Islam: Women and Society

The New Nation published my article ‘Muslim Society: Reasons for Backwardness’ in January 2004 (interested readers can read the text of the article in website On 18 February 2005 a Bangla translation of the article appeared in a local daily (interested readers can see the text of the article in website A learned lady raised objection to my observation that wife can receive and entertain the male guest of husband in his presence as long as she adheres to the Islamic standards in her dress. In that case male guest will naturally see female host. In support of my view, I quoted eminent Islamic scholars of our time Prof. Dr. Yusuf Al Qaradawi, Dean of the Faculty of Shariah, Qatar Islamic University and Dr. Hassan Turabi, eminent jurist and ideologue of Sudanese Islamic movement. These eminent scholars quoted Hadith Bukhari, Hadith Muslim and Muwatta Imam Malik in support of their opinion [Prof. Dr. Yusuf Al Qaradawi, The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, American Trust Publications, Indianapolis, U.S.A., pp 168-169; Dr. Hassan Turabi, Women in Islam & Muslim Society, Milestones Publishers, U.K., 1963, p 123 and Jeffery Lang, Even Angles Ask, amana publications, Maryland, U.S.A., p115].

The other objection raised by the learned lady was my observation that the Saudi women use veil, they cover their face, but other scholars of Islam view that such veiling or the covering of the face destroys women’s personality, even some think that veiling is harmful because it impairs women’s vision. It is also harmful for it creates obstacle in expression and hindrance to breadth.       

In that article, I emphasized the importance of female participation in the mosque for the advancement of the Muslim society and commented that barring women from the main prayer space is not Islamic, they more aptly reflect the age of ignorance or jahiliyah.         

I am raising all these issues once again after so many days because situation in Bangladesh after the writing of my article in 2004 has not improved much and I am rather pained by certain development in this regard.  It seems some people are not prepared to listen anything new even if it is consistent with the teachings of Islam for some people in our society believe that our earlier scholars have explored all the gems of the Quran and Hadith and the new generation has nothing to add.   

Recently my friend Mohammad Ashraf Husain, editor of literary monthly Notun Safar, narrated me that he along with his wife and daughters were out in Dhaka city and it was time for Asar prayer. Brother Ashraf prayed Asar in the mosque while his wife and daughters waited in the street until he came back after he offered his prayer as women are not welcomed in the mosque. Mrs. Afroz Anjum is holding a Ph. D in literature. She and the girls could offer Asar prayer after returning home and that was too late and they had to offer Asar Kadha. Who is responsible for their being late in Asar prayer? Is not denying women access to the mosque a jahiliyah practice? During the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) women prayed in the mosque and they were not segregated in watertight compartments.   

I shall now narrate another incident. Recently, I have been in a post marriage reception party in Dhaka city along with my wife, a professor of economics in a government college in Dhaka city. The bridegroom is a barrister settled in London and the bride is an Australian graduate in Information Technology settled in Sidney. Both bridegroom and bride are Bangladeshi by birth. In the party, sitting arrangements for men and women have been separated by using curtain. The entry points of the male and female sections were totally separated and there was no way for a husband to communicate with his wife to depart from the reception party. Those couples who had two mobile phones, one set each with husband and wife, were communicating with each other so that they could leave the party for home. Those couples who had no mobile telephones at the both ends were finding it difficult to communicate with each other. Incidentally, neither my wife nor I had any mobile telephone with us. What to do? I, therefore, partially removed the screen at the entry point of the female section, far off from the actual place where the ladies are really sitting, to locate my wife but I met vehement opposition from a minor girl of say 12-13 years, the age of my grand daughter, in decent Hijab. I am currently running sixty. I think such segregation of women in watertight compartment is jahiliyah, a pre–Prophetic culture of the days of ignorance. Even today during Hajj a husband faces no difficulty in moving with wife or faces no resistance from other women while trying to locate his wife as happened in this post marriage reception.

Some people over emphasize Hijab, sometimes even give more emphasis than Iman, faith. It is, in my view, quite wrong to use the first outward and visible sign of a Muslim woman, the Hijab, as a clear indicator of whether she is a good or a bad Muslim. Some people also seem to take the view that for women’s dress, the black the better- if she is in black from head to toe she must be highly righteous. If she wears socks too she must be even more pious and virtuous. On the other hand, if she wears western clothes she must be a very bad Muslim. This is very simplistic analysis. It does not take into account the family background from which she has come. It may be that nobody in her family circle ever wore Hijab. It does not take into account the most important factor as to where she spent fourteen years, the age when nearly everyone is influenced, while studying in secondary and higher secondary levels before entering the university for higher education. It did not take into consideration the fact that she studied in English medium schools where western dress is a common phenomenon. Girls in such educational institutions wore jeans and T-shirts. It does not take into account the strong influence of the media, the advertisement business and the youth culture, which might have dominated her thinking throughout adolescence. It does not take into consideration the fact that in some parts of the world – and not only in non-Muslim countries- a woman in Hijab would find it difficult or impossible to get a job or even a place in a higher educational institution. All these factors and several others affect a Muslim girl’s attitude to dress now a day.

