The onus of chastity and the veil

I have been going back to verses 30 and 31 of Surah An-Nur. It was Farid Esack who first made me think about these verses. He writes,

“The succeeding verses, usually unmentioned in apologetic works, add an array of further specific injunctions regarding the social behaviour of women.  While one may argue that men are not absolved from these, women are the ones singled out.”

When I read just the two verses again together (like shown on this website) it is even visually apparent that verse 31 has several “further specific injunctions.” This is not problematic in itself if we believe in the argument that women “are created differently.” Esack explains that such verses are time-bound by quoting Cragg, “the eternal cannot enter time without a time when it enters. Revelation to history cannot occur outside it. A Prophet cannot arise except in a generation and a native land, directives from heaven cannot impinge upon an earthly vacuum” (Cragg 1971, 112), thus essentially arguing that many of the verses that seem unjust towards women are for the 7th Century Arabs.

Several other scholars have argued similarly. What they fail to comment on is the obvious question, “does that mean that gender injustice was alright for the 7th Century Arab woman but not today?” This becomes even more confusing because we have examples of some very bold, brave and strong women from the Pre-Islamic period, for example Hind and even the Prophet’s first wife Khadeejah whose independence before Islam is well documented. These women would certainly not have accepted injustice in any form.

Mecca was conquered in 630 AD and with no further hope of regaining it, defeated Meccans accepted the Prophet’s leadership and took the pledge of alliance. When it was Hind’s turn to take the oath the Prophet asked her to swear: “You shall not commit adultery.” Hind is famously known to have retorted,

“Does a free woman commit adultery?”

This one sentence tells us a lot about the ancient Arabian beliefs and principles.

The ‘muminaat’ (believing women) were essentially the free women. It is now a well-known fact that enslaved women were not allowed to veil like the free women (see Abou El Fadl) indicating that “class factors as well as general community norms were vital in setting standards for female dress.” There is also evidence in Islamic history that “Caliph Umar reportedly became enraged with enslaved women, to the point of beating one of them, who tried to wear the outer wrap (jilbab), perhaps to cover their breasts and heads, because it would make them indistinguishable from free women” (Source; also listen to Hamza Yusuf on this).

I am not going to talk about whether or not hijab is mandatory. It is my personal belief that it is mandatory, but that it was one of the social laws in the Quran that change with the evolving needs of every society. What confounds me is that the modesty of free Muslim men, enslaved men and enslaved women is the same (navel to knees to be covered) while the heavier burden of chastity and modesty is placed on free women. In fact, the free women did not even always have to be Muslim – their freedom is dependent on their association with a free Muslim man as a wife, daughter, sister or mother. Upon the death of a master, an enslaved woman who had given birth her master’s child would automatically become free. It was only then that she had to veil herself especially because she was the guardian of a Muslim child, the free child of her Muslim master. She also veiled to exhibit the sudden difference in her rank.

Both, Muslim men and Muslim women, are ordered to ‘guard their gaze.’ But if a woman chose to “expose her adornments” or “stamped her feet to reveal the adornments” then she created the chances to allure men who must guard their private parts because it is “purer for them.”  Men, on the other hand, are not feared to create such chances which may be because women’s sexuality was seen as more passive and ‘less demanding.’

There is reason to believe from what we hear from Hind that free women never created opportunities for adultery. Her rhetorical question indicates that free women, the women of the upper class, always veiled, even pre-Islam, to guard and indicate their chastity. In fact, when Hind came to the Prophet to take oath she was completely veiled, perhaps as an act of defiance: she was accepting the leadership of the Prophet on her own terms – she was a free, veiled woman who did not commit adultery; her retort indicating the same – she was not enslaved. Adultery was “an act that was known to be for slaves and prostitutes only; not for honorable pure women who have dignity and pride.” Historical records confirm this. The Jewish women in Medina who belonged to the elite class even covered their faces and left only the left eye exposed to see their path thus not tempting men and committing the crime and sin of adultery which under Jewish Law was punishable by stoning.

When Safiyyah Bint Huyayy’s tribe was attacked and she was captured, the believers waited to find out her fate: if the Prophet ordered her to veil, she was to become his wife and be free; if he didn’t, she was to remain enslaved and unveiled. Apparently, she was captured without a veil which means that upon capture, veils of elite veiled women were removed. This not only symbolised their new status, it also symbolised that the onus of chastity was lower for them.

According to the Quran (4:25), enslaved women guilty of indecency are to receive half the punishment that free women are to receive if they were indecent. But what is even more interesting is that such enslaved women would only be liable for punishment *if and when* (fa-itha) they were married to a Muslim man. This is worth noting because enslaved women would become free upon receiving a dower yet there is a sense of differentiation between the classes: women born free in a Muslim household and those who were slaves and became free either upon marriage to a Muslim man or upon the death of the Muslim master (only if they had his children whose paternity the master accepted).

In the present day, every woman who covers her head believes that it is a Divine Command put in place to ensure her safety. This in part is true according to 33:59. Free women were meant to be *recognised* (يعرفن) as free women so that they are not “harmed” (يؤذين). The safety of enslaved women is not discussed in this instance. In fact, free women were to be “recognised” only if the slaves did not veil as well. Veiling, therefore, protected free women from men who were unable to guard their gaze. The veil symbolized that the woman was “honorable and pure with dignity and pride.” There is some hint in 24:33 that selling enslaved women into prostitution was a crime “if they desired chastity.” Yet, if the master forced his slave to prostitute, “verily God will be gracious and merciful unto such women after their compulsion” but we do not learn about the punishment reserved for such a compelling master. Thus there may be some truth in the assertion that adultery was “an act that was known to be for slaves and prostitutes only” that is, the women who are not commanded to veil.

“You shall not commit adultery.”

“Does a free woman commit adultery?”, said the defiant, free and veiled Hind.

How does veiling work within the Quranic context in the present day when there are no slaves from which free women are to be “recognised” as “pure and honorable”? How do we understand the “Status of Women in Islam” when the status depends on the religion and freedom or lack of it for the woman? If the ‘aurah’ of men and enslaved women is the same then how do we understand the Islamic concept of gendering and gender roles? Who bears the greater burden of chastity and what role does veiling and social status play in it?

These are some of the questions Muslim feminists should be discussing when we discuss gender justice and gender equality in Islam for an educated understanding of the Law.