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Eleanor Abdella Doumato
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The practice of confining women to the exclusive company of other women in their own home or in separate female living quarters is one mechanism among others—including modest dress, veiling, self-effacing mannerisms, and the separation of men and women in public places—that are employed to undergird sexual morality in Middle Eastern Muslim societies. The practice of women's seclusion is grounded in both religion and social custom. Numerous verses in the Qurʿān enjoin separation and modesty in dress and behavior on women. Sūrah 33:32–33, for example, states:

"O ye wives of the Prophet! Ye are not like other women. If ye keep your duty [to Allāh] then be not soft of speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease aspire [to you], but utter customary speech, and stay in your houses. Bedizen not yourselves with the bedizenment of the times of ignorance."

Qurʿānic commentators were later to hold up the modesty and confinement enjoined on the Prophet 's wives as a model of decorum for all women.

Such practices are also grounded in the idea that women are a source of temptation (    fitnah) for men, and in the fear that social interaction between unrelated men and women would therefore lead to illicit sexual intercourse and chaos in the community of believers. The importance of controlling women in order to control fitnah was elaborated by theologians as a religious imperative and incorporated into law under the influence, most notably, of Imam al-Ghazālī (1050–1111) in his book The Revivification of the Religious Sciences.

Although Islam helped to institutionalize and perpetuate modesty and seclusion practices by endowing them with the aura of religious sanctity, these practices did not originate with Islam; they were well established in Byzantine and Syriac Christian and pre-Christian societies of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, and Persia before the coming of Islam. Female separation practices encouraged in Islam are also compatible with Middle Eastern tribal patriarchy and with tribal attitudes about maintaining blood purity, which necessitate controls over women's reproductive capacity.

The ultimate expression of female seclusion is the ḥarīm (harem) system, ḥarīm meaning both the area of the home in which women dwell and the women of the family, the word connoting sacredness and inviolability. The ḥarīm system became fully institutionalized during the ʿAbbāsid Caliphate. Under it women of the household, female retainers, and servants lived in complete seclusion from the outside world under the guardianship of eunuchs. Seclusion remained a practice characteristic of nobility and the urban middle and upper classes, among whom the financial ability to allow one 's wife to remain at home was a mark of status. However, confinement to the home has also been practiced in some regions, such as the Arabian Peninsula, by very poor families among whom seclusion of women is a great hardship. In general, because most women are agricultural workers, urban poor, or domestic servants, seclusion in the form of confinement to the home has always been economically unrealistic. For women workers and women of wealth alike, the face veil and the chador or ʿabāyah represent a mechanism for extending one 's physical seclusion outside the home.

The practice of female seclusion declined precipitously in the early twentieth century as a result of education and increased economic opportunity for women, but it has not entirely disappeared. In rural areas of Afghanistan, for example, and in conservative Gulf states where tribal affiliations remain strong and income is high, a value is still placed on rigid separation of women from unrelated men.

Since the early 1980s female modesty and separation practices have found renewed encouragement in the sermons and fatwās of conservative preachers and theologians who call for use of the ḥijāb (Islamic dress), veiling, and limiting women's access to public places. In Saudi Arabia, some radical scholars and political groups call for a return to seclusion and an end to all female employment outside the home.

The positive response of young women, especially well-educated urban women, to the religious revival and its call for women's modesty underscores the fact that seclusion practices reflect social realities as well as religious values. For professional working women, adopting the ḥijāb is a way of carving out legitimate space for themselves in the public arena traditionally reserved for men; the ḥijāb is a strategy for coping with a social climate in which men are uncomfortable working with women, and which holds women responsible for men 's moral behavior. For religious women, some of whom are actually trying to emulate the seclusion practices eschewed by their grandmothers ’ generation, seclusion is an affirmation of religious values in the face of massive westernization and the dilution of what are considered mores and practices ordained by God.



  • Abu-Lughod, Lila. Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society. Berkeley, Calif., 1986. Discusses the values of honor, modesty, and patriarchy in a bedouin community as the fundamental rationale for separation practices.
  • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, Conn., 1992. Discusses seclusion in historical perspective.
  • Doumato, Eleanor A.“Hearing Other Voices: Christian Women and the Coming of Islam.”International Journal of Middle East Studies23 (1991): 177–199. Discussion of seclusion practices among pre-Islamic Christian women in the Arabian Peninsula.
  • Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, N.J., 2005.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Rev. ed.Bloomington, Ind., 1987. Discusses the rationale for seclusion practices in Muslim theology and in Middle Eastern social norms regarding heterosexual relations.
  • Scott, Joan Wallach. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton, N.J., 2007.
  • Shaʿrāwī, Hūdā. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist. Translated by Margot Badran. London, 1986. Describes growing up in an upper-middle-class “hareem” in Cairo.
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