By Alexandra Kinias
After the rise of Islam, Prophet Mohamed in an effort to unite the tribes under its banner set new laws to govern the people and regulate the relationship between them. As a result, the status of women improved. Female infanticide ceased and for the first time women from certain tribes had the right to divorce, own property, choose a husband and inherit from their deceased relatives. Marriage was also organized, but neither polygamy nor slavery was abolished. On the contrary, the Islamic conquests brought more slaves into the Muslim lands, which later contributed to the dramatic changes that happened to the women of the Islamic Empire, as will be addressed in future articles.
During the life of Mohamed, women’s freedom was neither restricted nor was the veil enforced upon them. Women joined men in the mosques, fought by their side in the battles and worked. Asmaa, the Prophet’s sister in law, told this story,
“I ran into the prophet and his companions on my way back from the field with a load of straw on my head. He offered me a ride behind him [on his horse or camel]. I was embarrassed and told him that my husband would be jealous if I did. When I later told my husband what happened, he responded that it was more painful for him to see me walk with the straw on my head than to ride with the men. ”
As Islam gained momentum, the new believers sought the Prophet for advice, and his house became their meeting point. In the process, Mohamed’s wives, who became known as the Believers’ Mothers, lost their privacy.
Two incidents quoted in the Koran enforced the segregation of the Believers’ Mothers from men, and ordered men to talk to them from behind a screen or a hijab, that served as a barrier.
The first incident happened on the night of Mohamed’s marriage to Zeinab Bint Jahsh and was described by Anas Ibn Malek, his personal servant:
“After the marriage ceremony, guests were gathered in Zeinab’s house for dinner. After dinner, most of the guests left, but as happens in such events, a group of men stayed longer than they should have. The Prophet was embarrassed to ask them to leave, so he himself left the house to give them a message that the party is over, and I followed him out of the house. Few minutes later we returned back to the house and we found that the crowd was still there. We then left again and when we returned the second time, the crowd was still there. This insensitivity of the guests upset the Prophet very much. ”
Subsequently, the verse 33:53 was instituted.
“Oh believers, don’t enter the houses of Prophet Mohamed for a meal without permission. If you are invited, you may enter, but be punctual (so that you won’t be waiting inside the house while the food is being prepared). When you have finished eating, leave his house. Don’t sit around chatting among yourselves. This will annoy the Prophet, but he will be embarrassed to tell you. God doesn’t feel embarrassed to tell you the truth. When you want to ask something from the Prophet’s wives, ask them from behind the hijab (veil). This would be more proper for you and for them.”
The hijab in Arabic means a barrier that separates people; a wall, a screen or a curtain. And although it’s translated as so, it’s now used to describe the women’s head cover.
On another occasion, Aisha, Mohamed’s youngest wife went missing in the desert after she was accidentally left behind in a battlefield. She was rescued by Safwan Ibn Mu’attal al Sulami who carried her back home to Medina on his camel back. This incident triggered controversy over Moslem women’s behavior as people spread indecent rumors about Aisha’s.
After this incident, the verses 24:30-31 were instituted.
“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their chastity; that is purer for them. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze, guard their chastity, and not to show their beauty or adornments except what is apparent. Let them cover their breasts/ bosoms with their Khimar.”
Women were asked to cover their chests with a Khimar (cover) which could have been a scarf, shawl or whatever garments they used. The verse doesn’t order women to cover their heads. Even if we accept the translation of the word Khimar as a head cover, women were ordered to cover their chests with it and not their heads. This verse is the reference for Moslem scholars that covering women’s hair is compulsory in Islam.
The Believers’ Mothers were special women. Their veil and segregation during Mohamed’s life and living in widowhood after his death were exclusive orders for them.
When Mohamed died, his slave Kattila, returned to her tribe and got married. This angered the Caliph Abu Bakr, but later acknowledged her marriage when the Prophet’s companions clarified that she never married Mohamed because she went unveiled during his life. This incident further shows that the Prophet’s companions didn’t care or expect other women to follow in the footsteps of the Believers’ Mothers.