Syed, Jawad (2010) An historical perspective on Islamic modesty and its implications for female employment. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 29 (2). pp. 150-166. ISSN 2040-7149

Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to offer an historical perspective on Islamic modesty and discuss its implications for female employment in Muslim majority countries (MMCs).

Design/methodology/approach – First the paper explores the textual roots of modesty as enshrined in the Quran and the hadith and the historical and socio-cultural contexts within which the concept was introduced and subsequently transformed. It then discusses implications of Islamic modesty for female employment in MMCs.

Findings – The paper argues that the originally protective provisions for women in the principal sources of Islam were gradually transformed in the subsequent periods into strict patriarchal institutions of female seclusion and gender segregation. This shift was incorporated into Islam by way of the exegesis of the Quran and other religious narratives, resulting in an extremely restrictive concept of female modesty.

Research limitations/implications – The paper argues that in its current form the concept of Islamic modesty poses significant social, physical and emotional challenges for working women; unless these challenges are understood and addressed in their historical and socio-cultural contexts, it will remain difficult to achieve gender equality at work in MMCs.

Practical implications – The orthodox (patriarchal) perspective on modesty does not grant women a role in a nation's economy, resulting in an inefficient utilisation of human resources. A possible way forward is to engage in critical reinterpretation of religion to reform gender relations in MMCs, including with respect to gender equality at work.

Originality/value – There has been relatively little research on Islam and gender equality in the context of employment. The usual radical feminist position is to view Islam and gender discrimination as intertwined, a union which would invariably result in female disadvantage in the workplace. This article contributes to this debate by offering an historical, socio-cultural perspective on Islamic female modesty and considering its implications for female employment.

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