Behind the Veil, In the Ranks of the Tablighi Jamaat

Women in purdahTablighi Jamaat is the greatest missionary Islamic movement in the world.The author has spent months with Tablighi women in Asia (Malaysia, Cambodia, South of Thailand, India) among the muqîm, permanent residents in the markaz (Tablighi center).The author has gained some insight which can provide other reasons, not conscious, for these women to choose a restricted life under the purdah, the radical segregation between female and male.

Noor, a strong Tablighi woman in her fifties, dressed all in black, likes to say: “The best place for a woman to stay is between the four walls of her home.” Indeed, in the Tablighi Jamaat, women are not encouraged to go outside. Even for praying, it is preferred that women stay at home, while men are urged to pray in the mosque.

In fact, despite their apparent exclusion from public life, women are not completely secluded in their house. Since the researches of Barbara Metcalf on the Tablighi Jamaat, we are aware that behind the appearances, Tabligh provides opportunities for women to break with their daily lives, and gives them a role not limited to bringing up children[i]. They strongly participate in dawah, the work of propagation of Islam as taught by Tablighi Jamaat. Unlike modern Islamist movements, as Jamaat-i-Islami founded in 1941 by Maududi, Tablighi Jamaat does not confine women to the domestic sphere. On the contrary, according to the wishes of the founder Muhammad Ilyas (1885-1944) and the rules established by his son Muhammad Yusuf (1917-1965), second leader of the movement, women are encouraged to get involved in dawah. They started participating in the mission in the 60s.

But the Tabligh strategies differ from one country to other. My fieldwork has taken place in South-East Asia and India. The situation of Tabligh has to be seen in relation to the economic level and the political situation of the Muslims. In Malaysia – a majority Muslim country with 60% of Muslims – the Tabligh members are viewed as zealous pietists and are a minority; they belong to the upper class[ii]. In Cambodia, with a poor Muslim community representing only around 4% of the total population, and where almost all the Muslim leaders were killed during the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979), the Tabligh controls a great part of the country’s mosques.

Nevertheless, today all Tablighi women are involved in the mission. The first aim of the women is to make dawah among themselves, with the practice of taalim, the weekly gathering for women. Each week, one of the women activists invites her coreligionists to her home. For several hours they read the Fazail-e-Amal, the main book of Tabligh, a compilation of hadith and commentaries on the Quran written by Muhammad Zakaryya (1898-1982), the nephew of the founder and main ideologue of the movement. They then discuss in small groups the basics of Tabligh. This gathering teaches them not only religious knowledge but also new behaviour. During taalim, they must be seated on the floor at the same level in order to be completely equal. They gain experience of equality. No one can be seated at a higher level, not even the woman who is preaching.


Muslim women in purdah
The second way to “make dawah” is to accompany their husband in a group (jamaat) on khuruj (the trip which takes them from place to place to reislamize the Muslims with a weak Islamic practice)

Women can drive big cars alone. The author of the article is on the left.The second way to “make dawah” is to accompany their husband in a group (jamaat) on khuruj (the trip which takes them from place to place to reislamize the Muslims with a weak Islamic practice). This mixed jamaat, composed of five to seven couples, is called jamaat mastura (mastura is the name given to these women who hide their faces). As men must go on khuruj three days a month and forty days a year, the involvement of women is less: three days every three months, and two weeks each year. To avoid any contact between male and female, they arrange a curtain to divide the minivan in two, men in front, women at the back, as Tablighi attach importance to purdah, the sex segregation.

An escape from reality

Because they have become propagandists of Tabligh, women have, like men, the opportunity of breaking with daily life. Barbara Metcalf has showed how Tabligh makes dawah more important than taking care of children, even more important than the husband. As for the men, Tabligh is more important than their families (see Metcalf 1996). Muhammad Yusuf in his Hayatus Sahabah (The lives of the Sahabah) devote one chapter to “the detachment of the sahabah with all the desired objects and objects of love like parents, children, brethern, wives, family, possessions, business, houses, properties”[iii]. This detachement of the affective belongings provides a better involvment in the mission. For example, in taalim and khuruj, women are not involved in child-caring, as children are strictly forbidden by Tablighi militants on the path of Allah[iv]. Women has also the right to refuse to nurse for a task as important as Tabligh[v]. Including women in the dawah process gives them a new role in society, an escape from the daily routine and domestic labour. Shorn of their daily burden, women obtain the responsibility for teaching, explaining, discussing, reading, and concentrating on intellectual and spiritual activities. They have learned how to preach to women, how to use gentle behaviour to convince the sisters to strengthen their faith. They are not only mothers and housewives, they spend their time in a more valued activity: preaching to other women to follow the path of Allah.

