Islam's response to contemporary world problems (20)

Separation of the sexes

There is a huge misunderstanding among people in the West about the Islamic social system of PARDAH (lit. veiling), which is seen as a segregation between the two sexes. The misunderstanding arises, in part, from the misapplication of the true teachings of Islam in various parts of the Islamic world and the negative role played by the Western media. They have made it the norm to associate ugliness in behaviour, wherever it occurs, with Islam, while refraining from associating Jewish, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu behaviour with their respective religions.

The Islamic norm of separation is certainly not born out of a narrow-minded attitude of the dark ages of history. In fact, the issue of promiscuity is not related to time lag or development. Societies throughout history have both risen to the crest of the social and religious wave and descended to its depths.

The concept of women's freedom has by no means been a progressive trend in human society. There is strong evidence that, both in the remote period of the past and in the nearer period of human history, women, as a collective, have held a dominant and powerful position in human society in different parts of the world.

The free and uninhibited relationship between the male and female section of society is not new. Civilisations came and went. Patterns of behaviour oscillated between one style and the other. Myriads of social trends have been disappearing and settling down with different patterns only to shape new experiences and formations at each turn of the kaleidoscope. However, no trend has remained fixed in a way that would allow us to say with certainty that, throughout history, society has evolved from separation to promiscuity or from confinement to relative emancipation and liberation of women.

The Beginning of a New Era in Women's Rights

It is worth focusing our attention here on the dark period in Arabian history when Islam emerged, either through divine instruction - as we Muslims believe - or as a result of the personal teachings of Muhammad (lpbD) - as non-Muslims would believe. Whatever the theologians' view, Islamic teachings regarding the separation of the sexes did not represent Arab behaviour at all.

Arabian society at the time was paradoxical in the extreme in its attitude towards women. On the one hand, sexual permissiveness, the free union of men and women and the mad orgies of wine, women and chanting constituted one of the highlights of Arab society. On the other hand, the birth of a girl was considered a disgraceful event and a source of great shame. Some "proud" Arabs buried their newborn girls with their own hands to escape this ignominy.

Women were treated as possessions and had no right to oppose their husbands, fathers or other male family members. Sometimes, however, there were exceptions to the rule. Sometimes women of outstanding personality played an important role in the affairs of the tribe.

Islam changed everything, not as a natural and progressive result of social tensions but as an arbiter of values. A social system was dictated from on high, which had no relation to the normal forces shaping a society.

Through the teachings of separation, sexual anarchy was brought to a sudden end. An order was established in the relationship of men and women based on deep moral principles. The status of women was simultaneously raised to such a level that they were no longer treated as helpless commodities. They were given an equal share in the affairs of community life. Whereas before they were distributed as inherited property, they could now inherit the property of their fathers, and also that of their husbands, sons and close relatives. They could rise to their husbands' level and answer to them. They could reason with them and, of course, they had the full right to disagree. Not only could they be divorced, but they had equal rights to divorce their husbands if they so wished.

As mothers, they were treated by Islam with such profound respect that it is difficult to find a similar example in other societies of the world. It was the Holy Prophet of Islam (lpbD) who most supported women's rights by declaring, under divine command that: "Paradise is under the feet of your mothers".

It did not refer only to a promise to be fulfilled in the afterlife, but to the social paradise promised to those who showed deep respect and reverence for their mothers, and devoted themselves to please them and to provide them with every possible comfort.

The teaching of separation must be understood in this context. It was not the result of any male superiority but was designed to establish the sanctity of the home; to create greater trust between husband and wife; to bring sobriety to the basic human impulses and to channel and discipline them so that, instead of being released into society as powerful demons, they play a constructive role in the same way as other disciplined forces play their part in nature.

Separation is totally misunderstood when it is interpreted as an imposition or restriction on the female collective in Muslim society, restricting their participation in all spheres of human activity. This is not true.

The Islamic concept of separation is to be understood only in a context of measures aimed at protecting the sanctity of female chastity and the honour of women in a society, so that the danger of violating these objectives is minimised.

Free mixing of the sexes and hidden affairs or relationships between men and women are strongly discouraged. Both men and women are advised to refrain not only from casting covetous glances at each other, but to refrain from any visual or physical contact that might lead to uncontrolled temptations. Women are expected to dress decently and are advised to behave in a manner that would draw unfavourable attention from predisposed men. They are not forbidden to use cosmetics and ornaments, but they should not be worn in public, so as not to attract attention.

We understand that with the present way of thinking in societies all over the world, this teaching may seem harsh, restrictive and colourless. However, a thorough study of the Islamic social system leads to the conclusion that such a judgement is hasty and superficial. This teaching must, therefore, be understood as an integral part of the whole social environment of Islam.
The role that women play in the Islamic social system is certainly not that of concubines in harems or that of a society imprisoned within the four walls of their houses, excluded from progress and deprived of the light of knowledge. This ugly picture of the Islamic social system is painted only by internal or external enemies of Islam, or by so-called scholars who totally misunderstand the Islamic way of life.

The only thing that Islam does not accept is making women an object of play, or exploitation, or their abandonment to the mercy of male vulgarity. Islam does not encourage such attitudes towards women.

It is only because society as a whole has become more and more demanding that it is a real cruelty to women to be constantly conscious of their appearance, looks and the way they are dressed or groomed. Feminine charms are always on display. The sale of any food item or daily necessity such as laundry detergent requires advertisements with female models. Artificial lifestyles, fashions and luxurious forms are presented to women as essential for them to realise their dreams. Such a society cannot remain balanced, sober and healthy for long.
According to Islam, women must be emancipated from exploitation and from playing the role of mere instruments of pleasure. They must have more free time for themselves, to carry out their responsibilities towards their homes and towards the future generation of mankind.

(lpbD) - God's peace and blessings be upon him.

(To be continued in the next installment, number 21.)