Purdah - The Hijab & The Veil
The teachings of Islam concerning hijab (the veil) and segregation of man and woman is sometimes a difficult concept to understand in Western society. This is because of the widespread and erroneous notion that observing hijab is a heavy restriction imposed on Muslim women. In fact, the very opposite is true. You will find that hijab is a means of protecting women, and providing them with freedom from many societal ills. In fact, the hijab is often identified as a means of liberation for women giving them full rights over themselves and drawing them nearer to God Al-Mighty. The word "purdah" or covering is also used to describe the concept and the practice of hijab.
Maintaining Moral Condition of Society
Islam provides guidance not only for individuals, but also lays down rules for the good of all society. In this case, the institution of hijab guards the moral condition of society. Muslim women share with men the responsibility of upholding the moral standard of society. The Holy Qur'an has laid down that one of the methods that men and women are to use to achieve that goal is hijab. It says:
"Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do." (24:31)
"Say to the believing women that they restrain their looks and guard their private parts, and that they display not their beauty or their embellishment except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head coverings over their bosoms....." (24:32)
The verse goes on to list close relatives from whom observing hijab is not necessary.
From these verses it is made clear that both men and women are to conduct themselves with modesty and propriety at all times, and especially when in each other's presence. This teaching is based on the fact that Islam recognizes that "prevention is the better part of a cure." So segregation of the sexes is prescribed so that situations which cannot be controlled afterwards, are not allowed to develop in the first place. In this way, erosion of moral values can be prevented, and society is safeguarded from problems such as adultery, teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
The Holy Qur'an requires that Muslim women dress modestly, cover their heads and wear an outer garment to conceal their beauty from strangers. However, you must understand that this physical covering is the only first step to developing hijab. The true and full observance of hijab/purdah is achieved when "veiling" extends to a man or woman's mind and heart. This means that one should veil or shield his/her mind and heart from impure and immoral thoughts when in contact with the opposite sex. One's thoughts, words and actions should reflect a sisterly love and respect towards fellow beings. This behavior leads to one's own moral upliftment, and also creates an atmosphere where men and women, instead of resenting and degrading each other, treat each other with respect and understanding.
A woman who is following the rules of hijab in her dress and actions is not likely to be treated in a disrespectful way by men. Thus hijab/purdah provides Muslim women with freedom from some of the problems that women in Western society are facing today. In Islam woman is not regarded as a "sex object," nor is she exploited or harassed in this demeaning manner. As you are probably aware, various feminist movements are trying to deal with these issues today, sometimes with little success.
Islam has undoubtedly given woman dignity and honor through hijab, and has provided a protection for her so that she can pursue her activities more freely. This gives Muslim women peace of mind. You may have noticed that most Muslim women who follow the practice of hijab appear to be more relaxed and at ease with themselves. This is because Islam has reduced the importance of physical appearance as a mark of self-esteem
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A Muslim woman is free to develop in herself other talents, and does not have to rely on her physical beauty to achieve what she wants. At the same time when a woman practices hijab/purdah in the true manner, she fulfills her responsibility to society and gains satisfaction in the knowledge that she is able to gain nearness to Allah.
The Islamic veil is condemned by non-Muslims and regarded as a burden and a restriction which has been imposed on Muslim women to deprive them on them of their freedom; it is seenas if it was a chain with which the cruel Muslim man has tied his poor wife or daughter or sister of any other woman under his rule, because of his selfishness or jealousy.
But if one looks with a deeper glance on this subject, it will be found that the veiling of women is not something that Islam has invented. The previous revealed scriptures also contain some traces of similar teachings and Islam came only to complete and perfect them.
The revealed religions teach women to be modest in clothes and actions. If we study the Bible we will find that it teaches that modesty and reverence demanded the veiling of the face of the woman and that the veil was used by ladies of high rank.
In the Old Testament we read about what Rebekah did before Isaac in the following passage:
When Re-bek’ah raised her eyes, she caught sight of Isaac and she swung herself down from off the camel. Then she said to the servant ‘who is that walking in the field to meet us?’ and the servant said ‘It is my master’ And she proceeded to take a headcloth and to cover herself. (Genesis: 24: 64 and 65)
In the New Testament we also read:
But every woman that prays or prophesies with her head uncovered shames her head for it is one and the same as if she were a (woman) with a shaved head. For it a woman does not cover herself let her also be shorn; but if it is disgraceful for woman to be shorn or shaved, let her be covered. (1 Corinthians: 11: 5, 6)
Islam confers on women all the political and social rights, which man enjoys. She is entitled to all the privileges bestowed upon man. Beside worldly matters, women are also equal to men in the spiritual sense. Allah says in the Quran:
Surely, men who submit themselves to GOD and women who submit themselves to HIM, and believing men and believing women, and obedient men and obedient women, and truthful men and truthful women, and men steadfast in their faith and steadfast women,
and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their chastity and women who guard their chastity and men who remember ALLAH much and women who remember HIM – ALLAH has prepared for all of them forgiveness and a great reward (33:36)
This verse makes it clear that Muslim women stand on the same level with Muslim men and that they can attain to all those spiritual heights to which men can attain. At several places in the Holy Qur'an, believing men and believing women are addressed in the same language and are made equally subject to the same commandments and entitled to the same rights and privileges. Only their duties are different because their spheres of activity are different.
When the Qur'an speaks about the souls of human beings, it does not differentiate between man and woman.
O ye people ! fear your Lord who created you from a single soul and of its kind created its mate, and from them twain spread many men and women; and fear ALLAH, in Whose name you appeal to one another, and fear him particularly respecting ties of kinship. Verily Allah watches over you (4:2)
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