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If you are acquainted with Islamic Sharia (law), you may have come across the term "iddah" (the period a woman must observe after the death of her spouse or after a divorce, during which she may not marry another man).

It's often translated as: "legally prescribed waiting period", but I lately heard a professor translating it "period of continence"; continence meaning "self-restraining from intercourse". However, the "iddah" is not only about intercourse. It also includes that the divorced/widowed woman is not allowed to leave the house. Also, it's mandatory that she does not have intercourse, it's not her choice. Does that make the phrase inapplicable?

Restrictions of Iddah

I have done some research and found that the phrase was never used in any Islamic context. I know that the translation "legally prescribed waiting period" does not show what iddah entails but does it have to?

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    Practically speaking, "continence", in the US at least, has come to imply holding one's bladder and bowels. Use of the term is thus apt to cause both confusion and snickering. – Hot Licks Jul 26 '16 at 11:25
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Continence simply means "self-control". Like the word "waiting", its meaning is ambiguous in isolation. There's nothing intrinsic to those words that means "not having sex". As ever, context is everything: the context that the words are used in determines their meaning, and in this particular context they mean "not having sex", and also other things by the sound of it. As with all cultural context, one must be familiar with the culture in order to fully comprehend the intended meaning.

Within western culture, the word "wait" is used in this context too (ie for a bereaved spouse/partner), to refer to not beginning another relationship too soon. However, the word "continence" is not seen very often - we do see incontinence, which literally means "lack of self control", but is always applied to losing control of one's bladder.

As far as what is meant by a "legally prescribed waiting period" then this simply tells us to go and see what the law says. Without further details of the law it's not useful.

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As "iddut", "iddah", or "iddat" have existed in the English language since the 18th Century and refer to a very specific social context, it seems that to "translate" them will only ever lose meaning. http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/iddat?q=iddah

Origin

Late 18th century; earliest use found in Charles Hamilton (?1753–1792), orientalist. From Persian ʿidda, ʿiddat and its etymon Arabic ʿiddat-, ʿidda: prescribed waiting period during which a divorced or widowed woman may not remarry, specific use of ʿidda number from ʿadda to number, count, reckon.

Because "Waiting period" is not prescriptive, it seems like a good simple explanation to help the uninformed reader. ie. "she said she couldn't meet me because her iddah (waiting period) was not finished".

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