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Question: There are so many views on the niqaab (face veil). Please shed light on this issue: is it compulsory? Also what was the life of the sahabi women like? People say that it is not allowed for women to leave their homes? Is this true? As women are we not supposed to leave the house whatsoever? Please Please answer these questions?
Answer:

Islam orders both men and women to attire themselves modestly while venturing out. Modest attire prescribed for women,  in the Qur'an, does not involve niqab (face veil) as pointed out by a number of prominent mufassirin or interpreters of the Qur'an, including Ibn Jarir, considered the doyen of the mufassirin. Imam Ibn Jarir backs up his point of view by referring to various reports, including that of Ibn Abbas, as well as through reasoning. He states: all scholars agree that one must cover the awrah during the salah; and all agree that a woman does not cover her face in salah. It is also agreed that a woman in ihram is not allowed to cover her face. Furthermore, on numerous occasions, the Prophet came across with women who had uncovered their faces; and yet he never objected or ordered them to cover their faces, if covering the face had been essential, he would have plainly said so. We read in a report from Aishah that when the Prophet saw Asma, in less than modest attire, he told her, O Asma, when a woman attains puberty, should not expose her body save the face and hands. Likewise, the Quran orders men and women to lower their gazes while facing each other. What are we to lower our faces from if women were expected to cover their faces?

Now coming to the next point: even a casual reading of the sources attests to the fact that both men and women were equal partners in the Prophet's struggle. Women, instead of being confined to their homes, were always there fulfilling their role side by side with men. They were in the mosques, in the markets, in the battle fields; they were active participants in all the important events affecting the community. They went out of their homes, and even traveled away from homes, whenever a need arose. The only reason the Prophet banned women traveling without mahrams was because of his concern for their safety, as the conditions of the Arabian peninsula at the time were too risky for both men and women to travel alone; the conditions were worse for women as they faced greater dangers. That is why the Prophet said that he would continue his struggle until women can travel by themselves from hirah to haram without having to worry about anything except about wolves preying on their sheep. And the narrator of the above tradition, Adiyy b. Hatim (a Christian convert to Islam), said that he had lived to witness the fulfillment of the prophecy.

That women during the Prophet's time were never confined to their homes is also well documented in the sources. The only time women were ordered to stay home was while mourning in iddah after their husbands' death. Even in this case, women came to the Prophet and told him they get bored sitting home. He told them, they can go visit the women in the neighborhood and spend as much time as they wanted, but they should make sure to come home for the sleep. How far removed is this from the prevalent notion among the Muslims today in regard to the iddah practices of widows as they are told to sit in the interior sanctums of their homes. Likewise, we also learn that the Prophet's own beloved wife Aisah used to take with her the widows of her family for umrah. When someone confronted her, her reply was, 'iddah is an attitude!'. Furthermore, when someone asked Aishah, can woman travel without a mahram, her answer was, 'can everyone find a mahram?" So to insist that women cannot travel alone, unless she finds a mahram is not the way people like Aishah understood the Prophetic instruction. They knew that the Prophet's intent was to ensure that women were kept safe from the criminals who may target them. That is why the great imams such as Malik and Shafi said that women can travel in a trusted  company. In other words, the primary concern was their safety and dignity.

It is a pity to see the gradual diminishing of women's roles in society in the Muslim community to such an extent that they are virtually made prisoners of homes. They are denied their role in the building of the community. It is high time we rise up against this and allow women to claim their rightful place as equal partners along with men.

All this irrespective of the fact that women used to stand up to powerful caliphs like Umar, as we learn that it was a woman who questioned him when he was delivering a policy speech on the minbar. Imagine what would happen to a woman who questions a khateeb in the haram of Makkah or Madinah or any other mosque, for that matter. It is important to remember that the questioning of Umar took place right in the Prophet's mosque, only few years after his death. It was not done by any ordinary woman, rather by someone who had been a pioneer in the Islamic struggle with the Prophet himself. Therefore, no one had the guts to shut her out. No one told her you belong home, and you must never speak in the mosque or anywhere. It is ironic that in such cases, we are more faithful to the medieval Christian tradition of ordering women to shut up than the ideals and precedents of the Prophet, peace be upon him.

Should you require further details on the issue of hijab, please see a number of my previous answers posted on this site; the link to one of them is given below.

 

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