What are your views about hijab?

The abaya is a traditional garment which is often seen today as an *Islamic* dress. For a universal religion like Islam (unlike some culture-specific religions like Sikhism) abaya would be restrictively monolithic. But historically speaking abaya is no more Islamic than a kundoora or thob.

Islam came to the Bedouins of Arabia and obviously it came to people who dressed in a specific manner. To demand that all Muslims wear what those Bedouins wore to look Muslim and feel Muslim is imprisoning the colourful spirit of Islam more so because those Bedouins never wore an abaya or even the modern headscarf.

Historically both men and women wore headgears probably as protection against harsh weather conditions much before Islam came to Arabia. Elite Jewish women veiled their faces revealing only one eye (the evil left one to see their way) because they were too good to be seen by the mortal eyes.

Both men and women wore an outer garment much like the contemporary bisht. Jewish men and women clothes differed from one another because Jewish laws like Muslim laws forbid men and women to wear similar clothes. Ancient Hebrew garments for both men and women consisted of the Inner Garment, the Outer Tunic or Robe, the Girdle, the Outer Garment or Mantle, and the Headdress. The girdles were sometimes made of silk which was then prohibited for Muslim men. The outer garment (kesut in Hebrew and khumur in Arabic) had different styles for men and women. All outer garments were long to reach the ankles and had a hood for women or ended at the middle of the calf for men which continued in Islam as the sitr for men. A picture in this link shows typical ancient Jewish garments for women between the 4th and the 6th AD.

However, the pagan women often either wore deep necklines with open collars or left their breasts bare. In contemporary times this seems ridiculous, but there was nothing abnormal about such practices in ancient Arabia, both before and after Islam. Arabian prostitutes particularly covered their faces (to maintain anonymity) but left their chests bare (to show the ‘goods’) as can be seen from the famous painting of Tamar and Judah. Similarly another painting shows Minoan women with bare chests comfortably playing a board game.

It is almost impossible to replicate the exact clothing of pre and early Islamic Arabia but historical studies suggest they were indeed very different from contemporary clothing and are sometimes incomprehensible because we cannot imagine the complexities of what a garment entailed for men and women. For illustrative purposes, you can watch this very interesting short clip which shows a Palestinian woman putting on a traditional Arab dress in 1920. After almost 90 years Palestinian women today wear very different clothes which are hardly as complicated. Imagine how different clothes must have been 1400 years ago.

What we know for certainty is that both men and women wore long robes and some sort of head covering which was traditional/cultural rather than religious. For example, Jewish men and women covered their heads according to Jewish law (laws related to ancient Jewish cultural practices) rather than Torah law (laws related to practices as laid down by the Torah).

Look at this picture of 20th century Bedouin women. All women loosely cover their hair indicating a cultural practice rather than strict law that not a strand of hair must be visible. Or this one in which women wear their hair like horns and keep them uncovered. When Islam came to Arabia, Arabs continued benign cultural practices and some religious practices which were beneficial to society, building  new religious norms in the process which are now called Islamic practices. What we fail to accept and realise today is that Islam did not come out of nothing. It is a practical religion which modified the ways of life that already existed in Arabia. By no means did Islam declare that all pagan, Christian and Jewish practices were immediately invalid, but those practices were continuously revised and modified.

Elite Jewish women who converted to Islam were allowed to keep veiling their faces so that they did not suddenly feel odd about moving within the society with uncovered faces. But they were prohibited from veiling their faces while praying or doing umra/Haj because in the eyes of Allah all are equal whether they are slaves or the elite. The revelation for women to cover came down in Medina after interaction with the rich Jews of the city and it must have given the new Muslim women a sense of pride to cover themselves like the elite Jewish Arabs “so that they may be recognised.”

It is a known fact that slave women were neither allowed to cover their faces (even if they were Muslim) like the elite women, nor were they allowed to wear the khumar (or the outer garment) so as to be recognized as slaves and not be confused as free women. They of course tied their hair whichever way their found comfortable and wore tunics to cover their chests. Some slaves didn’t even cover their breasts. Men, too, continued to cover their heads and even faces during sand storms (there is evidence that suggests that even the Prophet covered his face at times).

