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Seclusion

By:
Youshaa Patel
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.

Seclusion

In Muslim society, the religiously sanctioned cultural practice of female seclusion is intended to shield female bodies from the penetrating male gaze. The norm of female seclusion complements sartorial norms, sanctioned by Islam, that regulate female dress, such as the headscarf. In tandem, regulations governing seclusion and dress function to indicate a female's sexual availability and, in the view of religious scholars, prevent social discord (fitnah).

Often, female seclusion has traditionally signaled social and economic prestige as well. The Qurʾānic prescription that men should speak to women from behind a curtain originally applied to the Prophet's wives only: “And when you ask them for something, ask from behind a veil; that is purer for your hearts and for theirs” (33:53). Lower- and working-class, rather than upper-class, women held jobs that often involved interaction with men. Even the headscarf originally signaled class status; slave women were prohibited from veiling their hair. Eventually, however, the norms governing seclusion spread to non-elites. It became a cultural norm throughout different regions of Muslim civilization—the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia—to control and restrict female sexuality in public life.

Several Arabic and Persian terms signal the importance of seclusion, separation, and privacy to the organization of female space in Muslim society. Although, today, the Arabic word “hijab” generally denotes the headscarf worn by Muslim women, it originally referred to a veil or curtain that physically separates female from male space, as in the Qurʾānic verse mentioned earlier (“ask from behind a veil [hijab].”) “Purdah” is a Persian word that also means “curtain,” but it denotes the cultural institution of female seclusion; today, the term is especially applied in South Asia.

The harem, popularized in the Western imagination by the famous collection of stories, The One Thousand and One Nights, literally means “sacrosanct” and “inviolable,” but denotes female members of the household or the physical space that they inhabit. Beginning in the Umayyad period (late seventh century), elite Muslim males, including the caliph, adopted the institution of the harem. The harem had been a Near Eastern cultural practice for thousands of years prior to the advent of Islam.

A few additional observations help place female seclusion in its proper social and cultural context. First, notwithstanding the fantasies of European Orientalists, the ideal of female seclusion did not always manifest itself in Muslim society. Despite the frustrations of many Muslim religious scholars, women in fourteenth-century Cairo could still be found roaming the cemeteries, markets, mosques, and festivals alongside men. Second, female Muslim space has varied across time and place. Local politics and culture, not just Islam, have shaped gendered space; female space thus has shifted along with the shifting interplay of religion, culture, and politics. It is therefore possible to understand why female seclusion is not exclusively “Islamic.” The South Asian practice of purdah, for example, is not restricted to Muslims, but shared across other religious communities as well. In Muslim society, public life was not traditionally the exclusive preserve of men, nor was private life the exclusive preserve of women; the boundary separating public from private was porous. Premodern Muslim women did have a limited role in public life—at the markets, through scholarship, and even in politics. More recently, modern Muslim feminists in various majority-Muslim countries have struggled to normalize female participation in mixed gendered settings such as schools, cafes, and offices.

Another very different type of seclusion is denoted by the Arabic term, khalwah, which refers to spiritual and social seclusion as experienced by Muslim mystics, or Ṣūfīs. Many Ṣūfīs were women, like the famous Iraqi female mystic, Rābʿia al-ʿAdawiyya (d. 801), who chose not to marry in order to devote her entire life to worshipping God. In contrast to the types of seclusion mentioned above, this mystical lifestyle choice of self-imposed seclusion appears to affirm female agency and freedom from male patriarchy.

Bibliography

  • Afsaruddin, Asma, Anan Ameri, et al., eds. Hermeneutics and Honor: Negotiating Female “Public” Space in Islamic/Ate Societies: Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • ʿAttār, Farīd al-Dīn. Muslim Saints and Mystics. Translated by A. J. Arberry. London: Routledge, 1983.
  • Lutfi, Huda. “Manners and Customs of Fourteenth-Century Cairene Women: Female Anarchy Versus Male Sharʿi Order in Muslim Prescriptive Treatises.” In Women in Middle Eastern History, edited by Nikki R. Keddie and Beth Baron, pp. 99–121. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.
  • Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. “The Ḥijāb: How a Curtain Became an Institution and a Cultural Symbol.” In Humanism, Culture, and Language in the Near East, edited by Asma Afsaruddin and A.H. Mathias Zahniser, pp. 87–104. Winona Lake, Inc.: Eisenbrauns, 1997. pp. 87–104.
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