There are many reasons behind the obligation of Hijab. Almighty Allah in His wisdom gave a physical body – male or female – to the soul while on earth. Each gender has different roles and rules to follow. These rules are to maintain virtue and decency in society. Both men and women are asked to lower their gaze and to cover certain parts of the body. Hijab is an act of obedience, an identity for a Muslim woman, and promotes modesty in society. It is also a spiritual manifestation of the majesty and beauty of Allah’s names. It is an integral part of submission to Allah.
Hijab is one of the obligations set out by God for the good of the human being both in this world and in the Hereafter. We believe that the human being is essentially a soul first, which existed before coming into this world and will exist after leaving it. The body is a sort of shell to house the soul. Perfection and beauty of the soul are gained by traveling towards God on the path He has prescribed.
Laws given by Allah keep human beings from getting distracted from the ultimate goal of achieving closeness to Allah (s). Having certain checks in place, like that of lowering the gaze and abiding by the Islamic dress code of hijab, allow one to create an atmosphere of virtue and discipline. This atmosphere in turn aids in the maintenance of healthy relationships between the genders, and furthermore, a healthy society (Academy of Islam, 2020).
Hijab could be better understood through the following points.
1) First and foremost, it is to gain spirituality and closeness to God through obedience. It is a command of Allah, as attested to in the Quran, hadith, and unanimously agreed on by scholars of Islam. Just as salaat, fasting, etc. are laws that we obey, hijab is also one such law.
2) Hijab is an identity for Muslim women. It declares, without speaking, that the wearer is a God conscious believer. The decency and virtue it exudes are more powerful than any words that could be used to convey the same.
Modern culture today is replete with examples of the results of such exploitation.
3) Hijab promotes modesty in society. Hijab preserves modesty and fosters decency in interactions with the opposite gender and thus, in society as a whole (Rizvi, 1997). Islam is a religion that does not just function at the individual level, but at a societal level as well. Hence hijab is not only prescribed as an obligation to women, but to men as well. It is important to note that hijab is not only the physical covering in the form of a headscarf, but it extends to one’s other body parts as well; one example being the hijab of one’s eyes (Rizvi, 1997).
4) A spiritual and metaphysical meaning behind the hijab exists as well. As discussed previously, God has beautiful names which comprise of beauty and majesty (Jamal and Jalal). The male and the female are creatures of God, each manifesting certain aspects of His names and qualities. A woman represents the beautiful qualities of Allah, manifesting Divine beauty. The Jamal of the women is balanced with the Jalal of the hijab, a dignity and majesty for the beauty within her. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the Absoluteness and Majesty of the Almighty is manifested most directly in the masculine state and His Infinity and Beauty in the feminine state (Nasr, 1980). Islamic spirituality necessitates social patterns, art of dress, and many other ways of life to create the balance of qualities in the genders.
Western society has long seen the hijab with a derogatory perspective. Along with the secularism and individualism that is an integral part of Western society, this has led some to proclaim that hijab is outdated and unnecessary. For a believer who submits to the Almighty, there can be no doubt that hijab is an integral part of obedience to Allah.
Academy for Learning Islam. (2020). Reflection No. 254 on Q 33:59 – Hijab – A Respectable
The hijab was not meant to restrict women from working, studying, or interacting with society. In fact, it was meant to allow women to perform all these activities alongside men, within certain guidelines. Islam encourages both men and women to learn, study, and contribute to their communities. Motherhood and the family are primary roles for women but that does not mean they cannot contribute to other areas. There are examples of women in the Prophet’s own household that demonstrate such participation. The Prophet’s wives, daughter, and granddaughters used to teach other women, successfully engage in business, raise awareness about Islamic rights, and bravely challenge oppressors. Looking at examples today, we see that many Muslim leaders emphasize the importance of women studying, even in countries which strictly enforce hijab. Hijab is not a barrier to participation in society – it simply sets certain guidelines on the type of interactions that can take place between the genders. These guidelines are to dignify the individuals, maintain virtue and chastity in society, decrease sexual tension and distractions, and preserve family structures. Hijab reflects commitment and strong values, which are assets for society.