What Islam strongly prohibited (and which came as a Quranic law) was for free Muslim women to expose their breasts which was a common pagan practice. Many pagan female idols were created with large bare breasts and women are documented to have exposed their chests to cheer pagan soldiers going to war and while circumambulating the pre-Islamic Kaaba which housed their idols. Women also commonly uncovered their chests inside their homes. By the 16th and 17th centuries Muslim women in Spain had already started wearing what closely resembles the Iranian chador as seen in the “Conversion of the Moors” sculpture at the Cathedral of Granada.

All women in ancient Arabia wore some sort of outer garment called khumar while in public. I believe that the Islamic law is for a woman to use that garment to cover her chest – her “adornments”. Wearing some sort of headcovering is an Arabian cultural practice which existed before Islam and continued even afterwards. While urban Muslim men have modified their clothing and no more wear the headcovering or difficult and volumous robes, for some reason women are not allowed similar choices.

It is important for Muslim women to wear modest clothes so that they do not attract undue attention. That is an Islamic obligation. But now that Islam is no more confined to Arabia, that modest garment does not have to Arabic and certainly does not have to be monolithic.

What do you think? What are your views about hijab?

Polygyny anyone?

In the Quran, Allah speaks of how He created mankind and with what qualities and desires He created him … For men one of these deep-seated qualities is the love of women.

Allah said in the Quran:

“Beautified for men is the love of things they covet: women, children, much of golf and silver (wealth), branded beautiful horses, cattle and well-tilled land…” (3:14)

In this Ayah (Verse), Allah speaks of how men covet or desire many things, including women … In another Ayah, we find that Allah has created man with the love or desire of physical pleasure. This of course is no surprise. As all Muslim women should know, we are commanded to help control this desire by answering when our husband calls us (Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 7, no. 121 – The Prophet said, “If a man invites his wife to sleep with him and she refuses to come to him, then the angels send their curses on her till morning.”).

Allah said:

“Allah wishes to lighten the burden for you: and man was created weak (cannot be patient to leave sexual intercourse with woman)” (4:28)

Again we see that Allah has created man with a distinction different from woman. At this point a picture of man’s nature has started to form.

A part of answering the question of ‘why’ (are Muslim men allowed polygyny) is exploring Allah’s mention of a reward for believing men in Jannah (Paradise). In the Quran Allah mentions the creation of creatures called Al-Hurul-Aiyn… Allah has created these fair females specifically for Jannah to be a reward for the believing men. There are more Ayat regarding this creation for believing men along with further explanation in Hadith. However, what is important here is just to point out that Allah has made the desire of women so much a part of men that it is a part of their reward in Jannah.

Although it may be hard to read, and it sometimes may be hard to make our hearts in line with what Allah has revealed, the reward is great… a woman should make every effort to accept polygyny for the sake of no longer fearing to read what Allah has revealed.

~ From Monogamy to Polygyny: A Way Through by Umm AbdurRahman Hirschfelder and Umm Yasmeen Rahmaan.

What do you think about this excerpt? What are your opinions on polygyny in the 21st Century? Do you think having multiple wives is desirable, doable or even moral in the modern world?

Women as witnesses

On page 85 of Qur’an and Woman, Amina Wadud writes,

In the related verse, a ‘record in writing…’ ‘when a debt is contracted’ calls for two witnesses, ‘if two men be (not at hand) then a man and two women, of such as you approve as witnesses, so that if the one errs (tudilla) the other can remind her …’ (2:282). In the wording of this verse, both women are not called as witnesses.. One woman is designated to ‘remind’ the other”she acts as a corroborator. Although the women are two, they each function differently.

My first instinct was to recall that in perhaps the hardest time in the Prophet’s life, when Aisha was rumoured to have committed adultery, the person called to to prove her innocence was a woman (one woman and not two), her maid Barira. There are other instances when only one woman bore witness thus indicating the narrow subject of 2:282 as related only to financial transactions in which though two female witnesses are required, one bears witness while the other stands only to remind if need be.

What comes to your mind when you read Wadud’s explanation that you may like to share with everyone here?

Why men are in charge of women

Edited for ease of reading comprehensibility.

I was going through Quran and Woman by Amina Wadud for my margin notes when I had a revelation that I thought I’d put down here so I remember when I am writing my dissertation.

Amina Wadud devotes 17 pages to explain the verse 34 of Surah Nisa. In short, Wadud accepts that men do have a degree (darajah) of preference above women in terms of divorce only (2:228) although she doesn’t point out that women have rights similar to men and not the same.  She continues to call those rights equal (but they are similar, not equal). Therefore, she argues that the fadala (preference) in 4:34 does not mean that men have a higher darajah because that was only related to the verse on divorce.

Wadud asks if all men are preferred over all women. Her most significant argument is that ‘men are qawwamuna ‘ala women only if the following two conditions exist. The first condition is ‘preference’, and the other is that they support the women from their means. If either condition fails, then the man is not ‘qawwam’ over that woman.’ (Underlining mine).

Now here is when I had my revelation! The first point I noticed is that despite Wadud’s insistence that Quran addresses both men and women, the entire Surah Nisa addresses only men. In fact, this verse is so crucial to Muslim women, yet it is directly addressed only to men. It tells men that “good women” are obedient to God and that obedience is related to their being faithful in marriage by guarding their chastity like Allah would have liked them to guard.

Second, like Sayyid Qutb, whom Wadud has cited at length, I believe that the verse addresses a very narrow subject – that of a married relationship. Thus, all men are not in charge of all women, but I believe that only husbands are in charge of their wives. Let me explain.

I would have liked Wadud to mention the reason for the revelation of this verse. According to most classical sources, this verse was revealed when a woman came to the Prophet to complain that her husband had hit her (her face had turned green – the colour of her cloak, as mentioned by Aisha who said no kafir hits his wife like a Muslim man does).  The Prophet instantly replied, “get even with him!” Then he hesitated and asked the woman to wait for a revelation. That is when this verse was revealed and the Prophet explained that he had wanted equal treatment for the husband from the wife but Allah ordered otherwise.

I think this reason for revelation is crucial to understand two points: 1) the correct meaning of the imperative verb ‘daraba’ as beat, and 2) the narrow focus of the verse as related to matrimonial hierarchical relationship only.

Hence it becomes important to understand the meaning of the words fadala (preference) and wabimaanfaqoo min amwalihim (and because they spend on them from their maal – material resources).

Unlike Wadud I think that the fadala in 4:34 is related to the daraja of 2:228. Husbands are in charge (as opposed to several non-native Arabic translations, I believe qawwam doesn’t mean ‘maintainers’ in this verse but means ‘in charge’) of their wives because:

1)      They have been preferred (fadala) by Allah in terms of their higher (daraja) in the event of divorce whereby a husband can proclaim a divorce without arbitration but a wife can’t. Hence, the focus on matrimonial relationship is maintained.

2)      They spend on them from their material resources as Mahr.

These are the only two conditions whereby a husband becomes ‘preferred’ to a wife. And these two conditions will always remain in the Islamic institution.

I believe that the phrase ‘wabimaanfaqoo min amwalihim’ refers to the institution of Mahr. There are several marriages in which the real breadwinner is the wife (like the Prophet’s marriage to Khadeejah who was his employer and financially ‘in charge’). There are marriages in which it is the husband’s family that essentially supports the married couple. But even in those marriages the wives must be salihat and qanitat (righteous and obedient). Wadud argues that in such marriages a husband is not in charge of the wife, but I think that a husband is always in charge in every marriage because a Muslim marriage is invalid without Mahr.

Mahr, according to hadith (See Volume 7, Book 62, Number 81 in link), is given to gain access to a woman’s “private parts.” I believe that Mahr is the price for access to the monogamous rights of a woman. When a woman accepts Mahr she vows that she will only have intercourse with the man who has paid her the Mahr. On the contrary, a man does not receive Mahr because his right is polygynous and he doesn’t need to make a vow to have intercourse with only one woman. He can own the monogamous rights of up to four free women through Mahr and as many concubines as he can afford.

Thus, if a woman breaks the marriage contract by being sexually dishonest to her husband when in fact she had promised to be monogamous, she has in fact broken the sanctity of the vow sealed by Mahr. It is not only her sexual promiscuity but also breaking of the contract for which she must be punished or disciplined depending on the degree of her ‘crime.’