In sleeping all together during khuruj, they gain also a new experience of solidarity among women who do not belong to their family. They also create a network among themselves to mind their children when they are working for dawah. Living with the Tablighi women, I was able to hear about their conception of life, their idea of a perfect woman, and their dreams of the afterlife. I became convinced of their own choice to define this way of life as an ideal of Islamic womanhood and as a response, as they argued, to Western feminism. As of another way to reach freedom and equality, as women as men have the same duties in the mission.

Gender Reversal

As Barbara Metcalf has also demonstrated, Tabligh affords the opportunity for men and women to escape from a prescribed social role in the Muslim societies. Men are required to behave like women by cooking and cleaning during khuruj, exhibiting feminine qualities of modesty and sweetness. Women, on the other hand, are expected to show male qualities of socialization, proselytizing, discussing and convincing outside people. Despite the appearances, with men all in white and women all in black, men and women are not completely opposite, they have also mixed their roles.

Because they do everything for themselves during khuruj, men become materially independent from women. They learn how to cook, wash and repair their clothes. Nevertheless, women do not really get free from their husband, as they need their full supervision on khuruj. No woman can go outside by herself, she must be accompanied by a male relative. And for any wish expressed by a woman, a mashwara (male meeting) must be held to establish whether they can grant her satisfaction or not.

But while women are dependent on their husband, they also have great power over them. By writing the tashkil, their husband’s intention to go on khuruj and the number of days he intends to spend, in the notebook which circulates at the end of taalim, women show great willingness for their husband’s involvement. This note is only a statement of intent, but creates competition – a husband competition – among the women. Each of them wants to show her husband to be the best supporter of dawah and will do her best to push him. They also sign on this paper their acceptance of their husband’s departure, in response to critics of other Muslims who accuse the men of escaping their family obligations by abandoning their wife and children when they leave on khuruj. The women have a new social responsability in encouraging their husband.


Muslim women in purdah
They are not only mothers and housewives, they spend their time in a more valued activity: preaching to other women to follow the path of Allah.

The benefits of purdah

According to the Tablighi women, the purdah gives respectability to the women who wear it. They interpret it as the self sacrifice of their own power of seduction in order to keep their body only for their husband. They renounce showing their beauty in exchange for the enormous rewards promised in the hereafter. They are convinced to have attained feminine perfection. This accords them a high value. But purdah gives them more as I realized myself: the sensation of seeing without being seen is a very exciting experience. It also engenders a new relationship to the men of the community. When Rosezalina gave me my first purdah, she told me in a low voice: “The men will look at you the way they look at a beautiful woman in their imagination”. I was very surprised by this confession. How can women who make a vow to keep themselves only for their husband imagine the male glance on their body? Going on khuruj gives to women a new excitement. Noor says, with strong emotion in her voice: “When I go on khuruj, I feel like I am on honeymoon. I can see my husband only five minutes twice a day, but we are like a newly-married couple. I feel so excited!” This sounds like a dream for young student girls, as Mareike Jule Winkelmann made the experience living in a girl’s madrasa at Delhi: “Such activities [of the men] epitomized the mobility, freedom, and excitement the young women were missing in their lives”[vi] During the khuruj of jamaat mastura, in order to avoid any contact between male and female, in addition to the curtain dividing the car, women also cover the last remaining piece of skin they could show – their eyes. Because they cannot easily move with impaired vision, they need the help of their husband. “My husband takes me by the hand as I am unable to walk by myself. My husband takes care of me. He manages everything”, says Rosezalina. This sounds like an erotic submission giving to the male a total control on their body. This is a paradox of a movement which promotes sexual modesty to women, but also a feeling of sexual power. This is maybe why women are so fascinated with the purdah.


Muslim women in purdah
According to the Tablighi women, the purdah gives respectability to the women who wear it.

Finally it is the men who are disadvantaged in this relation. Women can look at them, but they can not see women except those of their family. This represents a great frustration for men. On the contrary, women feel a sensation of superiority because men must downcast their eyes in front of them. Women keep also a strong power of control on the male desire. As Noor told me: “If we take the example of a man married since a long time. His wife had eight children. She became fat. Her bust is flabby. If a young woman pass at that moment, the man will fall in love and ask her wife to divorce. Purdah is a protection for mature women.” This attire is a restriction that women impose on the male glaze to protect themselves against female competition.

