Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam

Arshad Shaikh presents a summary of the widely read and highly influential book by Syed Abul A’la Maudoodi – Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam. It is one of the most compelling reads to comprehend the traditional and the dominant view on the Hijab held by a majority of Muslim scholars in the…

Written by

Published on

Arshad Shaikh presents a summary of the widely read and highly influential book by Syed Abul A’la Maudoodi – Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam. It is one of the most compelling reads to comprehend the traditional and the dominant view on the Hijab held by a majority of Muslim scholars in the sub-continent. The book builds a detailed case in a logical and coherent manner for the mandatory adherence of observing the Purdah by Muslim women and systematically dismantles the entire narrative of a woman being ‘modern’ and ‘cultured’ only if she forgoes dressing modestly.

The book is a culmination of a series of articles on Purdah in the Tarjumanul Qur’ān. Some aspects of the discussion were purposely left untouched or were partly addressed as these were meant to be articles and not the chapters of a book. Now the same series is being presented as a book with necessary additions and explanations.


One of the most difficult things to fath6om is human nature. Without having a balanced opinion, one is prone to sway between extremes. Hence, at one extreme, we find that the woman is treated like a servant. She is mistreated and deprived of all rights of inheritance and ownership. She is regarded as an embodiment of sin and misfortune, and is refused all opportunities for developing and unfolding her personality. On the other extreme, we find that the same woman is given so much freedom that a storm of immorality and licentiousness follows in her wake. She is objectified for carnal indulgence and reduced to the position of Satan’s agent, and with this pseudo-liberty starts the degeneration of humanity in general.


The Greeks regarded the woman as a sub-human creature, inferior in rank to man. Initially, Romans recognised man as the chief of the family unit, possessing full authority and power over the members of his family; so much so that he could take the life of his wife. However, with the passage of time, the situation almost reversed.

Christian Europe had two doctrines. The first was that woman was the mother of sin and the root cause of all evil. She led man towards sin and corruption. Their second belief was that sexual relations were abhorrent even if established within legal marriage. Consequently, celibacy and spinsterhood became the criterion of the nobility of character, and married life came to be regarded as a necessary evil. Today, Western society is based on three dogmas – equality between the male and the female; the economic independence of woman and the free intermingling of the sexes.


Europe was grappling with a social system with undue restrictions, replete with senseless customs and rigid regulations. The Reformation Movement clashed with the Church and a blind urge for revolution led to the rise of an extreme concept of personal liberty and freedom. With the decline in the practice of Christian ethics, objections were raised against chastity and restrictions on having love and sexual relations outside marriage.

These new liberal western concepts of morality had their tragic consequences. The family system was disrupted; children began being aborted and sexual delinquency among youth and promiscuity increased exponentially, resulting in the spread of venereal diseases. Divorce and separation became widespread and suicide rate increased.


Man has been endowed with tremendous sexual urge for the opposite sex. However, this endowment is not meant merely for pleasure and enjoyment, it can help maintain lifelong companionship with one’s spouse. It can pave the foundation for a society and community life. The challenge is how to regulate the sexual urge. Modern Western civilization demands perfect equality between man and woman. This equality goes against nature.

One human limitation is that man by nature is incapable of viewing all the aspects of a problem or affair of life in totality. This inadequacy made men adopt the practice of monasticism while others swayed towards sexual anarchy.

Another limitation is that no man-made social system has so far succeeded in correctly understanding the human sense of modesty, especially in the woman, and determine exactly how far and to what extent the female body needs to be covered. Nothing has been done to set rationally the bounds of nakedness for the human body.


After the subjugation of the Muslim world at the hands of Europe, Muslims developed a slavish mentality and thought that the best way to progress was to imitate the West in all aspects, including social customs. Consequently, the system of Purdah came under attack.

It was propounded that certain scholars had allowed uncovering of the hands and the face, and that a woman could go out as and when required under necessity. She could also visit mosques for offering prayers and for learning or imparting knowledge. With this material in hand, they came out with the claim that Islam had granted full liberty to woman. Purdah was a custom of ignorance, which had been adopted by the narrow-minded Muslims long after the glorious period of Islam. They also averred that the Qur’ān and Hadith were devoid of the Purdah injunctions. Islam only inculcated moral teachings of modesty and chastity; and did not advocate any restrictions on the movement and travel of women.


If Muslims want to have a clean and pure community life, they should not look towards the West as it can only lead them away from high morals and noble traits of character, which can guarantee true progress of man’s intellectual, spiritual and physical abilities. Again, it is Islam alone, which allows men and women to perform their social functions to the best of their abilities uninterrupted by the lusts of the flesh.

Islam guarantees a family system as the corner stone of civilization in which lineage can remain pure and uncorrupted, in which the family life can be a source of peace and comfort for man, a cradle of educational training for his offspring and an association for co-operative action for all the members of the family. If Muslims really cherish these objectives, they should sincerely follow the way of Islam.


All the above-mentioned problems, challenges and limitations have been addressed and solved by Islam. The social system of Islam separates the woman’s sphere of activity from that of man. They are entrusted with separate responsibilities in the social life according to their respective natures and mental and physical abilities. Man is given the role of a governor in the family and the rest of the members in the family should obey him.

Islamic social system also provides safeguards to protect itself from degeneration. One is at the spiritual level of self-purification and secondly, it has punitive laws and preventive measures. These measures (that include Purdah or Hijab) segregate the spheres of activity between men and women, which safeguard the bounds prescribed by Islam. Thus, Islam succeeds in establishing the correct equality between the sexes that is in sync with the laws of nature.


The world has been trying in vain to determine the right place of women in society. It swings from one extreme to another. The just and right course between the extremes which is in harmony not only with human nature and reason but also with man’s worldly requirements is the one offered by Islam. The object of the social laws of Islam is to safeguard the institution of marriage and prevent sexual anarchy. Islam devised moral purification, punitive laws and preventive measures that act as the three pillars of the Islamic social system. Since the first two pillars stand demolished, the entire system now stands only on the third one.

If we have to solve our social, economic and political problems, we shall have to think hard and find out the Islamic ways of their solution. However, we cannot go beyond the limits prescribed by Islam. Therefore, let us not weaken Purdah, which is a bulwark against sexual disorder, especially in the present age.