DARE TO ASK: Seclusion of Islamic women

By PHILLIP MILANO, The Times-Union

Question

What is the purpose of the Islamic practice of Purdah (concealment)? I can understand the hijab, but I think imprisoning a woman in the house, deprivation of education and work and forcing her to wear those "body tents" are extreme.

Rebecca P., 14, white, Jacksonville

Replies

Most Muslim women cover themselves because they want to be noticed for their intelligence and knowledge, not their sexy curves.

HYO, 14, Muslim female, Detroit

Muslims cannot control their own government, thoughts, sexual urges -- not even their own oil wells without the help of the Western world. Controlling their women is their last shot at self-respect.

Tom S., 53, Christian, Manteca, Calif.

The Islamic world has problems and needs help solving them, but as long as the West takes this missionary, ignorant, holier-than-thou attitude, it's not part of the solution.

Karim, 25, Muslim male, Los Angeles

You have to question societies that object to a woman's right to cover herself but call nudity a "human right." Is a nun required to be "liberated" for choosing to observe the habit?

Nadeem K., 24, Muslim male, Manchester, U.K.

Women dying because they couldn't walk to a doctor? Or couldn't purchase food because their male relatives were off fighting a war? Choosing to wear a traditional outfit and being forced to die from neglect are two very different things.

Aysha, 27, Idaho Falls, Idaho

Expert says

Koran 33:53 refers to the Prophet Muhammad's companions asking his wives to relay matters to him. Allah sent down the instruction: "And when you ask his wives for any thing, speak to them from behind a curtain, this is cleaner for your hearts and theirs."

On went the hijab for women and out came the general practice of "Purdah" in some parts of the world where Islam and Hinduism are prominent.

"Muhammad did provide for full participation of women, but after his death they became excluded," said Jane Smith, professor of Islamic Studies at Hartford Seminary and co-author of the upcoming Muslim Women in America (Oxford).

Cultural traditions of patriarchy arose, and males found it convenient to say Muhammad had affirmed exclusion of women, though the Koran verse referred only to his wives.

Women across the Islamic world are gaining more rights, but in places like Iraq the specter of a religious leader taking over has some women literally running for cover, Smith noted.

"As horrible as Saddam may have been, women were well-educated and in important professions. Many there are concerned a more conservative interpretation of Islam will take away their privileges."

Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee), moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers, or mail to Phillip Milano, c/o The Florida Times-Union, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Include contact information.