Many may ask what is behind the Muslim tradition of women veiling their faces. And to all wondering, I’d point first to the Koran.
Enjoin believing men to turn their eyes away from temptation and to restrain their carnal desires. This will make their lives purer. God has knowledge of all their actions.
(N.J. Dawood, trans., The Koran [London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1999], Light: 24)
The Islamic world has a tradition of body-shrouding garb like the chador. And like most religiously charged issues, the garb isn’t without controversy. Popular opinion tends to paint the dress as an emblem of Islamic sexism. But its origins tell a different story—a story of safeguarding women. The chador may have evolved anthropologically as a sort of protection from the harsh desert sun. But Islam says it’s a tradition that falls in line with the will of God. Allah teaches that the minds of men are often filled with impure thoughts:
Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity; not to display their adornments (except such as are normally revealed); to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to display their finery except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their step-sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women-servants, and their slave-girls; male attendants lacking in natural vigour, and children who have no carnal knowledge of women. And let them not stamp their feet when walking so as to reveal their hidden trinkets.
Believers, turn to God in penitence, that you may prosper.
Many have argued—perhaps half jokingly—that if beautiful women must hide their faces, so should handsome men. But as you now know, they’re missing the point. The Koran takes a strong stance on male sexual desire, which is why it states that “feminine beauty” must be hidden. Many women consider the teaching overkill, not to mention oppressive. But as far as Allah is concerned, the teaching is not up for discussion. The Koran casts women’s dress as an unquestionable issue of safety.
Back to the Koran, we read that it’s Khadija’s removing of her veil that makes the Angel Gabriel invisible to her husband, Muhammad.
From the Islamic perspective, a woman revealing her face is an act of disobedience to Allah and is tantamount to a loss of faith. The Angel Gabriel remains visible only to the faithful. So it is this disappearance and reappearance of the Angel Gabriel through Khadija’s manipulation of her veil that ultimately convinces her of Gabriel’s divinity. It also suggests that the idea of hiding “feminine beauty” had already existed by the time Muhammad is believed to have received his revelation.
We read that Muhammad becomes later, at long last, convinced of his own divine role as the true prophet before disseminating that final divine revelation known as the Koran. But of course things aren’t that easy. Jewish and Christian doubters, to name a few, stand in the way:
Sukayn and ‘Adiy b. Zayd said: ‘O Muhammad, we do not know of God’s having sent down to mortals anything after Moses.’ So God sent down concerning their words: ‘We have revealed unto thee as we revealed unto Noah and the prophets after him, and we revealed unto Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the tribes and Jesus and Job and Jonah and Aaron and Solomon and we brought to David the Psalms; and apostles. We have told thee of before and apostles. We have not told thee of; and God spoke directly to Moses; apostles bringing good news and warning that men might have no argument against God after the apostles (had come). God is Mighty, Wise.’
(Alfred Guillaume, trans., The Life of Muhammad [London: Oxford University Press, 1955], 265)