Hijab: a Must, or a Choice?

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Hijab: a Must, OR a Choice?

by Haitham Sabbah on June 26, 2005

Hijab has been the subject of much controversy and debate, especially since the French government decided to ban hijab and other religious "symbols" from public schools. Everyone wants to know what hijab is all about? Is hijab a matter of choice or not? Do Muslim women get forced to wear the hijab? How do the non-Muslims view the Muslim women? Why does the West see the Veil as a symbol of oppression of women, making them invisible, anonymous and voiceless? Is the Headscarf a symbol of Islam only, or does it have any roots in Judaism and Christianity? What's the origin of the Veil?

Hijab, the veil or the head cover, is derived from the Arabic word hajaba, which means to conceal or to prevent from being seen. The garb must be loose and opaque and must be worn, whenever the woman either leaves the house, or whenever male visitors not belonging to the family are received. Only the hands and face may, according to the prophet Mohammed, be visible, but this point is rather controversial. Some also choose to cover these parts of the body, but more often than not this is the result of the personal choice of the individual woman.

According to Rabbi Dr. Menachem M. Brayer (Professor of Biblical Literature at Yeshiva University) in his book 'The Jewish woman in Rabbinic literature', it was the custom of Jewish women to go out in public with a head covering which, sometimes, even covered the whole face leaving one eye free. He quotes some famous ancient Rabbis saying,"It is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with heads uncovered" and "Cursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen….a woman who exposes her hair for self-adornment brings poverty."

Dr. Brayer also mentions that "During the Tannaitic period the Jewish woman's failure to cover her head was considered an affront to her modesty. When her head was uncovered she might be fined four hundred zuzim for this offense." Dr. Brayer also explains that veil of the Jewish woman was not always considered a sign of modesty. Sometimes, the veil symbolized a state of distinction and luxury rather than modesty. The veil personified the dignity and superiority of noble women. It also represented a woman's inaccessibility as a sanctified possession of her husband. It is clear in the Old Testament that uncovering a woman's head was a great disgrace (Numbers 5:16-18).

The veil signified a woman's self-respect and social status. Women of lower classes would often wear the veil to give the impression of a higher standing. The fact that the veil was the sign of nobility was the reason why prostitutes were not permitted to cover their hair in the old Jewish society. However, prostitutes often wore a special headscarf in order to look respectable. Jewish women in Europe continued to wear veils until the nineteenth century when their lives became more intermingled with the surrounding secular culture. The external pressures of the European life in the nineteenth century forced many of them to go out bare-headed. Some Jewish women found it more convenient to replace their traditional veil with a wig as another form of hair covering. Today, most pious Jewish women do not cover their hair except in the synagogue. Some of them, such as the Hasidic sects, still use the wig.

What about the Christian tradition? It is well known that Catholic Nuns have been covering their heads for hundreds of years, but that is not all. St. Paul in the New Testament made some very interesting statements about the veil:

"Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonours his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head – it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head" (I Corinthians 11:3-10).

St. Paul's rationale for veiling women is that the veil represents a sign of the authority of the man, who is the image and glory of God, over the woman who was created from and for man.

Among the Canon laws of the Catholic church today, there is a law that requires women to cover their heads in church. Some Christian denominations, such as the Amish and the Mennonites for example, keep their women veiled to the present day. The reason for the veil, as offered by their Church leaders, is "The head covering is a symbol of woman's subjection to the man and to God”: The same logic introduced by St. Paul in the New Testament.

From all the above evidence, it is obvious that Islam didn't invent the head cover, but Islam endorsed it. The Quran urges the believing men and women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty and then urges the believing women to extend their head covers to cover the neck and the bosom "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty……And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms…." (24:30, 31).

The Quran is quite clear that the veil is essential for modesty, but why is modesty important? The Quran is still clear:

"O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies (when abroad) so that they should be known and not molested" (33:59).

This is the whole point, modesty is prescribed to protect women from molestation [harassment or annoyance] or simply, modesty is protection.

Thus, the only purpose of the veil in Islam is protection. The Islamic veil, unlike the veil of the Christian tradition, is not a sign of man's authority over woman nor is it a sign of woman's subjection to man. The Islamic veil, unlike the veil in the Jewish tradition, is not a sign of luxury and distinction of some noble married women. The Islamic veil is only a sign of modesty [humility] with the sole purpose of protecting women, all women. The Islamic philosophy is that it is always better safe than sorry.

