Many Islamic scholars, almost all men, have written a great length about clothing, especially women's clothing. The Koran which of course is the ultimate authority in Islam, comments only briefly on clothing. About women clothing the Koran says: "And tell the believing women to subdue their eyes, and maintain their chastity. They shall not reveal any parts of their bodies, except that which is necessary. They shall cover their chests, and shall not relax this code in the presence of other than their husbands, their fathers, the fathers of their husbands, their sons, the sons of their husbands, their brothers, the sons of their brothers, the sons of their sisters, other women, the male servants or employees whose sexual drive has been nullified, or the children who have not reached puberty" (24:31). The Koran don't mention a veil covering the face. However this tradition was introduced in many places. About modesty rules, Koran makes a difference between adults and "children who have not reached puberty". Traditionally in some Islamic communities the little children have no rules about clothing and go usually naked. This was more common in rural communities. The early photographic record of the Middle East shows this very clearly. The image here is a studio portrait, but several photographs took pictures out on the streets and country side, leaving an invaluable record. Two of these photographers were the Bonfils . It is also observable in modern times when we see younger children, even in conservative Muslim countries, wearing Western dress.
Many Islamic scholars, almost all men, have written a great length about clothing, especially women's clothing. The Koran which of course is the ultimate authority in Islam, comments only briefly on clothing.
The Koran does not provide detailed instructions about women's clothing, but does inist on modesty. The two most important verses are:
Verse 24:31: "And tell the believing women to subdue their eyes, and maintain their chastity. They shall not reveal any parts of their bodies, except that which is necessary. They shall cover their chests, and shall not relax this code in the presence of other than their husbands, their fathers, the fathers of their husbands, their sons, the sons of their husbands, their brothers, the sons of their brothers, the sons of their sisters, other women, the male servants or employees whose sexual drive has been nullified, or the children who have not reached puberty."
Verse 33:59: "O prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the wives of the believers that they shall lengthen their garments. Thus, they will be recognized and avoid being insulted." This is somewhat ambiguous. Presumably this refers to the length of skirts.
The Koran does not mention a veil or mask covering a woman's face face. This tradition was introduced in many places, without Koranic authority. Some think that originally the veil was imposed to destinguish free from slave women; only later it became a sign of modesty. The history of the veil is a long one. It was not worn in what is now the Arab world and Iran until the Arab outburtst from the Arabian Peninsula (8th century). Various forms of the veil became common as Islam was spread to The Middle East, North Africa, and central Asia. The justification was that it imposed modesty and helped to regulte the
relations between the genders in public. Most of the restrictions imposed by Islam, such as the veil, affected women to a far greater extent than men. Of course a less covering veil was worn in medieval Christian Europe as well, but only for nobel women. Peasant women never were veiled. In the Islamic Mideast and North Africa, not only was much more covering, but it congtinued into the modern world. The movement for women to 'un-veil' did not begin until the later phase of the colonial era. Arabs often refer to the colonial era as the 19th century when European countries established various degrees of colonial control. Actually the colonial era began with the Ottomans conquered most Arab countrie (16th century). The Arabs were also Muslims abd did not interfere with local customs like the veil. The Europeans colonial experience was different. Here there were two impacts. Arab women began to see uncovered European women. Also European administrators fostered policies that promoted modern attituides toward women. Developments in Egypt were particularly important. Here ironically the movement to unveil became seen as a modernizing anti-British movement at the same time that British administrator Evelyn Baring (1883-1907), who opposed women's sufferage in Britain, saw unveiling as a civilizing reform. One author writes that unveiling became a symbol of longings within Egypt for a less oppressive society, a national identity, and shaking off colonial control. [Ahmed] Notably an Egyptian sculptor advocating independence fro Britain created a sculpture--The Awakening of Egypt, It depicted a young peasant woman throwing off her veil. The issue of the veil has emerged in recent years as head covering since the 1970s has been promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, arguably the most modern of the Arab states. It reached the West when Mulim women in Europe began wearing veils and covering their heads. This led to the French Government banning the niqab, the full face veil (2011).
About modesty rules, Koran makes a difference between adults and 'children who have not reached puberty'. Traditionally in some Islamic communities, little children have no rules about clothing and often go naked. This was moste common in rural communities. Poverty was a factor here. The earliest images when the first photographs become available of the Middle East show this very clearly. Heregender what was factor. It was much more commin for young boys to go without clothes than young girls. The image here is a studio portrait (figure 1), but several photographs took pictures out on the streets and country side, leaving an invaluable record. Two of the most important early Middle Eastern photographers were the Bonfils . It is also observable in modern times when we see younger children, even in conservative Muslim countries, wearing Western dress. We are not sure why they do, we suspectthat Western clothing is more practical for children.
There is a huge body of Islamic religiou scholarship. In fact, Islamic relogious scholarship is far more extensive than all other types of scholarship combined. This of course is a factor in why the Muslim world lags behind the rest of the world. This religious scholarship does not have the same authority of Koranic instructions, but it is influential in the Islamic world.
Islamic religious scolarship goes far beyond the Koran.
Islamic scholars created the concept of "Awrah". There is a huge body of scholarship on this subject and a lively debate on how to define it. Basically Awrah is defined as the part of human body that cannot be shown in public. Men's awarah is from navel to knees; women's awarah the whole body except face and hands. There is some difference of opinion regarding children. The primary consensus among Muslim scholars is that children who are 4 years old or younger have no awrah, but some Islamic schools of Law teach that children have no awrah until 7 years of age. According to the Shafi'i school, the boys have no awrah until puberty. It should be stressed that these determinations are based on religious scholarship and are not actually defined in the Koran. This destinction is very important. Islamic scholars can debate such religious determinations. For a Muslim, however, the Koran itself can not be questioned because it is believed to be the actual word of God. The concept in many Muslim countries goes beyond debate. People violating the rules in countries like Taliban Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia can be beaten in public and arrested even though the rules are no based on Koranic instructions.
The strict dress code for women was often not enforced for slaves. We note a photograph of an Egyptian slave. The photo shows also that Muslim modesty rules are different for slave and free women. The Islamic scholars are not unanimous, but it seems that in public slave women's awarah are only the
pelvis. Usually slave women were not allowed to wear the veil, to be distinguished from free women. They also can go bare breasted. It seems that somewhere they were forced to do. It seems that at the time of Muhammad slave women went usually bare breasted in Medina. In front of their owner slave women have not awarah at all.
The great traveler Ibn Battuta (1304-68) visited the Sultanate of Mali (1352). He described some "bad things" that he saw. One thing is that serving women, slave women and little daughters of Sultan appeared naked in front of everyone "exposing their private parts"; another thing that free women were introduced full naked in the presence of Sultan. It seems that Ibn Battuta would have no problems if slave woman and little girls covered their private parts before extraneous and were naked only in the presence of the Sultan. On the contrary, free women should be full covered also in front of the Sultan.
Ahmed, Leila. A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence from the Middle East to America (Yale, 2011), 352p.
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