Perhaps the more pertinent question is, was the hijab meant to restrict women from working, studying, or otherwise interacting with society? The answer to this question is: no.
We see many examples in Islamic history where women in hijab, including members of the Prophet’s family, participated in all aspects of life – studying, teaching, working, and even challenging oppressors. Hijab simply governs how people should interact with each other, by providing guidelines that make these interactions more respectful.
Islam encourages both men and women to learn, study, and contribute to their communities. Dating back to the Prophet’s time, Lady Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet, was a successful businesswoman (Al-Jibouri, n.d.). Lady Fatima (a) and Lady Zaynab (a) were both known to have held classes to teach other women from their homes, and answer inquiries from the public (Ordoni, 1987). They also both had times where they fought publicly in court for their rights (Rizvi, 1999). Lady Fatima (a) participated in helping during the battles fought during the Prophet’s time. These women all engaged with society in a time and setting where women were looked down upon so harshly that newborn girls were buried alive. Islam empowered women by pronouncing them as also having their own rights and roles in society. The hijab allowed them to engage with society while being recognized for their minds and abilities rather than for their looks.
We see strong women who contributed to society in the time of our Imams, and in all eras of Islamic history. Some of these outstanding women include Mariyah Bint Sa’d (who organized gatherings of Shias in her home in Basra), Habbaba al-Walibiyyah (a transmitter of Hadith and devoted follower of the Imams), Hamida al-Barbariyya (a Jurist who was the wife of Imam al-Sadiq who (a)), Hakima Khatun (daughter of Imam al-Jawad (a), who was the confidante of Imam al-Askari and Imam al-Mahdi (a) ) and many others. Recent and contemporary history also shows the role Muslim women play in society, upholding and promoting their faith. Women in hijab can be seen in all different professions; working, writing, painting, speaking up, all with hijab and within the boundaries of modesty as prescribed by Islam. This is proof that hijab is not a barrier to active participation in society.
Many Muslim leaders emphasise the importance of women studying, even in countries which strictly enforce hijab, such as Iran. Women in such countries work in different areas of society, including politics and leadership roles. The hijab is not a barrier for them. In fact, it facilitates a stable and strong place for them in society.
Some countries may forbid hijab wearing women from certain professions. This type of Islamophobia and Hijabophobia can be seen in different places around the world.
The wearing of hijab does not prevent a woman from performing well in her profession, as is evident from many who have done an excellent job with it.
The identity of a Muslim woman cannot be compartmentalized. She cannot wear the hijab at times and then leave it at home when she goes to work in society. Hijab reflects her commitment to Allah, and that stays with her wherever she goes. Society is better off in having a place for human beings who are strong in their convictions, male or female. Such people contribute well to society. Thus, the hijab promotes progress in society.
Al-Jibouri, Y. T. (n.d.). Khadijah, Daughter of Khuwaylid, Wife of Prophet Muhammed.
All societies have guidelines for appropriate dress in public spheres, whether explicit or implicit. Islam’s version of these guidelines, the hijab, creates a healthy balance for both genders and respects their innate desires, acknowledging them and providing an appropriate safe space to fulfill them in society. Some might argue that hijab is oppressive because it limits women’s freedom of choice, prevents them from participating in certain sports, and because hijab rulings are stricter for women than they are for men. However, we demonstrate that the perception of oppression is based almost fully on societal norms, which are relativistic and differ greatly depending on where one lives. Specifically, the perception of hijab being oppressive in the West is based on colonial narratives that were spread during the 19th century. Though the differences in rulings for physical hijab of men and women stem from biological differences, the spiritual dimension of hijab remains the same for both genders. Contrary to the claim of oppression, the hijab was meant to empower women to integrate in society as ordinary citizens – to study, work, vote, and do all other ordinary civil activities alongside men as equals.
Hijab is not oppressive to women. Allah (s) has created a system in society to help human beings live up to their fullest potential. For this to happen, He has set rules and regulations in accordance with the way He has created us. It is important for people to live their lives in servitude and obedience to Allah. One of the qualities of Allah is that He is the most just. So, while some things may seem unjust and unfair at first glance, upon deeper study a believer comes to realize that Allah, through His infinite knowledge and justice, would not ask a person to do something that is oppressive. In fact, provided everyone fulfills their duties correctly, that which He asks one to do protects one from oppression. If hijabi women are oppressed, it is not because Allah has given them the task of observing hijab that is oppressive; it is because the people around those women do not respect them and possibly mistreat them.
