The place of the veil in Islam is the subject of controversy and debate. Some assert that Islam mandates the veil for Muslim women. Others believe that the practice is a vestige from pre-Islamic, pagan cultures. Here I will examine the history of the veil.
According to Professor Nikkie Keddie of the University of California, the full veil was imposed on Muslim women only gradually. She states that in the early periods of Islamic history, women had considerable freedom to roam unveiled. Some were required by custom to cover up and Bedouin men and women were also accustomed to covering their hair and face in pre-Islamic Arabia to guard themselves from the elements. However, this was not done for any religious reasons and may have instead been a cultural phenomenon.
That women covered themselves up for various reasons in pre-Islamic times indicates that the practice of covering the face was rooted in a pagan culture that Islam may have simply inherited. Keddie writes: “Some works on Islamic history concentrate on pre-Islamic Arabian society, but today it is widely recognized that many crucial phenomena regarding women in Islamic times arose not from Arabia but from the pre-Islamic civilizations of Southwest Asia, early conquered by Muslim armies.”
She further writes: “The pre-Islamic Middle East and the East European Mediterranean had various forms of veiling and seclusion, especially of elite women. Assyrian law of the late second millennium gave men proprietary rights over women, exclusive divorce rights, and specified rules on veiling. High status women had to veil, while harlots and slaves were forbidden to….”
Leila Ahmad also states: “Veiling was apparently not introduced into Arabia by Muhammad but already existed among some classes, particularly in the towns, though it was probably more prevalent in the countries that the Arabs had contact with.”
The face veil was therefore not introduced by Islam and so is not intrinsically Islamic. Some historians suggest it is rooted in ancient Greek and Byzantine culture. Among these rather elitist cultures, women were secluded from society based on class and social standing, on the assumption that women of nobility would have far more to lose if they were dishonored.
When Islam spread to these lands, it adopted some of the local customs and mores. Keddie writes: “From the eighth century, caliphs began to seclude their wives and create large harems of wives and slaves, practices increasingly followed by others among the rich and powerful.” Qur’anic injunctions on modesty, though vague in terminology, came to be interpreted in light of these cultural practices.
Keddie writes about Quranic exegesis of the time on veiling:
“The schools of Islamic law developed in the ninth century and reflected the restrictive view of women of the time. Quranic verses were interpreted as meaning strict veiling, and women’s subordinate position in marriage and other matters became part of law.”
In those times, slaves and nomadic peoples were barred from veiling . If they violated this rule, they were punished for pretending to be nobility.
A universal decree requiring the face veil for Muslim women came much later—around the time of the Mameluke dynasty of Egypt in the 13th century. These rulers issued several decrees imposing the full veil on women when they appeared in public. What was once a mark of aristocracy and nobility now came to be imposed on the commoner as religious dogma.
It then came to be regarded as an Islamic symbol in most Muslim lands. Hence Muslim societies adopted the veil in one form or another. In South Asian countries the “duppatta,” a long scarf, was often used to cover the hair. Women in more conservative homes were required to wear the burka, a cloak that covers the entire body and face. In the Arab Middle East, the hijab, abaya, and niqab were adopted by women as a form of veiling.
But no historical analysis of the veil in Islam would be complete without examining the Quran itself as a historical document.
The Quran speaks of veiling and modesty in general . The holy book of Islam does not explicitly state that women must cover their hair or their faces, or that they must remain secluded from public life. Early Islamic history in fact provides examples of how women participated in public life, including fighting wars. During the battle of Uhud, Um Darda, a female companion of the Prophet Mohammad, sustained wounds while defending him single-handedly. One must ask: Could she have achieved this while draped in cumbersome garb?
The following verse demonstrates that the Quran spoke of modest attire in general terms only:
O prophet: Enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers that they should cast their outer garments over their persons. That is most convenient that they may be distinguished and not harassed.”
What did the Quran advise women to distinguish themselves from? Was the purpose of the verse to place certain women among the social elite who could be recognized for their superior status by wearing the hijab?
Reports in hadith, the second source of Islamic belief and practice, also refer to veiled women and note that Aeysha, the wife of the prophet, went in public fully veiled. Notwithstanding the spurious nature of hadith, one must still point out that the wives of the prophet enjoyed a unique status in Muslim society. They were held to a higher standard of conduct and piety and even barred from remarrying after the demise of the prophet. The Quran speaks of their distinct status in the following verse:
33: 32. O wives of the Prophet! You are not like any of the other women, provided that you keep from disobedience to God in reverence for Him and piety. So do not be complaisant in your speech (when addressing men), lest he in whose heart is a disease should be moved to desire, but speak in an honorable way.
Since Muslim women feel they must emulate the wives of the prophet in every way, the verse is interpreted to mean they must segregate themselves in the same way the prophet’s wives were commanded to segregate themselves from male strangers. The Quranic acknowledgement of the distinct status of the prophet’s wives is often ignored.
During the course of Islamic history, verses of the Quran have been interpreted to suit the demands of certain cultures and societies depending on the social status of women in these societies. As clearly evidenced by the above brief historical survey of the veil in Islam, the institution has been modified, corrupted, abandoned, promoted, and even outlawed in certain parts of the Islamic world. With such uncertainty around the true meanings of the Quranic verses on veiling, it can hardly be considered a religious requirement that needs defending with the militant zeal witnessed in recent times.
Ms. Hassan, a Toronto author, is past president of the Muslim Canadian Congress.