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…”Majlisi, 1698/1983
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?
Majlisi, M.B. (1983). Bihar al-Anwar. (Vol. 43). Beirut: Al-Wafa. (Originally work published 1698)
Nasr, S. H. (1980). The Male and Female in the Islamic Perspective. Studies in Comparative Religion, 14.