Can we really say that all such women and girls are bad Muslims? From my own experience of knowing Muslim women from many parts of the world (I have worked in the U. N. as international civil servant), I have observed that some who dress decently, but do not wear anything resembling Hijab, could have a greater love of Allah, a greater devotion to prayers and a greater degree of sympathy and kindness to their fellow human beings than many who wear complete Hijab but have some other defects which, because they are not visible, may not be really noticed.

We should not, therefore, judge and identify women by their outer appearances only but welcome all Muslim women to the Islamic gatherings without conditions of dress, and without constantly questioning and harassing them about it. It is our duty to ensure that every Muslim woman is aware of the requirements of Islamic dress, the reasons for it and their importance. We should also encourage her to obey the dress code of Islam, using the Islamic principle of Hikmah, wisdom and patience. It also helps if we can make available modern styles of dress that the ordinary woman finds acceptable which also comply with Islamic principles. Ultimately she must make her own decision. We have to understand that every human being is on a journey and passes through different stages of spiritual and intellectual development. If we want such women to come close to mainstream Muslim society and learn more about Islam, we have to be very cautious in our approach and understand their mental makeup as are now. If we reject them or show disrespect to them or show signs of looking down on them, they are likely to avoid us even revolt. That would be a loss to them and to the Ummah. We have to encourage those in full-Hijab and those in semi-Hijab and those not in Hijab.

As said earlier, some people over emphasize Hijab, sometimes even give more emphasis than Iman, faith and insist that women not in Hijab should not be invited or allowed to attend Islamic programs and social gatherings. This is against the principle of Dawah, Islamic call and guidance nay the preaching of Islam  

But why should we bother people and make a fuss about Hijab. There are a number of other things about which people are negligent. Even in the matter of dress, it is prescribed in the Hadith for Muslim men to cover themselves in public from navel to knee. Yet Muslim boys and young men come out for sports in brief shorts (for example while playing football) that do not reach even half way down the thigh. No one says such young men are violating the principles of Islam and should not attend Islamic activities.

Moreover, those young boys playing football wearing brief shorts are directly exposed to millions of viewers  in the play ground in addition to television spectators than beauty contestants or fashion girls for the later although exposed to television viewers are not directly exposed to millions of  viewers in the stage as in the case of former. But this is hardly discussed.

Then again, girls attending English medium schools wearing T-shirt or trouser are severely criticized for exposure of their breasts, but young boys wearing skin tight pants exposing their testis are not at all censured although in this case boys deserve equal condemnation like girls. It seems society is more tolerant towards the wrongdoings of boys than girls.

I am not saying that one wrongdoing justifies another wrongdoing. What I am trying to point out is that just as the young men are not conscious of violating the Islamic code of dress by wearing brief shorts and skin tight pants, so is the Muslims girls unconsciously got to used to inadequate dressing mainly during their time in secondary and higher secondary educational institutions. There is no reason to be severe with women yet lenient with men. There is no room for double standard in Islam.

Finally, as regards full-Hijab, I would like to quote the opinion of Sheikh Adil Salahi, an eminent Arab Islamic scholar who is the Director of Islamic Foundation UK, English translator of Sayyid Qutb’s monumental commentary of the Quran- ‘Fi Zilal al Quran’- ‘In the Shade of the Quran’ and author of another 850 page mammoth work ‘Muhammad: Man and Prophet’. Commenting on the verse 24 (Sura An Nur): 30-31 wherein both men and women have been asked to lower their look when fall on the opposite sex Sheikh Adil Salahi in his regular weekly column ‘Our Dialogue’ in Saudi daily Arab News wrote:

The instruction of the verses quoted above is that both men and women are required to keep their eye cast down, so that when they meet each other, neither should men stare at women nor women at men. The natural question that arises is why man should lower his gaze if the face of woman is totally covered? From the text of the verses it is clearly evident that the face of the woman is not to be covered and, therefore, man has been advised to lower his look.

Article prepared on 1 April 2006.