Mirror of Wealth

The women’s behaviour shows that the Tabligh way of life spreads also a dream of wealth. The Tabligh symbols operate with a double significance. The purdah, for example, is seen as an egalitarian garment hiding everything capable of showing social disparity or hierarchy. But wearing the purdah means also a social distinction: that mastura do not need to work. In Cambodia , for example, very few women can wear it, because they work as sellers at markets or as farmers. A Tablighi Cambodian woman told me: “It is my dream to wear a purdah, but it is impossible as we have to work in the rice fields.” In a poor country, the purdah works as a symbol of wealth. Even the long gloves they have to wear to cover their hands means they don’t have to make manual work. They are aware of the meaning, when they take off their gloves, they use sensual manners which could be ironically compared with Rita Hayworth in the movie Gilda. When I was sharing their intimacy, I saw them playing Gilda every evening, creating a feminine emulation between themselves. Purdah and gloves operates as a symbol of luxury and social ambition, of wealthy idle women when they go outside. It sounds like a dream to all these peasant women who cannot afford to stop working.

Because members must self-finance their trip, going on khuruj also means that the participants are wealthy enough. Especially when the Jamaat goes to India, Pakistan, South Africa or even London. For the Tablighi women, going with their husband on khuruj shows that they have the wherewithal to travel inside and outside the country. This creates a big impact in Cambodia, where very few people can afford to go abroad. Belonging to Tabligh connotes wealth. This is another reason why Tabligh is so attractive among poor Muslims in non-Muslim countries, like Cambodia and Thailand. Both purdah and khuruj are intended to display equality, but in fact are markers of class.


Tablighi Janmaat couple
Despite appearances, disappearing behind the black veil does not mean inactivity for women. In fact, Tablighi women are much more involved in outside activities than other Muslim women obeying to their traditional domestic role.

Pride and Prejudices in Tabligh

Both purdah and khuruj are intended to promote humility, but instead produce a sense of pride: these women regard themselves as chosen. At the taalim, the women participants remind to themselves: “We must be grateful to God. We have been chosen by Allah among other Muslim women.” Wearing the purdah immediately shows others that they belong among those chosen Muslims. Noor continue her self apologia: “A woman is like a diamond, which must be hidden, otherwise men will steal it. We have great value. We must keep ourselves for our husband.” The practice of Tabligh is paradoxical. As against the rules of modesty and simplicity taught by Muhammad Ilyas from the beginning, the Tabligh has acquired a middle-class value. It gives indirectly to members a sense of pride and even superiority. And finally shows a relation with wordly affairs, like a snobbery. Purdah and long gloves can also be seen as disdaining ordinary clothes, despising women who need to work. This is not only the case for women, many Tablighi men show great pride in wearing their attire – white shirt, turban and skullcap – to show that they also belong to these chosen Muslims. We could compare this paradox with the controversy relating to their rejection of political participation and their very politically organised movement[vii].

Despite appearances, disappearing behind the black veil does not mean inactivity for women. In fact, Tablighi women are much more involved in outside activities than other Muslim women obeying to their traditional domestic role. And they get more by wearing the purdah: behind a “fanatical” appearance, they show their social level and they use their clothes to exercise power over men. This does not mean that Tablighi women are not virtuous and strongly religious, but that belonging to the Tabligh is not only a spiritual way of life, it is also another way for women to assert themselves.

Note on the author
Agnès De Féo is currently researching Islamic revival in Cambodia and Vietnam. She lives several weeks a year in complete immersion among Tabligh communities in Southeast Asia.

[i] See Barbara Metcalf: “Islam and Women, the Case of the Tablighi Jama‘at”, in
Stanford Electronic Humanities Review (SEHR), volume 5, issue 1, February 27, 1996.
[ii] See Agnès De Féo: “Femmes du Tabligh en Asie du Sud-Est”, in Les Cahiers de l’Orient n°83 (2006), p.152.
[iii] Muhammad Yusuf Kandhlawi, The Lives of the Sahabah, volume II, Idara Isha’at-e-Diniyat, Nizamuddin (1985), p. 339.
[iv] See Abderraouf Ben Halima, Tabligh étape IV, le Figuier (2000), p.12.
[v] See Barbara Metcalf: “Tablîghî Jamâ‘at and women”, in Muhammad Khalid Masud ed., Travellers in Faith. Studies of the Tablîghî Jamâ‘at as a Transnational Islamic Movement for Faith Renewal, Leiden , Brill, p.54.
[vi] See Mareike Jule Winkelmann: “Informal Links. A Girl’s Madrasa and Tablighi Jamaat”, ISIM Review 17, spring 2006, p.46.
[vii] See Marc Gaborieau: “Transnational Islamic Movements: Tablighi Jama’at in Politics?”, in ISIM Newsletter 3/99, p.21.


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