Women: Widows and the restrictions on them

Q712 :In our part of the world, when a man dies his widow is kept in isolation for four months. She is allowed to see only closest relatives such as her parents, children, brothers and sisters. Her movement into other rooms of the house is also restricted. Sometimes, she is prevented from seeing men who come to offer their condolences. Are such restrictions based on Islamic teachings?

A712 : When a marriage is terminated, either by divorce or by the death of the husband, the wife has to observe a waiting period, which is known in Islamic terminology as "iddah". The name is taken from a root which signifies "counting, or ascertaining a number". That is because the woman must be careful to complete her waiting period properly. She must observe certain restrictions which we will outline presently. She may not get married to anyone during her waiting period, except in the case of a divorce for the first or second time when she may be reunited in marriage with her divorcing husband before the end of her waiting period. There are several reasons for observing the waiting period, but the most important of these is to ascertain that the woman is not pregnant. A pregnancy of a divorced woman or a widow creates a new situation. Hence, it is important to ascertain her condition so that, when born, the child is attached to his real father. Some people may suggest that nowadays it is easy to ascertain pregnancy through a test, but this does not waive the requirement that a woman observe her waiting period which has other purposes as well. The waiting period provides a breathing space for the divorced couple to reconsider their situation. Their divorce may have been the result of a misunderstanding and they may reflect that their children are in need of care by both of them. A compromise may be worked out between them, which would not be the case if the woman got married to someone else shortly after her divorce. Moreover, the waiting period signifies that marriage is a very serious matter, the termination of which cannot be approached in a trifling manner. It requires a certain period of waiting which may cause restrictions on both parties. The length of the waiting period differs from one case to the other. A pregnant woman whether divorced or widowed, observes her waiting period until she has given birth, whether that occurs only a few days or nine months after the termination of her marriage. A widow who is not pregnant observes a waiting period which extends to four months and ten days. A woman who is divorced after the consummation of her marriage has a shorter waiting period to observe. This extends until she has completed three menstruation periods or three periods of cleanliness from menstruation. If she does not menstruate, her waiting period extends to three months. The waiting period is also applicable when separation of the couple is ordered by a judge as a result of the marriage being invalid. In this case, the woman observes the same waiting period as a divorcee. The reason here for the waiting period is to ensure that there is no pregnancy. Whether divorced or widowed, a woman who has to observe a waiting period stays in the house where she used to live with her husband during their marriage. In other words, she stays in her own family home, provided to her by her husband as part of his commitment as a husband. This applies even to a divorcee, but the divorcing couple must use separate bedrooms. This is stated in the Qur'an: "Prophet, when you divorce women, divorce them at the beginning of their waiting period, and count that period. Fear God, your Lord. You shall not expel them from their homes, nor shall they go away, unless they have committed a clear indecency. Such are the bounds set by God; whoever transgresses God's bounds wrongs his own soul. You never know, after that, God may bring about some new event." This is the opening verse of the Surah 65, entitled "Divorce". As for its application to a widow, we have the Hadith related by Furai'ah bint Malik who came to the Prophet and told him that her husband went out seeking some slaves who had rebelled. When he caught up with them, they killed him. She said to the Prophet that her husband had no home of his own and left her without maintenance. She asked the Prophet whether she could return to her own people. The Prophet said that she could. When she went out of the mosque, he sent someone to call her back. He then asked her to repeat her question. After she did, he told her: "Stay in your (matrimonial) home until your waiting period is over." She reports: "I stayed in that home four months and ten days." There are certain restrictions which apply to a woman in her waiting period. The main restriction which applies to both a widow and a divorcee is that neither of them may get married during their waiting period, unless a divorcee agrees with her divorcing husband to be reunited in marriage. She may not get married to another man while she remains in her waiting period. Other than that, there is firstly the question of going out. The Hanafi school of thought is strictest in this regard. It claims that a woman in her waiting period may not go out of her home at any time of day or night if she is divorced, while a widow in her waiting period may go out during the day and early evening. Unfortunately, many in Islamic community have gone further than that and imposed even higher restrictions. These restrictions apply mostly to widows. Most of these restrictions smack of ignorance and backwardness. They do not rely on any evidence from the Qur'an or the Sunnah. What my reader has written about a widow not moving from one room to another in the same house is perhaps the worst I have heard in this connection. What we have to remember is that a woman who is observing her waiting period has not committed any offense. She is either divorced or widowed. If it is possible to think that she might have been the cause of her divorce, she may just as well be blameless for it. Besides, her husband's death is an act of God. She may be experiencing intense grief. Is it fair to impose on her unnecessary and unjustifiable restrictions? The question of observing a waiting period is a religious requirement. Hence, we must refer to Islamic teachings in order to know what is permissible and what is not during that period. The fact is that a woman in her waiting period may go out to attend to her legitimate business during the day, whether she is a divorcee or a widow. This is clearly evident from a number of Hadiths. It is sufficient to quote two of these to confirm this view. The fist is reported by Jabir, a learned companion of the Prophet, who says: "My aunt was divorced a third time. She then went out to cut her date trees. A man who saw her reproached her for doing so. She mentioned it to the Prophet (peace be upon him) and he said to her: 'Go out to cut your date trees. It may be that you give some of it to charity or that you may do something good." (Related by An-Nassaie and Abu-Dawood) Mujahed reports: "A number of men fell martyrs at the Battle of Uhud. Their widows came to the Prophet and said: "Messenger of God, we feel very lonely at night. Is it appropriate that we stay the night at the place of one of us, and then go to our separate homes in the morning?" The Prophet said: "You may stay and chat at the place of any one of you, but when it is time for sleep, let each one of you go to her home." This last Hadith shows the limit of the restriction on going out. A woman in her waiting period must spend her nights in her own home, but during the day she may go out. At night she can go out only in an emergency. Further restrictions that apply to a widow in her waiting period include that she may not wear make-up or perfume or wear colorful or perfumed clothes. According to the Hanbali school of thought, she may not cover her face when she goes out. She does not wear her ornaments or jewelry or do her hair. The only time she may use perfume is only for the purpose of changing the smell of menstruation. These are the restrictions of mourning that are placed on a widow during her waiting period, and for three days only at the death of a very close relative. These are the restrictions that apply during the waiting period. No other restriction has any Islamic basis. It is merely a matter of tradition which has nothing to do with Islam.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )