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.
Ordoni, A. M. (1987). Fatima the Gracious.
Rizvi, S. S. A. (1999) Fadak. Bilal Muslim Mission of Tanzania.