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ARIF M. KHAN
FAITH & BIGOTRY

Arif Mohammed Khan is a former Union Cabinet minister.

Early Medina didn’t force women to wear the veil

For men and women who submit (to God), for men and women who believe, for men and women who are devout, for men and women who are truthful, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in Charity, for men and women who fast, for men and women who guard their chastity, and for men and women who engage much in God's praise — for them has God prepared forgiveness and great reward" (33.35).

ommenting on this verse, Abdulla Yusuf Ali says that "a number of Islamic virtues are specified here, but the chief stress is laid on the fact that these virtues are as necessary to women as to men. Both sexes have spiritual as well as human rights and duties in equal degree and the future reward of the hereafter viz. spiritual bliss is provided for the one as for the other". On account of cultural overlays and male dominated Muslim jurisprudence (fiqh), women may be shackled with restrictions in various Muslim societies, but there is no doubt that the Quran has prescribed gender equality and has asserted that men and women are born from a single person, made of the same substance (7.189) and entitled to equal respect and dignity (17.70).

Mahmood Sallam Zannani, in his book titled Ikhtilal al-Jinsayn (Mixing of Sexes), says that "in Medina, women participated fully in social life with men. Women used to go out with their faces uncovered. This way of life continued until the early Umvi period. Later day Umayyad rulers in Damascus decided to veil their women, a practice prescribed by Romans who were ruling Damascus before the city had fallen to the Arabs in AD 641.

"However, the practice of veil remained confined to the ruling elites and the succeeding Abbasi dynasty followed suit. About hundred years later, Ibn Muqaffa, who himself was of Persian origin, advised Abbasi ruler Mansour to impose veil on all women despite it not being obligatory. This ushered in a new tradition which eulogised segregation and praised veiled women who lived in secluded environment."

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Mahmood Sallam Zannani, in his book titled Ikhtilal al-Jinsayn (Mixing of Sexes), says that "in Medina, women used to go out with their faces uncovered. This way of life continued until the early Umvi period.

As opposed to this new practice of segregation, women during the time of the Prophet were actively engaged in trade and agriculture. The Hadith books mention several women like Umm Mubashshir who owned date-palm groves. One narrator, Jabir says, "My maternal aunt after divorce went to her grove to collect dates. Someone scolded her for coming out during her waiting period. She went to the Prophet and he said: 'Certainly you can pluck (dates) and you may do charity or do an act of kindness'" (Muslim 3535). Likewise, the women not only prayed in the mosque but also attended leisure activities held there. A narration, reported by Aisha, wife of the Prophet, says, "It was the day of Id when Negroes used to play with shields and spears. Either I requested Allah's Apostle or he himself asked me whether I would like to see the performance. I replied in the affirmative. Then he let me stand behind him and my cheek was touching his cheek and he was saying, 'Carry on, O Bani Arfida (Negroes)'" (Bukhari 4.155).

After the holy Prophet, Caliph Umar appointed two women, Samra bint Nuhayk and Shifa bint Abdullah, as superintendents of markets in Mecca and Medina. Their job combined both executive and judicial responsibilities. The Caliph had given a whip to Samra to punish traders who indulged in unfair practices. Prominent among the early women who played important political role was Zainab, daughter of Maula Ali, who accompanied her brother Imam Husain to Karbala. Her speeches after the tragedy were marked by profound erudition. Imam Hudhaym Asadi described her thus: "I have not seen a woman more eloquent. It was like Ali himself was speaking. When she spoke all speech stopped and people were moved to tears."

In the history of early Islam there were many other examples of women who played the role of trendsetters. They were truly women of substance because they asserted equality and refused to surrender to man what was granted to them by God.

 
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