Umar, the only corrupted caliph of the first four, publicized stoning as a punishment for adultery, a penal ordinance that does not appear in the Qur’an and was delivered by the Prophet in cases when the adulterer was non-Muslim, such as the case of a Jewish woman in Medina whose people had agreed to an Islamic government only if it were separated from Jewish law. The Prophet, in order to keep peace and maintain religious freedom by recognizing non-Muslim laws among the residents he governed, allowed Jewish citizens to maintain their own sub-courts. However, association of stoning with Islamic law was promulgated by Umar after the Prophet’s death.
Unsurprisingly, Umar was known to be cruel to his wives and to physically assault them. Attempting to confine women to their homes, Umar also sought to deter women from attending prayers at the mosques, and, though he failed to accomplish this, managed temporarily to assign not only separate groups but separate imams for men and women. Although the men were led by an imam of their own sex, the women, of course, were led not by a female imam but a male one. They were also prevented from being imams themselves, though while the Prophet was alive, a woman—Umm Waraqa—was appointed to lead both men and women in prayer. This separation arrangement was revoked by the succeeding caliph, Uthman.
Part of Umar’s agenda to confine women to separate quarters manifested in his prohibition for Muhammad’s wives to go on pilgrimage, from which they had not been forbidden while the Prophet was alive. He lifted the restriction the year before he died, but the (historically influential) damage of this and other laws was done. It was not the first time that Umar sought to regulate the behaviors of women by restricting their ability to travel or interact with the opposite sex; while Muhammad was alive, Umar insisted that the Prophet separate his wives from himself, as was the practice of wealthy leaders. Umar was initially unsuccessful with this, as Muhammad did not have his own separate room but shared different rooms with his wives on different nights. While it is true that Muhammad’s wives were harassed by hypocrites who would attempt to assault them, Umar’s proposed solution (that the wives make themselves unrecognizable as the Prophet’s wives by separating themselves from the Prophet) was different from God’s—which was the veil.
But unlike what is commonly understood as the function of the veil, the purpose of the hijab is to separate the intimacy between a wedded couple from the patriarchal intrusions of the outside world. When the Prophet married Zeynab bint Jahsh, a woman renowned for her incredible beauty, he was quietly frustrated by indiscreet male guests who overstayed their welcome, and—as the verse curiously notes that none of the Prophet’s wives are permissible to other men—may have been meddling for indecent reasons. The verse reads,
O you who have believed!
do not enter
the houses of the Prophet
except when you are permitted for a meal,
without awaiting its readiness.
But when you are invited,
and when you have eaten, disperse without seeking
to remain for conversation.
Indeed, that [behavior] was troubling the Prophet,
and he is shy of [dismissing] you.
But God is not shy of
And when you ask [his wives] for something,
ask them from behind a partition.
That is purer for your hearts and their hearts.
And it is not conceivable or lawful for you
to harm the Messenger of God
or to marry his wives after him, ever.
Indeed, that would be in the sight of God an enormity.
It is clear from context then that the notion of whether the men were inappropriately interested in the new bride is not one that is out of question. This opens the verse to the possibility of an abstract interpretation: a veil over the heart, to ensure its purity.
Fawzia Afzal-Khan writes in “A Feminist Reclamation of Islam?” the following:
“The verse on the hijab descended at precisely the moment when the Prophet’s desire to consummate his marriage to the beautiful Zeynab was frustrated by the boorish behavior of his male guests who kept sitting in his living room long after the wedding banquet was over, and who the overly polite (“bordering on timid” as Mernissi describes him)—prophet of Islam, simply could not muster up enough courage to ask to leave. Finally, when they did depart, one male companion still hovered around, by the name of Anas Ibn Malik, and it is he who reported the event of the revelation of the verse about hijab as a witness.
Thus, according to Mernissi, the circumstances of this revelation point to an understanding of the notion of hijab as a tool to protect the intimacy of the wedded pair—their privacy—and to do so by excluding a third person, the man named Anas. He becomes a symbol, then, of a male dominant community that had become too invasive in the life and personal affairs of the prophet.”
This means that the hijab, in the most traditional sense, is meant to serve as a sanctuary against patriarchy; and not in the wear-this-and-you-will-be-protected-from-the-male-gaze kind of way accorded by mainstream, contemporary interpretations of Islam. Rather, it is meant to preserve the private expression and pursuit of Divine Love within a marriage from the overbearing reach of patriarchal exhibitionism.
Originally intended to keep out overbearing men, like Umar who attempt to tell other men how to behave toward their wives and seek to seclude them, from the privacy of quiet, marital understanding, the veil, over the centuries, has been misconstrued as a symbol of the exclusive rights of a husband to the beauty of his wife. In reality, the husband is included behind the veil, encompassed in a shield of love, and protected from the bellicose forces of masculine performance and societal expectations. Umar, patriarchy embodied, had attempted numerous times to impose the patriarchal practices of pre-Islamic societies and of the surrounding cultures onto Muhammad—an infamous preoccupation of the patriarchal male.
The hijab-literally ‘curtain’—‘descended,’ not to put a barrier between A man and a woman, but between two men.
A woman’s beauty, of course, belongs to no one, and can be policed by no one. Umar had tried—for the rest of time Umars will continue, in vain, to try.