It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same headscarf revered as a sign of 'holiness' when worn for the purpose of showing the authority of man by Catholic Nuns, is reviled as a sign of 'oppression' when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim women. (Friday khutbah by Sherif Muhammad. Kingston, February, 1995)

The orthodox Muslim woman does not perceive the veil as inhibiting or oppressive. On the contrary, the veil guarantees her the full respect of the surroundings, and thus must be considered a privilege rather than a burden.

The dignity of the wife or the daughters, or the dignity of any Muslim woman, for that matter, must be respected and protected. The western world entertains the incorrect notion that the veil represents force from the husband and the religion. But women wearing veils, on the other hand, normally radiate devotion towards their religion. They have chosen the veil as a clear demonstration of their Muslim identity.

Forcing anyone to do something against their own will is against Islam. There is no demand of compulsion [to be forced] in the Koran. On the other hand, every human being should see it as a religious duty to act out of a clean heart.

Within Islam, the issue of veiling is a subject for considerable debate. Some Islamic experts say the text is open to interpretations, which has accounted for the diversity of veiling traditions across the Islamic world.

"Although the Koran does call upon women to cover their heads, the measures change from tradition to tradition. The burqa in particular, is part of local traditions in different parts of the world. While the Koran does not obliterate the need for hijab, Muslim women have a choice based on their circumstances. But Koranic injunctions definitely call for modesty in dressing."

burqa – robe that covers the body from head to toe

hijab – headscarf that sometimes includes a veil that covers the face except for the eyes

Why do Muslim women wear the hijab?"
Eighteen year old Canadian Muslimah Sumayyah Hussein explains.

I am sitting in my first-period class impatiently waiting for the teacher to stop babbling about monomials and polynomials. When the bell rings, a girl approaches, her face forming a question mark. She wonders if it's okay to ask a "personal" question..."Why do Muslim women wear the hijab?"

It's not the first time this has happened and it is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed. One of the major misconceptions about the hijab (covering of the body except the face and hands) is that young women are forced to wear it by their parents or by male family members.

Sumayya Syed, 16, says that what parents or men want has nothing to do with it. In fact, she astounds people who ask by saying that every woman should have this form of liberation. Syed maintains that when a woman is covered, men cannot judge her by her appearance but are forced to evaluate her by her personality, character, and morals. "I tell them that the hijab is not a responsibility, it's a right given to me by my Creator who knows us best. It's a benefit to me, so why not? It's something every woman should strive to get and should want."

The young woman admits to being surprised that many people wonder if she wears the hijab everywhere (at home, when sleeping, in the shower). The truth is that Muslim women only cover themselves in front of men who are not direct relatives (brothers, fathers, and uncles) to prevent indecent acts or thoughts.

Another young woman who wears the hijab, Zeinab Moallim, 18, maintains that some people assume that all Muslims who wear the traditional dress are immigrants who don't know English and perceive them as "weirdos". "I remember in my class when I answer questions, some students look at me like I'm kind of dumb and I can't answer (them)," she says. "So usually I answer, just to let them know I can do things."

All of the young women interviewed agreed that the advantages of wearing the hijab are many. According to Rema Zawi, 16, "You feel modest...and you feel like you're covered up. You have more self-respect. You have more confidence in yourself that you don't need to care about (how) you look."

Syed emphasizes that a major plus is that people actually evaluate her on who she is and not on her beauty or clothing. "It keeps me protected from the fashion industry. The hijab liberates you from the media, brainwashing you into, buy this, buy that, you're supposed to look like this," she says. "It allows me to be who I am. I don't have to worry about being popular through buying things that are 'cool'."

Hana Tariq, 15, who just recently began wearing the hijab, agrees with Syed's view and says that the hijab lets you know who your real friends are. "People who are friends with you because of the way you look aren't real friends. And people who judge you by your personality are true friends because people can change looks but they don't really change personalities."

The young women said the hijab provides them with an identity. They don't have to tell people they are Muslims. It shows. "Most people in my life respect me with my hijab: they don't swear around me, they don't crack bad jokes," she says.

Some people may think that the more a woman covers, the less freedom she has. But, according to Muslim tradition, it is actually the opposite. The less she wears, the more she is degraded and the more she is put in the line of fire of male criticism.

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