If you’ve been reading this website for a while, even if you’re not Muslim, chances are you’ve caught the drift from a couple of posts that the Qur’an is absolutely gorgeous. Since I spend a lot of time here discussing the more seemingly formidable verses (see the entire “Misconceptions” tab) I haven’t quite explicitly demonstrated exactly how gorgeous, and since each verse of the Qur’an has at least seven different meanings, it’s likely I never fully will. For a moment, I want to shift our attention from the verses that are more commonly misconceived (by both Muslims and non-Muslims) to the ones that whose misconceptions have more subtle (but equally sinister) effects, and point out that these misconceptions–and their effects–contribute to the undercurrents of sexism in the Muslim community and in the malestream exegesis of the Qur’an and Islamic texts.
Before we take a look at 24:33, I want to refer briefly to 24:31. It’s a verse that deals with hijab, but that’s not what I want to talk about. Verse 24:31 packed with interesting little admissions hinting toward the demographic of which societal–and domestic–life was composed:
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gazes and guard themselves, and not display their adornment except what is obvious (apparent, necessary) save to their husbands, or fathers, or father-in-laws, or sons, or brothers, or nephews, or children, or their women, or what their right hands possess, or those who have no desire of women. (Qur’an, 24:31) [emphasis mine, clearly]
Now, I know that must sound restrictive, reading this entire list of exceptions (husbands, sons, brothers, etc.) to the “public,” but let’s pretend for a while that we live in a world where there hasn’t been a patriarchal bias established as precedent, and people are rational and logical in their interpretations and patriarchy isn’t championed as neutrality. And then let’s take a look at the verse before this one,
Tell the believing men to lower their gazes and guard themselves. That is purer for them. (Qur’an, 24:30)
That’s it. No exceptions. Like, literally, no exceptions. Men are commanded to lower their gazes. From everyone. Now, with consideration of the context in terms of cultural setting (609-632 CE, Arabia), one can argue that the verse is referring specifically to women (as the audience from whom a man should lower his gaze) but that is presumptuous considering (1) it’s a broad generalization that overlooks the vast diversity in cultural makeup in this area during that period and (2) it isn’t present from the context in terms of the Qur’an itself. In fact, the verse preceding this one speaks of entering someone’s home politely–the very home, mind you, that is described in the verse addressing women that follows.
It is reasonable, then, to come to the understanding that the parties included in the verse addressing women are present when a man, in context, entering someone else’s home, is commanded to “lower the gaze.” When the act of modesty is meant to convey humility of character (in belief) then what is being regulated here is the arrogance of men. It is commentary on the entire culture of masculinity. Men are commanded to lower their gazes–or reduce their arrogance–not only in the presence of a woman, but in respect to her entire household.
Imagine an ulema in which the majority of exegetes are women. Imagine the interpretation of these verses under that ulema. Does that ulema arriving at this interpretation sound like they must be performing logical acrobatics in their arguments? Well, not considering the inconsistencies present in the interpretations of an ulema composed entirely of men. For example, the next verse reads,
And those of you who are solitary, marry the single among you and the righteous among your male and female slaves. If they are poor, God will enrich them. (Qur’an, 24:32)
I’m not kidding. That command is given to both men and women. It says male and female slaves. And the men as well as the women are single prior to the marriage i.e. there’s no way to read men marrying multiple women into this verse. But for some reason the male ulema has managed to “burden” only men with the task of marrying slaves and bringing them prosperity. Go look it up if you don’t believe me. Go on. And in case you still don’t believe this verse addresses women as well, “the single” is masculine–which again, means no polygamy if the men are single before this. When the Qur’an addresses men in referring to a group of women who are eligible for marriage (such as the “women your right hand possesses”) the feminine plural is used. This is not a group of women–it is either a group composed entirely of men, or a mixed group.
In fact, let’s talk about pronouns and the inconsistencies that the male ulema conveniently administers in interpreting them. Most of the religious activities that the malestream ulema has designed solely for men (such as Eid and jummah prayers, or marrying [multiple] slaves) are argued this way because of the employment of the masculine plural for “believers,” regardless of the explicit inclusion of women as in the verse regarding marriage above. (In other words, don’t let men tell you you’re not obligated to attend these prayers–you absolutely must. It is addressed to all believers.) And yet the beginning of verse 24:33 uses the masculine plural when it commands,
And let be chaste those who do not find means for marriage, until God enriches them. (Qur’an 24:33)
The male ulema suddenly decides that in this employment of the masculine plural, the chastity before marriage refers not only to men and women, but especially to women. Had we remained consistent with their logic when it comes to attending jummah prayers, according to this verse only men are required to remain chaste before marriage.
In light of these drastic interpretational inconsistencies resulting from patriarchal bias masquerading as neutrality, it’s especially profoundly logical that verses 2:30-2:31 regarding the lowering of the gaze, in which women are given exceptions and men strictly are not, can be concluded as a device for the regulation of masculine arrogance in the face of entering the feminine sphere (of domesticity or of expertise), and would have been reasonably seen as such had even half the ulema been composed of women.
Finally, the end of 24:33 reads,
And do not compel the woman to prostitution who desires chastity. (Qur’an, 24:33)
This verse is, unfortunately, starkly relevant today. Perhaps, sometime in the future, if we imagine wistfully for a moment, its secondary or tertiary meanings will have room to be applied–
that one mustn’t compel the woman to need who wishes to be independent.