"It's not a spectator sport!"

8. The origin of the Custom of the Seclusion of Women

The custom of the seclusion of women has its source in mystical thought. There used to be the mystical orders of people in the East who contemplated in solitude and lived in seclusion. The magnetism and power of influence that they developed by seclusion was in itself a marvel. This gave power to their gaze, power in their word, and influence in their atmosphere. This custom of seclusion was then imitated by the kings and people of high rank.

They had two ways of veiling themselves when away from home. One was to put a covering over the back of the head, which was made to hang down in front, so that the eyes could be half-covered; and the other was to put a veil over the face. It was a sort of mantle that they put on their head. Every prophet of Beni Israel had this. In the ancient pictures of the prophets of the Semitic race one will always see the head covered with a mantle. In the Hindu race also many orders of Buddhists and Yogis wore a mantle over the head. The veil which the kings also used, which was called Makna, later became customary in the East, and ladies of high rank wore what is called in Turkish the Yashmak. For thousands of years it has been the custom among Parsis that during their religious services the priest covers his head with a turban together with a mantle, and the Parsi women have kept the custom of covering the head with a white cloth, though it is less observed at the present time. In India, among Hindus as well as among Mussulmans, there is a custom at weddings of veiling the faces of bride and bridegroom with a veil of jasmine flowers.

Under all these different customs of veiling the head and face one finds a mystical significance. Man’s form is considered by Sufis as consisting of two parts, the head and the body, the body for action and the head for thought. Since the head is for thought its radiance is incomparably greater than that of the body, and the hairs are as rays of that radiance in a physical form. It is a constant outpouring of light that one observes in man’s life. Every action of looking, or breathing, or speaking, robs so much of the radiance out of man’s life. By preserving this radiance the mystic develops within him that influence, power and magnetism which in the average person are wasted. For instance, closing the eyes, which is a custom among mystics, not only helps in concentration and repose of mind, but during the movement when the eyes are closed, it preserves the radiance from flowing out. These customs were helpful to the kings and commanders for developing their power and influence, and they were valued for ladies of rank for preserving their beauty and charm. We learn by this that a life but little exposed to the outer world, whether through seclusion, or silence, or a perfect state of repose with the closed eyes, clasped hands and crossed legs, has a great influence.

9. The Custom of the Seclusion of Women (1)

The custom of the seclusion of the mystics remains only in the mystical Orders, but one finds the seclusion of women prevalent in the East. When a custom takes root in a section of society certainly it can be used and abused as people may choose. No doubt jealousy, which is in human nature, is a proof of love, but jealousy can be the source of a great many crimes. Man has always guarded the treasures that he values most in all sorts of coverings, and since that which man can love most is woman he has often ignorantly tried to guard her in the same way as all things of value and importance. And the custom of seclusion has been in his hand a means that has enabled him to control his household in the manner he likes.

However, it is not true that this custom was the outcome of the teaching of the Prophet. There are only two places in the records where an utterance of the Prophet on the subject is to be found. In one place it is told that when some coarse dances were going on among the peasants of his land, he said that women must be clad properly. In the other place, when the ladies of the Prophet’s household were returning home after taking care of the Prophet and his army during a battle, they were disinclined to look at the battle-field and to show themselves to their enemies, and the only thing that could be advised by the Prophet was that now that peace had been made if they did not like to show themselves they might veil their faces.

In India one sees the custom that an aged woman covers her face, a widow covers her face and a bride veils her face. There is some little psychological meaning in it. It is the nature of every soul to wish to hide its sorrow, and by veiling her face the widow veils her sorrow from others. And the veil that one sees on the face of an aged woman is there for the reason that in age the emotions become more visible and one has little control so as to hide them from others, and when the heart has become softened at every little touch, however gentle, it is easily moved, and the covering is as a shield over it. On the face of a bride the veil is for the preservation of the charm, of magnetism; at the same time the finest beauty in human nature is modesty, in whatever form it appears.

10 The Custom of the Seclusion of Woman (2)

From the physical as well as the occult point of view, woman is more impressionable than man. The task of woman as a mother is of greater importance than that of man on any position. Woman with her thought and feeing moulds the character of the child, and as she is susceptible to outward impressions, her impressions always have their influence on her child. During the period before motherhood very great care must be taken, for any word spoken to her reaches the depth of her being, and it re-echoes in the soul of the child. If a word made her bitter at the time or cross at a moment, it can create bitterness or crossness in the child. Especially during that period woman is more sensitive and susceptible to all impressions, beautiful or ugly. Anything striking impresses her soul deeply. A color, lightning, thunder, storm, all make impressions upon her. Conditions of life, misery or joy, all tell upon her more than on every person. Having this in consideration, the custom of seclusion has been kept in the East, and still exists among certain communities.