Hijab is often deemed oppressive because it seems like women in hijab cannot participate in many things, such as playing sports that involve uniforms with shorts or swimsuits. But the reason they cannot do these things is not because Islam forbids it, but because the society has norms which are contrary to Allah’s expectations. The fault is not on the religion, but on the society. For example, a female may not be able to participate in women’s soccer because the facility is not private, the referees are male, or the league does not allow them to wear long pants while playing. That is not to say Islam forbids women from playing soccer. It is that society does not accommodate for women to play high-level soccer while maintaining their principles of modesty. In many societies however, wearing the hijab does not prevent women from integrating in society as an ordinary citizen – women can study, work, vote, and do all other ordinary civil activities while wearing the hijab. There are also societies in the East who accommodate for women to play all types of sports while maintaining modesty.
Some argue that hijab is oppressive because it limits one’s freedom to wear what one wants. Freedom of expression, however, is a socially constructed concept, and different cultures define ‘freedom of expression’ very differently. In the West, the norm is for women to beautify themselves publicly, and so the imposition of hijab – which goes against this norm – might seem unfair. It is important to remember, however, that society’s rules are publicly constructed – they are not the solid truth. They are also relative, and they have their limits. For instance, going to work in clothes constituting underclothes is generally considered inappropriate; however, it is considered appropriate as swimwear whilst relaxing on a beach on vacation. Different settings dictate different rules for how one should dress, even in Western society. In fact, different settings have a wide range of what is acceptable in terms of modest dress. Some cultures limit female beautifications in all settings due to political views, such as in North Korea. In the Gulf, the norm is for women to beautify themselves in family and female-only settings whilst heavily covering themselves in the open public. Catholic nuns, orthodox Christian and Jewish women also practice public modesty according to their spiritual views. From these examples, we see that there are many views all along the spectrum of what the public deems is “appropriate” dress for women in each society.
It is important to note that the Western perception of hijab being oppressive is one that was created by Western powers during colonial times. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, Western colonial nations established themselves in various parts of the world, including Muslim countries in the Middle East (Ahmed, 1992). The dominance of such colonial states was promoted by the narrative that Western countries spread about the headscarf being a symbol of backwardness (Ahmed, 1992). The idea that removing the veil allows women to be free is an idea that British patriarchs and missionaries, amongst others, spread (Ahmed 1992). While this narrative of the veil served the Western powers’ in their colonial activities, women within Western countries like England were yet to be given basic rights, such as the right to vote (Ahmed, 1992). Therefore, not only is the Western definition of ‘freedom of expression’ a socially constructed concept, but it was socially constructed for the purpose of serving illegitimate colonial activities. This puts into perspective the negative sentiments towards hijab in the West today. We need to view the Islamic stance on hijab without the Western bias.
Islam’s stance on the observation of hijab is one of balance. In Islam, there is both an environment where women can beautify themselves in appropriate settings (e.g. within marriage) and yet also be very modest in public and at times of worship. Islam does not suppress men and women’s innate desires, nor does it give them full rein. It creates a healthy balance for both genders and respects their innate desires, but it also acknowledges physical nature. It does not suppress it. Hijab is not oppressive, because it acknowledges human desires. It does not deny them by discouraging adornment or marriage, nor does it let them go out of control with public display. Rather, it provides an appropriate safe space to fulfill desires in society.
Some argue that hijab is unfair because the ruling of hijab is stricter when applied to women compared to men. Why must women wear long sleeves, long pants, and a head covering even in the summer, while men can wear short sleeves and shorts? Women must search hard in shopping centres to find loose-fitting, modest clothing while men can virtually pick up any item from a store and be able to wear it.
Firstly, the unfairness of the situation again relies heavily on the setting – the reason modest clothing is hard to find in stores in the West is because most Western standards do not place as much value on modest clothing. In other settings, where cultures value modesty more, such clothing is much easier to find, and wearing hijab becomes easier and more enjoyable, even during summer.
