To Veil or Not To Veil...
My romantic fantasy of veiled woman in Arabic tradition as mysterious and intriguing figures has suffered a “reality split” from current studies of Middle East cultures. The cold hard truth is that my romantic fantasy was... a romantic fantasy.
Islamic law is based on previous Arab tradition, which unfortunately denied women most of their basic rights. The belief that women are inferior to men, and that they need men to protect them, underlies not only the Koran, but the collection of other religious scholars’ writings. Such writings are consulted, in varying degrees, by the ulama, or venerated religious judges, and this explains the variations in interpretation–from conservative (using the Koran only) to more liberal (using additional learned writings as supplements). Picture, if you will, the 20th century Congregationalist and the Born-Again Christian interpretations of the Bible.
The coming of Islam did improve the overall status of women in specific areas, even though many sections of the Koran seem to be addressed primarily to men. “Allah desires to make things light for you, for man was created a weak creature.” [The Koran, Sura 4, “On Women”]
Islamic law recognized a woman’s right to choose her own marriage partner and set limits on the practice of male polygamy (an Arab tribal tradition). A man can have as many as four wives if he can provide for and treat them equally.
Marriage was defined as a contract between a man and a woman, or a man and a woman’s legal guardian [emphasis added]; the required dowry was to be paid directly to the bride, not to her male relatives. Women are entitled to inherit wealth and, further, married women should be able to control their own money and property. This was a huge change from the traditional Arab practice of a man’s owning not only the woman but all her wealth upon marriage.
Husbands must support their wives financially during marriage and even for a certain period after a divorce; “the divorced woman shall not be thrown out on the street or forcibly detained in the house.” In addition, there are specific recommendations for attaining a divorce, including a cooling-off period and working with an intermediary (a kind of couples counseling).
However, such decrees did not significantly change the dominant position of men in Muslim society. The Koran describes men as a degree higher than women in rights and responsibilities; also, it requires women to be obedient to their husbands. Men are permitted to divorce their wives without cause [emphasis added] and to deny women custody rights over children who have reached a certain age.
As Islam spread during and after the 7th century AD, it gradually absorbed some of the custom of the conquered peoples, including the practice of veiling and secluding of women. Seclusion in this case meant limiting women to the company of other women and close male relatives in their home or confining them in separate female living quarters.
Although veiling and seclusion are not specifically stipulated in most Islamic sources, some Muslim scholars have used passages from the Koran and the collection of Mohammed’s subsequent traditions to justify such practices. “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 for what must ordinarily appear; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands.” ["The Book of Light," 24:31]
The issue of a wife accused of infidelity is handled thus: “Bring four witnesses from you [supposedly all witnesses were men] and if they testify to the whoredom, shut those women up in the houses till death take them... but if they repent and amend, turn away from them.” [Sura 4]
Through the centuries, as new situations arose, Islamic jurists and scholars have added learned opinions to the basic tenets of the Koran. One can hope that what is–or will be in future–added to the body of written opinions on women’s rights will be increasingly less repressive and more open to liberal and female-empowering interpretation.