No doubt there is another side to consider; that home and state are not two separate things. Home is the miniature of the state; and if woman performs a part equally important at home, why must she not perform and equally important part in the outward life. No doubt these ancient customs, even with their psychological importance, often make an iron bar before the progress of the generality. In the East, for the maid and mistress both, there are days set apart for rest in every month, in all different religions, among Hindus, Parsis, and Mohammedans. The life in the world is a constant battle, and a hard battle one has to fight, if one has any fineness of feeling, any decency of manner. The position of woman in this battle is worse than that of man. It greatly robs her of her womanly fineness and delicacy of sentiment. Man is more dependent upon woman than woman on man. From the first moment any child, whether boy or girl, opens his eyes in the world, he seeks the protection of woman. Woman, as his mother, sister, daughter, friend, or wife, in every form, is the source of his happiness, comfort and peace. In whatever form man may express it – in crude custom like the seclusion in the East or in many different ways – to guard her against the hard knocks which fall on every soul living in this world of selfishness is the first duty of a thoughtful man.

COMMENTARY

By Connie Zareen

It is interesting to think of the tradition of the veiling of women starting as a custom of prestige and power, which first began in the priestly casts, was then emulated by Kings and people in power, and finally copied by whole societies. But it’s not that surprising. In our culture we have much the same sort of customs with women wearing long fingernails and seeking tans. Those first started out as the customs of rich women who didn’t need to work, and are now copied across the population. Women are very strongly conditioned that if they just look pretty enough they will get whatever they want. It takes a lot of courage for women to come out of their costumes and start taking full responsibility life, for decisions and power.

Women, generally, are still a long way from taking on the full responsibility of liberation. We are so fortunate that brave women sacrificed for us to gain many political and economic rights, but it we have yet to truly step up to the responsibility that true liberation represents. That being the liberation from the addiction to the ego.
At first, as I was writing this, I was viewing a luxury of time, where three or four generations down the road women are able to drop the veils from their vision, as well as their eyes, but then I realized that we may not have that luxury of time.

So much of the fate of humanity is now lying in the hands of women. With the population explosion so greatly magnified and ecological resources being tapped to the max, women are being asked by the universe itself to step out of the limited role of breeder and caretaker. We are facing a wide open sky of creative possibilities as we start to find other fulfilling ways to contribute to the world.

A true revolution in culture will come from a population of women who do not act, think and feel themselves to be objects or victims. This is a revolution that cannot be handed to us by a popular vote, or even given to us through college courses and workshops. It’s a state of awakening that will be embraced individually and culturally. It will require a deep inquiry into what it means to truly be a human being living in a technological world.

Engaging in the deep meditations, contemplations and dialogue necessary to work it all out will require a sense of cooperation amongst and between women that has never been accomplished in written history. We will have to actively build our characters to the point where we can drop our jealousies and competition between each other. And then set out to consciously, creatively and purposefully create new structures in culture that can support and sustain a vibrant new humanity.

We need new ways to solidify our family structures other than jealousy and manipulation. We need a purity of love and motive in our relationships with men, and we need a way to raise our children which doesn’t subject them to the worse part of our conditionings.
Stepping up into a new world of freedom is a task which will be taken on many groups of people committed to working together without the chains of  ego binding us in fear.

It’s a big task, but taking it on now is the best idea. We are already leaving enough debt of money and pollution to our children.  Why also leave a debt of character?

It is very important to realize that people need a certain luxury of life to have the time and ability to wholeheartedly pursue liberation. We are living in the most luxurious time ever in the history of humanity, so it is our responsibility to use it for the good of future generations. If world or national economies start to collapse the struggle for life will increase, and we won’t have the time or ability to come together in higher ways to achieve a significant change in the structure of human consciousness itself.

Spiritual teachers in the past, such as Hazrat Inayat Khan, had the luxury of time to ease their followers into development. That may seem like a very great luxury to us today, or on the other hand, maybe it was the idea that there was a forever future for humanity that prevented everyone from truly taking on the task.

When we look back, we can think that it was a terrible shame for a single mureed of Hazrat Inayat Khan to die before liberation – because they weren’t under enough pressure. In the end, the biggest barrier for any radical transformation of a human being is the constant waiting for something to happen. Waiting for enlightenment to come, waiting for an awesome spiritual experience to come, or waiting for the savior to come. 

We have reached this point where we have the benefits of all the past cultures of the world to learn from, where we have the luxury of our technological advances, where we have unprecedented wealth and education, and those are exactly the things we need to rise up to the challenge which faces us.  Women around the planet are taking on these challenges in ever increasing numbers because we are not willing to wait -- because we want something done for our children right now.

The magnitude of our conditionings is enormous, but so is our need. Today we can see women hiding under a huge veil of narcissism, but we are also feeling the pain of isolation and fear of the future. Great challenges often bring great results. I know that I, for one, am up to the battle!