At the time of the dawn of Islam, women of high status in greater Arabia followed the Mesopotamian practice of veiling to indicate their prestige.
As the practice of veiling caught on in Arabia, it was at first a sign of prestige, what elite city women did– a custom that may have arrived by way of Mesopotamia. With the evolution of social groups from egalitarian and matriarchal societies to heavily patriarchal social groups in Arabia, we see a parallel change in the meaning of veiling for women, and the use of hijab, or the required modest covering of the female in Islamic practices.
The Veil in Arabia at the Dawn of Islam
Women had high status roles as queens and goddesses throughout greater Arabia prior to Islam. Women are seen in inscriptions from Nabataean sites (from approximately the 6th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D.) and the Sabaean kingdom of South Arabia (2nd millennium to 100 B.C.) working to build and maintain water works, handle administrative and legal obligations, and purchase and sell property while their men were away from home trading and warring.
It should be noted that the full veiling garb of women appears rather similar to that of the Bedouin male, serving as a protection from the elements and shifting sands. If veiling occurred in a matrilocal culture, at that time it would have been for practical reasons, as desired clothing, and not to keep her secluded from other men as occurs under patriarchal and Muslim culture. It would have also been used by the elite to express their status.
The Veil in Early Islam
The Muslim women began to wear the veil to differentiate themselves from women of the “pagan” jahiliyya (age of ignorance); in other words, to stand out from non-Muslim women. Prior to Islam, many women throughout Arabia had more sexual freedom, rights and privileges. They lived in matrilocal groups where the fatherhood of the child did not matter. Fatima Mernissi tells us in Beyond the Veil that the “…panorama of female sexual rights in pre-Islamic culture reveals that women’s sexuality was not bound by the concepts of legitimacy. Children belonged to the mother’s tribe. Women had sexual freedom to enter into and break off unions with more than one man, either simultaneously or successively.”
Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija bint Khuwaylid, appears to have been a woman from a matrilocal social group. She was a prosperous business-woman, twice married and twice widowed, intelligent well-known and respected when she hired the Prophet Muhammad to work for her as her agent in trading. Khadija may have been as much as 15 years older than Muhammad when she proposed to him. Muhammad had great respect for Khadija, and thus for women in general. She shared her wealth with him and used it to help further the cause of Islam. He did not marry another woman, but remained solely with Khadija, his primary supporter, until her death twenty-four years later.
As Islam brought in more followers, the patriarchal society, increasing in strength in Arabia, began to take precedence over the matrilocal social organization. Under patriarchy the fatherhood of children needed to be secured, the virtue of the women and honor of the family protected, and the woman’s freedoms and status subordinated. Early Islamic history shows a departure between Muhammad’s treatment and respect for women and the early companions and male followers of the religion. ‘A’isha, Muhammad’s most beloved wife following the death of his first wife, Khadija, is a case-in-point. ‘A’isha, daughter of Abu Bakr, was noted for her education, knowledge and sound judgment. Her status with Muhammad was a constant consternation for the Companions and other patriarchal Muslim males who did not agree with the input of a woman in religious and political matters. Muhammad gave the title “Mother of Believers” to his wives, bestowing upon them a special status—they were to be listened to and respected.
The status of women in the Qur’an and Muhammad’s treatment of women are far better than what is seen through hadith (what was said that Muhammad had related to others, codified later following Muhammad’s death). ‘A’isha tried to correct many a hadith to accurately reflect Muhammad’s true attitudes and actions, but she often lost the battle in the end with the male believers. Hadith thus reflects the changing culture of Islam and the increased patriarchal grasp on women.
Muhammad’s companions petitioned him in Medina to veil his wives when others were at his home, citing that he was the Prophet and this would be a sign of respect for his wives. As decisions about the believers were made by consensus, Muhammad agreed. This is the beginning of the use of the veil by all of Muhammad’s adult female followers. The veil became a sign of the increasing authority of males over females and the shift from matrilocal society to the patriarchal organization.
After Muhammad’s death, some Muslim women began to leave the faith, seeing the diminishing rights that they began to have as compared to pre-Islamic times and the time of Muhammad’s support for them in religion and in society. They saw a loss of rights and respect, an increase in control and subordination, and not a protection and sign of the privileged as it had originally been intended.
- Chamberlin, Ann A History of Women’s Seclusion in the Middle East: The Veil in the Looking Glass Routledge (2006)
- El Guindi, Fadwa Veil, Modesty, Privacy, Resistance Berg (1999)
- Lings, Marttin Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources Inner Traditions (2006)
- Mernissi, Fatima Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society Indiana University Press (1987)
- Mernissi, Fatima The Veil and the Male Elite: a Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam Basic Books (1992)