No matter how rich or poor a man is, he must under all circumstances pay the Mahr to his wife before he has sex with her. Thus, no matter how rich or poor a man is, he is in charge of the marriage bond because he pays the Mahr and he owns the right to divorce. We know from sirah that the Prophet did not consummate his marriage to Aisha until Abu Bakr had given him 12 ounces of gold which he then paid Aisha and consequently had sex with her. This is how important Mahr is in an Islamic marriage. We also know that when there was rumour of Aisha’s adultery, the Prophet first talked with her and then removed himself from her. This he did because he thought she had broken the sanctity of the marital bond. Then there is the example of Hind who was reminded by the Prophet when she took the oath of allegiance not to commit adultery and she retorted, “Does a free woman commit adultery?” It is noteworthy that, like Fatima Mersini points out, Islam ended matrilineal and polyandrous marriages, making only a free woman entitled to Mahr under patriarchal (Islamic) marriage laws whereby her husband owns full and sole rights to her sexuality.

In short, I believe that 4:34 is related only to a married relationship in which husbands are in charge in the relationship since Allah has preferred them by giving them the right to divorce without arbitration and because they pay Mahr to their wives. Righteous and obedient women are those who guard their chastity like Allah wants it guarded. Mahr promises men monogamous right to their wives’ sexuality and if a wife breaks that contract she is liable to punishment from both social and religious points of view. We all want loyalty and devotion in a relationship and this is all the verse ensures.

Prehominid origins of patriarchy

Sociobiologists and feminists agree that men in patriarchal societies and religions seek to control females. Sociobiologists go a step further and by using Darwin’s theory of sexual selection attempt to explain why males should try to control female sexuality. Sexual selection covers both competition between male and female choice. However, Darwin assumed that choices were made by essentially ”coy” females. Sarah Hrdy argues in ‘Raising Darwin’s consciousness – Female sexuality and the prehominid origins of patriarchy’ that,


“female solicitation of multiple males (either simultaneously or sequentially, depending on the breeding system) characterized prehominid females; this prehominid legacy of cyclical sexual assertiveness, itself possibly a female counter-strategy to male efforts to control the timing of female reproduction, generated further male counter-strategies. This dialectic had important implications for emerging hominid mating systems, human evolution, and the development of patriarchal arrangements in some human societies. For hominid males who will invest in offspring, there would be powerful selection for emotions, behaviors, and customs that ensure them certainty of paternity. The sexual modesty that so struck Darwin can be explained as a recent evolved or learned (perhaps both) adaptation in women to avoid penalties imposed by patrilines on daughters and mates who failed to conform to the patriline’s prevailing norms for their sex. Other supposedly innate universals, such as female preferences for wealthy husbands, are also likely to be facultative accommodations by women to constraints set up when patrilines monopolized resources needed by females to survive and reproduce, and passed on intergenerational control of these resources preferentially to sons.”



Hrdy’s study is both stimulating and extremely valuable. Applied to patriarchal religions it can help to explain the institution of feminism. Feminism is not a natural step in evolution, neither is it a deviation from the ‘natural laws of God.’ Feminism is, in fact, an awakening of the female to realise that patriarchy is not natural and hence could not have been created, implied or advocated by the Creator. It is a regression to the natural origins of the homo-sapiens.


Younger wife

Hrdy originally delivered the chapter as a lecture in the Herbet Spencer Lectures at Oxford University in 1995. In the article, Hrdy argues that selection of a young female for mating is against the natural selection of all primates who almost always choose an adult female for copulation who are experienced and parous hence indicating that they can produce offspring. She asks, “why would male Homo sapiens, virtually unique among primates, be so attracted to neotenous traits?” This unnatural preference, she states, is patriarchal and is derived from purely human institutions whereby men “do not merely mate with virginal and compliant young females, but acquire them as wives, concubines, or slaves whom they essentially ‘own’, and as a consequence … are also obliged to provide for long term.”


Providing for the female

In all other species males and females fend for themselves, indeed in many species it is the female that hunts while bearing offspring, giving birth and lactating. But in human beings the need to control and own the female is so strong in the male that he is willing to take the responsibility to provide for her. It is no wonder then that “patriarchal marriages guaranteed maintenance for discarded or superseded wives, as well as widows.” In this way, alimony does not offer women prestige, honour or freedom but is actually a contributor in their possession by men.