Secondly, it is true that women need to cover more parts of themselves than men do, however, inequality of the rulings does not imply injustice. Equity, not equality, is what governs fairness and justice. Men and women have biological differences, and rules apply differently to them because of this. Despite this, some men choose to cover up more than is Islamically required, because they realise that undue attention can be problematic.
To have justice, fairness, and order means that everything exists in its appropriate place. ‘Unfairness’ to women through hijab is largely the result of comparison against societal standards that encourage immodesty. Hijab, both of men and women in their different forms, sets standards of modesty in society and preserves virtue and dignity in society.
Ahmed, L. (1992). Women and gender in islam: Historical roots of a modern debate. Yale University Press.
Rizvi, S. M. (1997). Hijab, The Muslim Womens Dress, Islamic or Cultural?
The hijab is an Islamic code of conduct intended to guide gender interactions and is applicable to both men and women. Although the hijab is more visible on women, note that the Quran first instructs men to lower their gaze before guiding women to don their physical hijab (The Quran 24:30-31). Women too have the responsibility to lower their gaze, for the hijab (in both men and women) aims to build a mindset where people are valued for their personality and intellect, not their physical appearance. Recognizing that there are differences between man and woman in their psyche and how they are portrayed in society, Islam takes a gendered approach to hijab. Implementing the hijab liberates a woman from being objectified, allowing her to be valued for her intelligence and character, not her beauty.
Hijab: A Conversation for both Men and Women
It is important to recognize that the hijab refers to both a conduct of action and a dress code applicable to men and women (Rizvi, 2012). In fact, when introducing hijab in the Holy Quran, Allah (s) first speaks to the believing men, commanding them to mind their conduct by lowering their gaze. They are not to stare at women and invade their private space. Then the Quran instructs women to do the same, and to also put on a physical covering (The Quran 24:30-31). Note that women too are expected to lower their gaze, and men too are responsible for covering certain parts of their body.
On a finer note, hijab means a covering (Rizvi, 2012), and thus is used to denote the boundaries that Islam has placed between men and women when they interact. Although this is a non-gendered term, the hijab of a woman is more visible and so the term is often associated with a woman’s head covering.
Hijab: Why the difference?
The obligation of Hijab has many reasons behind it. Most people focus on the physical and social reasons for it. While those are true, there is also a profound spiritual and metaphysical meaning behind the Hijab. Almighty Allah has al-Asmaa al-Husna, beautiful names which comprise of beauty and majesty (Jamal and Jalal). Both the male and the female are seen as two creatures of God, each manifesting certain aspects of His names and qualities. A woman represents the beautiful qualities of Allah, manifesting Divine beauty. The Jamal of the women is balanced with the Jalal of the hijab, a dignity and majesty for the beauty within her. Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his article ‘The Male and Female in the Islamic Perspective’ says that the Absoluteness and Majesty of the Almighty is manifested most directly in the masculine state and His Infinity and Beauty in the feminine state (Nasr, 1980). Islamic spirituality necessitates social patterns, art of dress, and many other ways of life to create the balance of qualities in the genders.
Men and women have been created differently, with separate roles to play on earth, thus requiring different responsibilities. Both are expected to fulfill their roles while in the world. The soul has no gender and is equal. God’s rules apply to both genders, but in diverse ways. For example, men are also required to cover parts of their body out of modesty, but not in the same way as women. Similarly, men are prohibited from wearing silk clothing and gold ornaments whereas women have no such restrictions. Men too, like women, must not wear clothing that is not appropriate, tight fitting, and those that show off the body. God has ordained different commands for men and women while encouraging both to be modest.
In Islam, the responsibility falls on each gender to protect their own modesty and to control their own desires. Whether a woman dresses modestly or not, it is the obligation of each man to guard his own chastity.
There are many reasons for the Hijab. Indeed, it is not the woman’s duty to regulate the behavior of men. Men are accountable for their own conduct. They are equally required to be modest and to handle themselves responsibly in every sphere of their lives.
