Muslim women are no more or less ugly than other women, but they do not flaunt their attractions. Muslim women expect to be appreciated for their mind and characters, not just for their bodies. A Muslim woman is required to conceal her attractions from men by a strictly modest, straight-forward type of attire. Modest dress does not degrade women, but it discourages lust in men. Within the close family circle, she is free to dress informally and to beautify herself; in fact, she is strongly encouraged to make herself attractive for her husband since her beauty is reserved for him. She is also free to do the same among other Muslim women if no man is present. But outside her home and at any time when she is in the presence of non-mahrem men, even within her home, she is required to wear a covering-type of dress which will make it clear to anyone who sees her that she is a chaste, modest and pure woman, and that she does not want her sexuality to enter into the interaction in the slightest degree.
A Muslim woman in this business-like, non-attracting kind of dress which brings out her femininity while concealing her sexuality, and with correspondingly straight-forward behavior, automatically elicits and receives the respect of men just as nuns, whose habits are somewhat similar to the covering dress of Muslim women, have always been respected. This type of dress, which is known as hijab or purdah, is prescribed by a direct order in the Qur'an and is a characteristic by which a conscientious Muslim woman is recognizable anywhere in the world. We will have more to say on this subject in the section on clothing.
It is within this context that the Islamic concept of womanhood may be understood most clearly. The respect and status which a Muslim woman enjoys are not tied up in any way with her physical attractiveness or social skills in relation to men; rather it is concealing and reserving her beauty and sexuality, her feminine charms and favors, exclusively for the man she has married which marks her as a virtuous woman and gains her respect. Indeed, Islam prescribes hijab not only to protect society from the disruption produced by uncontrolled expressions of sexual interest and in order to protect woman's dignity and honor, but also in order to neutralize her sexuality so that she can be a positive, constructive force in society rather than a harmful one. Due to this modest dress and the propriety of her manner and behavior, men can regard and treat her as a person, not a sex object; that is, her value to the society has no relationship to her physical attractions but solely to her worth as a human being. Consequently , as a Muslim woman grows older she loses none of her value either in her own eyes or in the sight of society, for among Muslims a woman's worth, like a man's , increases with age due to her wisdom and experience instead of decreasing with her declining youthfulness and beauty. For the Muslim woman, her character and personal attainments, her modesty and dignity, her piety and intelligence, and her feminine role as wife and mother are the sources of status and respect within the community rather than her possessing sexual interest, attractiveness or easy sociability with men.
But lest it be thought that the responsibility for maintaining pure relations with the opposite sex rests with women alone, we have only to cite the following well-known Qur'anic verse:
Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them. And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty..." (Quran 24:30-31)
The Islamic teachings thus inculcate in men and women alike a strong sense of hay, that is, shyness, reserve and modesty in the presence of the opposite sex (and indeed, in relation to modesty, of one's own sex as well), which acts as a very strong deterrent against indecency. Due to this, a conscious Muslim man avoids just as scrupulously as his Muslim sister anything which would lead him toward what is forbidden or would lower him in his own eyes or before his Lord; likewise his dress and manner demonstrate that he possesses self-respect and is free of indecent intentions and desires. In short, chastity, modesty and purity are not merely external restraints imposed by religion or society but are rather inner qualities which devout Muslim men as well as women deeply cherish and desire to uphold.
It will be obvious from this that Muslims generally do not feel at ease with the current trends in Western society. Conscientious Muslims who come to visit or to live in Western countries are often deeply shocked by the general lack of shame and modesty, by the fact that illicit sex is no longer censured in the society as a whole, and they regard the open display of flesh and the overt sexual behavior which they see all around them as animalistic and degrading. The fact that sexual undertones can be observed in innumerable aspects of the interaction between men and women in Western society-- between a professor and his student, a doctor and his patient, or a boss and a secretary in an office, for example, and between neighbors, friends and even relatives--in the form of the off-color joke, the compliments, the back-patting, the constant undercurrent of sexually-tinged innuendo which one encounters on so many occasions is also very distressing to them.
Among Muslims, apart from the very westernized and others, primarily young people, who have lost their sense of direction, such behavior is very rare indeed; certainly the interaction of men and women who fear God and strictly observe His limits is completely free of these elements. The observing of the limits informs both the man and the woman that there is no place and no wish for anything to do with sex in their interaction; indeed, if there were such undertones it would be felt as a great threat as well as a gross insult, and would render further interaction prohibited and impossible. To a conscious Muslim man or woman, attention from any member of the opposite sex other than one's own spouse in the form of free talk, compliments, playfulness, suggestive comments, touching in any form (including handshaking and patting on the back), and anything else which has sexual undertones is insulting, degrading and very much disliked.
In summary, Islam regards the sexual urge as an extremely powerful element in human nature, one which clamors for free expression if given even slight encouragement. Without such guidelines and limits for governing it as we have just discussed, and without the certainty that such behavior is forbidden and will be very severely punished in the Hereafter, it will naturally seek to express itself freely, as we see in Western societies. Recognizing the strength of this drive and the fact that it is always present in any situation where men and women interact freely with one another, are alone together, and where bodies are exposed, Islam does not permit any of these things; for it is obviously far more desirable and effective--as well as much more realistic--to prevent temptation than to expect people to resist it when circumstances impel them toward it.
Islam also insists on the right of an individual to have a spouse who belongs exclusively to him/her. It totally rejects the notion that what people feel for each other or the pleasure they derive from an act should be taken as the criteria of right and wrong, and that obedience to the unbridled demands of animal desires should be permitted to dominate the lives of human beings. The moral and spiritual harm done to individuals, and through them to their society, when they disregard the vital need of the human personality for purity and integrity to follow blind physical desire, cannot be assessed by anyone but God, Who has so clearly and absolutely prohibited such acts, and Who has also informed us the awesome penalties which such proscribed deeds will incur in the Life-to-Come.
The Islamic Bulletin
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