Answered by Sidi Abdullah Anik Misra
Question: A so-called scholar on a Pakistani (religious) TV channel stated that if a man unlawfully gazes at a woman, the woman (even if she does not know that the man is looking at her) will be punished for it by being thrown in hell, and will never see heaven. This is because women, by their nature, have the instinctive ability to figure out who is looking/staring at them even if they are busy studying or doing some other work. He also stated something along the lines that if a woman can leave the house only if it is an absolute necessity (i.e. life and death situation). I would appreciate it if you would answer the above, using proofs from the Quran and Hadith.
Answer: As salamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
Thank you for your question, sister. The views that you have stated above, namely that:
(1) a woman is punished for a man looking at her whilst she is unaware, even if she dresses and behaves with proper modesty and is not allowing or intending for him to gaze at her,
(2) that a woman cannot leave the house except in life or death circumstances, and
(3) that women should be prevented from seeking beneficial knowledge due to the fear of being seen, are all opinions that are not in accordance with the views of the mainstream scholarship of Islam.
That women have an instinctive ability to know someone is looking at them is perhaps the personal opinion of that particular speaker; it is not an Islamic precept to my knowledge, nor grounded on any valid reasoning.
True, a woman should be aware of her surroundings and not feel comfortable with being stared at nor encourage the stares of strange men, but that could be well beyond her control despite being modest in dress and behavior, and for this, she is not held accountable.
The Purpose Behind Preferring the Home
The injunction for women to prefer their homes rather than aimlessly being outside comes from the verse in the Qu’ran where Allah Most High says, “And stay in your homes and do not expose your beauty the way they used to expose in the pagan times of old, and establish prayer and pay the obligatory charity…” [al-Quran, 33:33].
Ibn Kathir explains that this command is only to curb leaving the home “without any need, and from amongst the needs which are valid according to the Sacred Law is praying in the mosque, while observing its conditions.” [Tafsir, Ibn Kathir]
The purpose of this injunction, as seen by the second half of the verse also, was for the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him), and hence all the believing women, not to imitate the women of pagan times who would aimlessly wander the streets dressed in revealing clothing and behave immodestly with men. This by no means prevents women from their respectable pursuits and natural needs such as education, keeping up ties with neighbors and family, etc
In his explanation, Ibn Kathir singles out the right of women to leave their homes to enrich their spiritual lives, which are intangible needs that are deemed as essential, while alternatives exist to pray at home. What then of more tangible needs such as education? Clearly, this should be encouraged considering how important it is for Muslim women to respond to the needs of modern society, especially in fields of collective obligation such as medicine, as you mentioned.
Conditions Establishing “Need”
The key to weighing this issue lies in the last part of Ibn Kathir’s explanation of the verse: “while observing its conditions”. Once conditions of
(a) modest dress and behavior,
(b) a productive and genuine purpose, and
(c) avoiding people and places where sin are observed,
then there would be no prohibition on women in leaving the home to the amount that they need, as this would be beneficial to themselves and society. If one reflects on this, Muslim men are similarly encouraged to observe the same guidelines and discouraged from aimless loitering in the streets also.
Abdullah Anik Misra
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani