Islamic Laws

Hearing the Voice of a Non-Mahram Woman

By: Martyr Ayatullah Murtuda Mutahhari
We have said that there are two issues involved here. First, what is obligatory upon women and what is permissible for men. Those points which are clear are that it is obligatory upon women to cover themselves except for their face and hands. This is neither compulsory nor in the Holy Quran; nor in the traditions can we find reason to believe that it is obligatory upon women to cover their face and hands.
But as to whether it is permitted for men to look, it is clear and definite that if the look is a lustful one, that is, a look with intention of lust, there is no doubt that this is forbidden. If a look is not a lustful one but the surrounding conditions and situation are such that a fear exist that one may be led to deviate, that too is forbidden. These two are both forbidden, not only towards women to whom men are not mahram but to women they are mahram with, as well, other than their wife. It is even forbidden for a man to look in this way at another man.
Thus there are only these two questions. Is it obligatory upon a woman to cover her face and hands and secondly, is it permissible or not for a man to look without lust or fear of deviation?
From the View Point of Traditions
From the point of view of the traditions, and the external aspects of the verse, it is more or less certain that it is not necessary for women to cover the face and hands and it is not forbidden for men to look at a woman’s face or hands if his look is not one of lust or fear of deviation.
The traditions are numerous and we have only referred to a few and a few more will be mentioned. One is a tradition from Imam Riza, peace be upon him, who is asked, ‘1s it permissible for a man to look at the hair of his wife’s sister?” “No. It is not permissible unless she be a woman who is past child-bearing age. A wife’s sister is just like any other woman that you are not related to according to the Divine Law and you can only look at her and her hair if she is beyond child-bearing age.” [1]
Thus whenever the Imams are asked if it is permissible to look at a woman’s hair, etc., they are never asked if it is permissible to look at a woman’s face when the look is not one of lust or fear of deviation.
There is another tradition from Imam Riza, peace be upon him, about a young boy. “Must a seven-year old boy be encouraged to recite the ritual prayer?” He said it is not obligatory but to encourage is a good thing. It is not necessary that a woman hide her hair from him until he reaches puberty. [2] We see that again it is covering the hair which is referred to and not covering the face.
Concerning ‘What Their Right Hands Own’
Again concerning “What their right hands own, ” if a female slave is mahram to a man, is a male slave mahram to his female owner or not? I am using the term ‘mahram’ here erroneously with a purpose because this is an interpretation that others have. There is a difference when we say ‘mahram’ meaning, for instance, they are not permitted to marry. It is permitted for him to look at her hair but he is not mahram in the usual sense such as the father-in-law and his son’s wife. Some have interpreted it this way. When a question is asked about this, the answer given is that there is no problem if a male slave look at his female owner’s hair. Again, hair is mentioned, not the face.
There is a discussion concerning a khwajah (eunuch) and whether or not he is a male slave or a woman. The ruling was that he was like a woman and there was no problem if he looked at a woman’s hair. A person asked Imam Riza if is was necessary to cover before a khwajah and the Imam said it was not. “They used to enter my father’s house and women did not cover their hair before them.” [3]
As to “the women of the Book,” of course, they do not need to be dhimmah. There is no problem with looking at the hair of a Jewish woman or a Christian or a Zoroastrian woman or a woman who is none of these. The Holy Prophet said, “It is not forbidden to look at the hands and hair of dhimmah women.” [4]
Wherever you look you see that the issue which is an exception is referred to or questioned and the face and hands are not questioned. Whereas if it had been forbidden to look at the face and hands of a woman, they would have been referred to in the exceptions.
As to dhimmah women, some of the ulama believe that we must look and see what the situation was at the time of the Holy Prophet; what extent of the body was not covered? Clearly the dhimmah women did not cover their hair or their hands to a certain point. There was no problem, then, in looking at them.
I have mentioned that in every exception, it is permitted to look without lust except under one condition. That is, it is permissible to look at a woman in lust when one wants to see a woman to decide whether or not to marry her, as a serious suitor for marriage. [5] Of course, it is clear that a man cannot spend years looking at women in this way to determine whether or not he wants to get married. There are other conditions as well. How much education should she have? Where does she come from, etc. After all of the other conditions are met and the only one remaining is to see if one wants to marry her, it is this situation that the exception refers to. If the purpose is only lust, it is clearly not with the intention of marrying.
These, then, were some of the traditions but there are many more from both Sunni and Shi’ite sources.
The traditions say it refers to Muslim woman and not the dhimmah but not with lust or with a look which holds the fear of deviating within in. It is permissible to look at her in what she customarily wears outside of her home. Ayatullah Burujerdi says that one must suffice to look only at that which was common in those days. Perhaps customs have changed today and even more areas of their body are uncovered.
There is another point to mention following this. There is an edict, based on a tradition which some ulama find difficult to accept. It is concerned with a tradition where the Imam said that there is no problem to look at the hair of a bedouin woman, a woman from suburb of Kufah or Ilj (non-Arab bedouin women). Why? Because it is their custom to dress in their particular style and they refuse to cover their heads. So it is not forbidden to look at them, but, of course, not with lust.
Some of the ulama have issued edicts just as the tradition states but the late Ayatullah Mohammad Kazim does not issue one because he says what is perhaps meant is that in places where these kinds of women are, it is not obligatory for men to curtail their comings and goings. There is no problem if their eyes fall on these women’s hair. There is no problem if the women are told to cover themselves and they do not listen. Therefore, he felt it was an exceptional situation, not one that needed a religious edict.
Another religious jurisprudent says the same thing holds for urban women. If they are told they should cover themselves and they do not, there is no problem if men look at their hair.
Hearing The Voice of A Non-Mahram Woman
Another issue is that of hearing the voice of a non-mahram woman. Is this forbidden or not? This is clear from the edicts that it is not forbidden as long as it is not for lust or in fear of deviating. There is no problem between a blind person who is hearing another. However, there is, caution. Where it does not concern a man, he should avoid it. But it is forbidden for a woman to make her voice very pleasant and attractive so as to cause confusion in a man whereby a man who has a sickness in his heart hears her voice, and gets attracted to it through lust. [6]
This is among the things which are very clear. It is permissible to hear the voice of a non-mahram woman as long as her voice is normal and not one to cause lust or arouse the fear of deviating.
The verse of the Holy Quran is clear. It does not say women should not speak. No. It says they should not change the tone of their voice. Women continuously went to the Holy Prophet and to the Imams and asked the questions they had. This is clear.
[1]. Wasail, vol. 3, p. 25.
[2]. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 29.
[3]. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 29.
[4]. Ibid., vol. 3, p. 26.
[5]. There is clearly a difference between laws made by people or a law‑making body and God’s Laws. If a person wants to follow the laws of a country, one can play a bit with them. “The law is such and such and I did not do that.” But when it comes to God’s Law there is a difference and one’s intention is known.
[6]. Ayatullah Sayyid Muhammad Kazim Tabatabaie Yazdi, Urwatul Wusqa, Section on Marriage, Chapter One, Issue 39.

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