So what’s the story with the hijab, the headscarf? What’s religious and what’s cultural?
This is a 7th entry in the series of Things that are good to know about your Muslim friend. Make sure to read the first six entries if you missed them, and which had to do with:
- Physical contact between the genders
- Dancing and music
- Christmas and other celebrations
- Purity and impurity in Islam
In recent years, a lot of people, many of whom have no expertise in Islamic law, have written articles and books about whether Muslim women have to cover their heads from all sorts of angles. The unanimous short answer from all experts in Islamic law is the following: A Muslim woman must cover her entire body except her face and hands. This means that hair must be entirely covered, and the clothes covering the body must not be so tight so as to reveal the shape of the body. This is what Islam refers to as the modest dress – for women. (There is entire discussion regarding what men can and can’t wear, but that topic will be a separate entry).
This Islamic teaching is explicitly stated in the Qur’an as well as numerous narrations. From the many arguments that have been made against the hijab, the only one that can be taken seriously enough to be refuted is the one based on the historicity of this teaching, and of religious teachings in general. This means that it would have to be shown that this specific teaching was only valid for a specific place and time, and that these conditions no longer apply. Of course, as is the case with every religious teaching, this historicity would have to proven based on the same primary Islamic sources, otherwise it carries no weight. (Keep this point in mind and apply to every argument made about any Islamic teaching…) Despite the many attempts, most from historians and anthropologists, no one has shown the validity of the historicist interpretation yet.
This, and only this (a woman must cover her entire body except her face and hands), is the actual legal obligation from an Islamic point of view. What form or shape this modest dress takes is left to the woman, and can be considered a matter of culture or personal taste. The Internet is now full of video tutorials and articles about the different styles of hijab, from the ultra conservative, to the casual, professional, dramatic, seasonal, etc. and anything in between. Not every permutation and style is technically valid as a complete and proper hijab, but there is no lack of choices…
The modest dress only applies to Muslim women when they are in the presence of men who are not their relatives by blood or marriage. So to be clear, Muslim women do not wear their headscarves when they are with their family or at any gathering where only women are present. (This also explains, in part, why men and women sit in segregation in most Islamic gatherings.)
So what about the women who cover their face as well, either fully, or in part?
In some cases, these women are simply more devout in this regard and wish to take this Islamic teaching to a higher level, so they may cover even the parts that they are allowed to show, such as the face and hands. They consider this to be a superior manifestation of piety and chastity. (Please notice the emphasis on the woman’s choice…)
In the case of some other Muslim women, the covering of the face is a cultural thing. What must be kept in mind is that the majority of these women covering their faces do not consider this to be the great injustice that it is portrayed to be by the Western media for instance. To them, this is simply the proper way to dress when outside. In fact, in those societies, it is the woman who exposes her face that will have problems interacting socially because she’s standing out socially and culturally, and may be considered as rejecting their cultural tradition, which still carries a lot of weight in those parts of the world. It is when the face covering is purely cultural that it becomes quite problematic for women and society, because it becomes nothing more than a means of domination and control, often by men who are not even religious – they don’t pray, they drink, they do drugs, they have no religious education nor behaviour, and yet, they want all women associated with them to be fully covered… in such a context, the face covering is not a religious symbol but a cultural one.
So what should you keep in mind about the hijab?
- First, it is legislated in the Qur’an and it is clearly an Islamic teaching.
- Secondly, the teaching itself leaves a lot of room for cultural adaptation.
- Thirdly, yes there is injustice and oppression in the world, and there are some women who have been forced to wear the hijab, but this cannot be said of the crushing majority of Muslim women, who pray, fast, and wear the hijab because they want to and because it represents their personal, religious and cultural identity. (I have touched on this point elsewhere…)
A few more points about hijab…
- Some try to portray the hijab as a sign of backwardness and ignorance, and give the impression that it is only an uneducated woman, perhaps “traditionally submissive,” who would accept to wear it. The short answer to this is that there are simply too many educated, successful and powerful women wearing the hijab who refute this claim…
here’s a quick list of names to check out for yourself:
- Noor Tagouri; anchor
- Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé; Prime Minister of Mali
- Aseel Shaheen; tennis judge
- Dr. Amina Wadud; first mixed prayer imam
- Salma bint Hizab al-Oteibi; first female councilor in Saudi Arabia
- Kadra Mohamed; first police office wearing hijab in US
- Imaan Aldebe; fashion designer
- Stephanie Kurlow; ballet dancer
- Judge Carolyn Walker-Diallo; US judge
- Tawakkul Karman; journalist, activist, Nobel Peace Prize
- Mona Shindy; Captain of Royal Australian Navy
- Ibtihaj Muhammad; American fencer
- Nadiya Hussain; baker,
- Dalia Mogahed; White House advisor
- etc. (in fact, if you just got to know a few “hijabi” women, you’d think that most of them deserve to be mentioned for some form of awesomeness or another…)
- Some believe that the point of the hijab is to force women out of society, and away from work, education, and social involvement in general. Again, the shorty answer is the following:
Islam wants every human being to contribute to every sphere of life as much as they can, to build a better self, a better family, a better community, a better society, and a better humanity. But Islam is also a shockingly realist and pragmatic system; it recognizes the God-made, natural attraction that both genders feel for each other as well as its many distracting and even harmful effects. In order for both genders to treat each other like human beings, and not reduce the other person to their gender or be distracted by their gender instead of keeping the interaction focused on what it is supposed to be focused on, Islam (like every single divine religion before it) has instructed both and men and women to follow certain teachings. The hijab happens to be one of the most important ones. Islam wants human beings to deal with each other as human beings, not as blacks and whites, not as rich and poor, and not as men and women, and it has put in place entire interconnected systems to ensure this. Islam does not want men to look at, or be distracted by, the femininity of the person who is trying to study, or shop, or lecture, or work, or… because it considers that femininity to be sacred and therefore only to be shared with those who are near and dear.
So as to keep this entry short, I will leave you to think about these questions. Each will help you understand a part of the innate philosophy of hijab.
- Why do schools, especially at the secondary (or high school) level, have well established guidelines on what boys and girls can wear at school, such as the length of shorts and skirts, or how much skin can be revealed?
- (If you have worked in a professional environment) Do you think that people still get judged on their professionalism based on their look, including their clothes and their make up? What about the executives and the owners of professional companies, do you think they accept just any look for their company – especially if they have clients?
- Why are people who work in certain jobs, such the police or armed forces, asked to wear uniforms? What about the clothes worn by people who hold certain positions, such as president, or CEO, notice anything special there? What kind of clothes comes to mind when you think of a doctor, or lawyer?
- Why is the Virgin Mary always shown wearing a hijab?
Let me know what you think please.
(and since i’m a man, and everything I say about the hijab may come off as biased patriarchal mumbo jumbo, and in case you want a bit more perspective from hijabis themselves, a few TED vids for you, if still interested:)