Controlling women’s sexuality

Men control women’s sexuality and make them believe that polygyny is natural while polyandry is unnatural because that is the only way a man “can be absolutely sure that he is the one to have contributed that sperm.” Thus, he may “keep her separate from any other man as in a harem, he may threaten her with violence if she strays, he may devise a mechanical method of preventing intercourse like a chastity belt, he may remove her clitoris to decrease her erotic impulses, or he may convince her that sex is the same thing as love and if she has sexual relations with anyone else, she is violating the sacred ethics of love.”


The argument is that polygyny is not any more natural than polyandry and if we were meant to evolve as monogamous couples then both polyandry and polygyny must go. Hrdy quotes Sherfey (1966) to argue that “women’s inordinate orgasmic capacity did not evolve for monogamous sedentary cultures”; like other primates a human female is designed for multiple partners which she tactfully managed in ancient cultures when patriarchy hadn’t engulfed her freedom.



Human females are also known for not overtly exhibiting ovulation any longer. This is not because we are ‘coy’ as Darwin assumed, but because overt exhibition of ovulation endangers the chances of the male mate to copulate. Thus, human females were commanded by patriarchal males to assume modest clothing so as not to display ‘sexual swellings’, the explicit signs of sexual maturity and ability to produce offspring.


Polyandry to counter infanticide

Socialbiologists have established that female primates cast a ‘wide net’ of possible paternity so as to ensure the safety of their offspring which are often killed by males that are sure they were not the father. Thus, uncertainty about paternity assured ancient polyandrous women (as well as modern Tibetan and Kalahari desert women) that all mates could be possible fathers who all looked after the child even if the biological father died or was captured. Hrdy gives the example of biblical accounts where suckling infants and other children were to be killed outright as highlighting the natural male ability to commit infanticide which is a “protean phenomenon across animals especially humans” to ensure quick resumption of ovulatory cycles for the mother when her child from another mate is removed from her through death. Patriarchy is therefore unnatural to the human species since it restricts women from casting a wide net of possible paternity while allowing men to have multiple sexual partners. Hence if eradication of polyandry is marketed as an evolutionary step, polygyny should also be eliminated from society since it severely restricts the resources available to a human female through sharing it with other unrelated females as is shown by Chisholm and Burbank (1991).


Hrdy states that concealed ovulation, continuous receptivity, face-to-face copulation and female capacity for orgasm are not uniquely human attributes that have evolved, but all this is “much older prehominid heritage that does not assume monogamous mating systems.”


The author also argues that, “relative sexual freedom is permitted women under some circumstances, but the vast majority of human cultures practice a double standard of sexual morality which combined with the human capacity for language and propensity for gossip, subjects any woman who cannot account for her whereabouts to damaging            , even lethal, penalties, as well as to internally produced feelings of mortification and shame.”



Related to such intimidation and indoctrination is also the monopolization by patrilines of resources needed to survive and successfully rear offspring concentrating resources in male hands through patriarchal inheritance systems. Such systems biases intergenerational transfers of resources in favour of sons who can “keep hold of cattle or land, versus daughters who are particularly vulnerable from having it taken away or diverted to their husband’s lineage.”


Concealed ovulation, inheritance transfer, and continuation of polygyny are results of modern life but they are patriarchal and not necessarily a natural step in evolution. Patriarchy was not invented only 2,500 years ago but dates much further back into history. In any case, it is arguably a creation of the mind of the alpha human male to ensure that he can own and mate with the women of his choice so that he only provides for the offspring that his sperm has produced.


I thought the article was brilliant. What are your thoughts? … if you are still awake!


High divorce rate in Arab countries

“Divorce was widespread in pre-Islamic Arabia, but it was not exclusively a man’s prerogative. In certain communities, according to Kitab al-Aghani, a wife could easily divorce her husband. Islam ended this practice, but maintained the practice of divorce as falling almost entirely within the category of men’s rights. Islam recognizes two major kinds of divorce. One is al-talaq al-raj’i (revocable) … the second is al-talaq al-ba’in… In many Arab countries the husband can easily divorce his wife, whereas it is impossible for a wife to divorce her husband against his will, except by consent of a court of law in extreme cases of neglect, maltreatment, nonsupport, indefinite absence of the husband, or impotence. The husband has the right to order his wife back to the home, known as beit al-ta’ah (the house of obedience). The wife is supposed to obey her husband or she is considered nashiz (disobedient); refusal to obey (nishouz) may constitute justification for the husband to stop payment of support. A husband may also divorce his wife without paying the deferred portion of her mahr, which occurs when he refuses to divorce her unless she forfeits her right to it. This is called moukhala’a …”

(Marriage and divorce patterns in “The Arab World”)

Even with such rules that do not allow a woman to give divorce but rather ask for it have not helped women to stay clean from blame. “In the Middle East, whether or not it is her own decision, a woman is often blamed for a divorce, given that divorce is always thought to be the “fault” of one of the marital partners. The corollary to this is that women are always expected to protect their family’s stability and harmony, even if they find themselves in a miserable marriage… It is common for an Egyptian woman to endure an unhappy marriage for the children’s sake in order to maintain the family environment”, and this is not true for only Egyptian women. Many Muslim women (like even non-Muslim women elsewhere) go through unhappy and often abusive marriages for the sake of their children.

In every Muslim culture, women who are wives and mothers are “self-sacrificing figures, always ready to tolerate their husbands’ mistakes, which can amount to infidelity at times.” Even then for many Muslim women, an abusive marriage is a better gamble than living a lonely life. There is an Egyptian saying, “The company of any man is better than being alone.” ‘Muslim cultures’ (as opposed to Islam) rear the female child to believe that the status of an “unattached female” is worthless. The deeply patriarchal societies which Arab societies generally are, give utmost importance to motherhood and so young women are socialized to understand that women must get married and bear children. In South Asian Muslim communities, there is little or no concept of “al-talaq al-raj’i” and so women are divorced in a matter of minutes by men who use divorce as a powerful blackmailing weapon to keep their women under strict control.

While kindness is sometimes offered to divorced women, well-intentioned gestures cannot undo the deeply-rooted societal beliefs regarding the role of a married woman, and the culpability of female divorcees… In addition, being single again and, supposedly, in search of a partner, a female divorcee is often seen as a threat to her friends’ marriages; wives see her as a potential temptation for their husbands. Conversely, husbands might regard her as a bad example for their wives.” Consequently, a divorced man easily finds himself a virgin to marry, but a divorced woman is hardly ever so lucky. The price a woman has to pay for an abusive first marriage is to settle down with a married, divorced, or an old man. This too happens only when a woman is sure that her children from first marriage will not be taken away from her.

Currently, the divorce rate in the UAE has touched 46 %, the highest in the GCC countries. This is higher than UK’s rate of divorce (42.6%) and close to the USA’s (54.8%). The divorce rate in Qatar is 38 %; 35 % in Kuwait and 34 % in Bahrain. In Egypt, a divorce is granted every six minutes with an average of 240 divorces per day according to a census released by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. A study conducted in 2003 at the Prince Salman Social Centre in Riyadh has revealed that divorce rates in GCC countries are rapidly increasing. Official statistics from various Islamic countries showed that the divorce rate is increasing annually and that it was higher in the Arab countries, ranging between 30 to 35 %, the Kuwaiti news agency states. According to Saudi media, about half of marriages in the country end in divorce.

There may be several factors associated with the steep rise in the divorce rates in Muslim communities. One factor is the marked change in the women’s status. “The fact that women today have education and, more importantly, employment – which leads to their financial independence – makes them more willing to accept divorce rather than live an unhappy life… Layla Ahmed (real name withheld on request), a 27-year-old Saudi woman, is a recent divorcee. From her perspective, “the high rate of divorce has to do with choosing wrong partners and the fact that most youth are irresponsible,” she argues, adding that “divorce can also be the result of parents spoiling their kids.””

Quran has several verses on how a woman must be treated kindly in case of divorce; how she must be supported and parted with kindness. We have definitely moved away from the initial Islamic vision of marriage and divorce. We have moved away from Prophetic practice and teaching.

  • What do you think should be done to minimise the negative effects of divorce on Muslim women?
  • What can be done to ensure that Muslim women are not abused by their husbands through unIslamic forms of divorce?