Examining the status of women just before the advent of Islam, one observes a paradox. On the one hand, there are historical indications that suggest that women in the jahiliya society were extremely disadvantaged. For example, it is known that infanticide, the burying of female daughters while they were alive, was a common practice. A dim picture also appears in areas concerning marriage customs, divorce rights, inheritance, and other aspects of social and economic lives. On the other hand, there are indications that portray a different picture. The story of Khadija, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, reflects an image of a wealthy woman who was— before Islam—an entrepreneur of sorts. She had a business, employed other men, traded beyond the borders of Mecca, and represented the epitome of economic participation. It is indeed the case that there was an interplay of gender/class/ethnicity factors that were operational during that era which allowed a woman like Khadija to thrive, while at the same time disadvantaged other members of society including poor and slave women.
The example of Khadija in her later interactions with her husband after Islam tells a story of a strong woman whose husband leaned on her for support. Muslim traditions indicate that when the Prophet received the message from God through the archangel Gabriel, he came back to her frightened and shivering. She comforted and consoled him; throughout their lives together, he drew courage out of her. When she later died well before him, he seemed to have buried a piece of his heart with her. Even as he remarried later on, he used to refer to her with affection: “She believed in me when no one else did; she accepted what I was saying as truth when people rejected me; and she helped me with her money when there was no one else to lend me a helping hand.”1 The Prophet was not hesitant to indicate that, at various points in his life, he was dependent on her emotionally and economically. Khadija’s story has been recurrently used in contemporary discourses on the role of women in Muslim societies. Her example is often advanced by Muslim feminists as a role model of a courageous, intelligent, and dependable woman who was instrumental in the life of her husband.
Khadija died a few years after the Prophet declared the message of Islam. That was a tough period for him to the extent that the year in which she died is dubbed the “year of grief.” In that year he lost his compassionate wife in addition to his supportive uncle. When he was later driven out of Mecca to another city, Medina, things gradually became better. The deprived and oppressed Muhammad in Mecca became a head of a small, but growing, state. The men and women of Medina welcomed him as he established the first seeds of an Islamic society and government. It was in Medina that the first laws were written down, and it was there where the first signs of a new social order were established. This social order included the prescription of the veil (whatever that has meant for later-day Muslims). The veil was not only a dress code for the believing Muslim women. The veil marked a new social arrangement in which women became differentiated in new ways within the embryonic Medina Muslim society. While Muslims have historically debated the exact implications of the prescription of the veil, this era has been immensely important even for contemporary times. Various perspectives as to what the veil really means have had strong implications on defining women’s roles in Muslim society, the degree of their participation in economic and political affairs, and their expected functions in the public versus private spheres.
Many historians argue that the veil was not a new phenomenon created by the new message of Islam at the time.2 Actually, there were forms of veiling among Jewish, Christian, and pagan societies. Even after the Islamic prescription of the veil, and up to recent times, many European women conformed to a form of veiling during religious services in many churches. Nowadays, a form of veil is found among many disparate communities across the world. Those include the Amish, orthodox Jewish women, Hindu women, and other non-Muslim women in various communities. It even exists among men, though to a lesser extent, such as the Tuareq of North Africa and within Sikh communities mainly in India but also within immigrant groups in the West.
Since the time the few verses in Sura Annur (chapter of The Light) of the Qur’an were revealed, the veil, and its various forms and symbolisms, have taken different routes. Some, though markedly few, understand the verses and the behaviors of the early Muslim society to direct women to be fully covered, almost totally secluded from the presence of men. Others assert that the dress is not supposed to limit women’s participation in the public and economic lives of their societies. Some assert that the headscarf is the invention of patriarchal structures which overpowered the genuine Islamic rulings at the time. Those differences of opinion have had significant impact on female participation in various Arab and Muslim societies. Religious teachings met cultural traditions, and thus various understandings emerged about how believing women should dress. This obviously had an impact on women’s levels of economic and political participation across time and place.