Hijab: A Mindset
Moving beyond the notion that the hijab is merely a headscarf, one recognizes that the hijab is in fact a mindset. For both women and men, it is a very physical reminder to themselves and to those around them that there are rules to follow.
The Hijab conveys an inner commitment and a submission to the authority of Allah. There is an inner modesty that is manifested in the outer form of hijab, differently for each gender according to the way God created them. Thus, the outer covering without the inner modesty is not a complete picture of the Hijab. Nor is it true of the other way around. Independent of the intentions and actions of others, an individual should maintain their hijab to preserve their own sense of modesty. This is beautifully illustrated in a tradition of Lady Fatima (a) where she kept a veil between herself and a blind man visiting with her father. When Prophet Muhammad (s) asked about her reasoning for doing so when the man could not see, it is reported that she replied:
“Messenger of Allah, it is true that he cannot see me, but I can see him…”
Lady Fatima (a) was very aware of her hijab and the impact that it had on her and those around her. For this reason, her choice was commended by the Prophet (s).
It is empowering to recognize the liberating effect the hijab has on a woman. She controls what part of her can be viewed by men.
Through her hijab she states that she will not be objectified by a culture that exploits the beauty of women.
It is through Allah’s (s) wisdom and knowledge of the uniqueness of men and women that He ascribes different guidelines on them. The Qur’an speaks of equality between the two genders since each is a soul sent to earth to gain perfection. The body – male or female – has been given to help establish a system on earth for the perfection of humanity. Justice is found in the equitable treatment of both then male and female, not in equal treatment. Islam’s approach to hijab and its gender-specific forms recognizes and applies the unique and complementary natures of men and women. It clearly states how modesty and decency are to be maintained by both genders.
Rizvi, S. M. (1997). Hijab, The Muslim Womens Dress, Islamic or Cultural?
Islam has provided us with clear guidelines to follow when it comes to the physical hijab. For women, that means wearing a loose-fitting garment that does not reveal her body with the exception of the face and hands, as well as a scarf that covers her hair as well as neck and chest. With this being said, it is important to keep in mind that when it comes to different cultural adaptations, the parameters of these guidelines can often be subjective; however, the minimal guidelines that Islam has set in place should be adhered to.
When it comes to the physical hijab and its rulings, Islam provides a clear guideline to which one must adhere. There are also multiple verses of the Quran that refer to the physical hijab:
Scholars have described the word, “khumur” in this verse as being, “something with which a woman conceals her head” (Rizvi, 1997). This head covering should cover the hair, neck, and the bosom.
In addition, the Quran states:
Scholars explain that the jalabib refers to, “a loose outer garment” (Rizvi, 1997). This means that the Islamic dress code for a woman must not only include a scarf that covers her head (her hair), but that the overall garment must be longer and loose fitting so as not to reveal her body, with exceptions of her face and hands (Rizvi, 1997). Scholars also specify that the feet must be covered completely (Hijab in Islam, Al-Islam TV, 2021). The physical Hijab must also not be a display to attract attention. Flashy clothing and clearly visible adornment of all sorts must be avoided to make the hijab aligned with Islamic principles.
It is important to keep in mind that Islam is a world religion that is not bound to one particular culture. Therefore, while hijab guidelines are set in place by Islam, the cultural adaptations of clothing within the parameters of those specific guidelines is often subjective, allowing for diversity in societies. For example, some women may use abayas or chadors, or if we take a look at the West, it is common to find a woman choosing to wear a loose outfit with a scarf to cover herself. It must be clear though that the minimal Islamic guidelines for hijab themselves are not open to interpretation (Rizvi, 1997).
Our Duty with Respect to the Physical Hijab
It is essential to constantly remind oneself of the purpose of the physical hijab, which is to preserve one’s beauty and maintain modesty in interactions with the opposite gender (Rizvi, 1997). One’s duty then, is to learn physical hijab rules and apply them to daily life and circumstances to the best of one’s ability. It can also be extremely helpful to look to resident scholars in the region in which one resides for more guidance and clarifications if needed.
Academy for Learning Islam. (2020). Reflection No. 254 on Q 33:59 – Hijab – A Respectable