of any man in marriage and if they do not uncover their feet, they cannot go outdoors” (Siddiqui, M. M: Women in Islam, p. 127).

The parts of a woman’s body required to be covered are called the ‘satar’ in Islam. Scholars like Imam Shafi, Imam Ahmed B. Hanbal, Imam Abu Hanifah and Imam Abu Yusaf, all agree that ‘satar’ does not include the face, hands and feet and hence can be left uncovered.

(to be continued)

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