Unveiling the Hijab: a Socio-historical Overview

Does Qur’an mandate a specific dress code for Muslim women?

Hijab has been a topic of much debate and controversy both within and outside the Muslim world. In Islamic countries where a Shariah (Islamic) Law is enforced, women are required to follow a strict dress code. There are also many countries where millions of Muslims live and where women are not obliged to follow the Shariah dictates, yet many of them are forced into a strict dress code owing to social compulsions. Many women, however, do tend to wear a certain type of outfit as a matter of personal choice, believing that they are mandated or required to do so by the Holy Qur’an and that they might go to hell if they show their hair or their body to a stranger (mahram). Here, it is important to distinguish between cultural practices and the tenets of Islam, which are not really, strictly defined anywhere.

Critics argue that hijab (interpreted as a dress code) is a symbol of oppression. Some western countries have even imposed a ban on its use. But many people claim that it is a matter of personal choice. Both of these statements are true and false depending on various factors. Advocates of hijab will claim that it is mandated by Qur’an for Muslim women to wear a piece of cloth over their head and cover their body in a certain way – a position unattested by historical evidence. Many Muslim women are forced to wear hijab against their will because of the legal repercussions in countries where hijab is enforced by law, or because of the constant pestering by family or by the self-appointed moral police in the society. Many women, however, wear hijab as a fashion statement or style, or simply under peer pressure. In a recent trend, some young Muslim women in western societies have resorted to donning headscarves over sexy western outfits as a political statement against racism and Islamophobia.

Many people erroneously associate the wearing or not wearing of hijab with the oppression or emancipation of women (respectively). But not wearing hijab does not automatically entail women’s emancipation. There are educated hijab-wearing Muslim women who are able to integrate seamlessly in different cultures, work in public spaces in mixed gatherings, and take no gender-driven nonsense. And there are hijab-less (Muslim and non-Muslim) women who are victims of gender-discrimination, domestic violence and constant abuse at the hands of their male partners but do not have the guts to stand up for their rights regardless of where they live. As far as women’s rights are concerned, sexual objectification of women is no better than the obsessive urge to protect women into invisibility. Gender-based discrimination is not limited to clothing; it is expressed in a number of different ways.

Often the distinction between the tenets of Islam and cultural customs is lost when we are faced with a world of ignorance and misinformation. Socio-historically speaking, there are a number of contexts to the use of a head covering. In many societies, a headgear (e.g., a scarf, a turban, a cap, or a hat), was used by both men and women simply as a protection against extreme temperatures, viz., heat, cold, or other climatic changes. In a number of cultures, however, since head was considered to be the most important and perhaps sacred part of the body, a special headgear was used to cover or adorn it. You couldn’t imagine a bride or a groom without a special headgear at the wedding ceremony. In many cases, headgear was a mark of one’s social class, an indication of a privileged social background. Thus, in many societies men and women of higher social status would (partly or completely) cover their head in formal situations or in public. These include members of royal families, religious figures (e.g., priests and nuns), etc. Often people of lower status would follow suit in their quest for upper social mobility and acceptance in the elite classes. This trend is still in practice in many societies where a certain type of headgear is symbolic of one’s status rather than a religious binding. Often adorned with decorative trinkets, a headgear in such a situation has little to do with the concept of morality or women’s oppression and more with social superiority. Pulling a person’s headgear off could be the most disdainful and disrespectful of an act one could commit against anyone irrespective of gender.

The concept of a face veil, such as, naqāb, burqa, or ghoonghat in the Middle East or South Asia, as also observed in the conservative western societies of the yore where women would draw a net under a hat over their face, could be viewed as a special extension of the headgear. Historically, women have often been concealed in closed-door cabins and carried over by male escorts from place to place (c.f. pālki in northern India, or zāmpān in Kashmir). In a socio-cultural context, such a covering could be perceived as an extreme form of protection of the sacredness of a woman of higher social status where the rest of the world is barred from even looking at her. But the same does not apply to women of lower status who were often taken as “slave girls” or concubines by men of higher status. In a purely religious context, however, it could be experienced as an extreme form of protection of morality where a woman must completely conceal herself lest she should attract attention in a sexual way. Thus, whereas man is some sort of a powerless character incapable and absolved of being in charge of his own chastity, a woman is entitled with an extraordinary power to seduce or corrupt a man, and must, therefore, be disempowered.

Thus, Hijab becomes a symbol of oppression when it is associated with morality, when a woman’s character is evaluated by the society on the basis of whether or not she covers her head (besides her body) in a piece of cloth. It becomes a symbol of cruelty against women when they are punished – either physically or psychologically – should they violate the practice. In the most bizarre cases, some people will argue that the hijab “protects women against lustful men” – a claim that is not supported by any empirical evidence. Many Muslims, especially the menfolk, will argue that the Qur’an makes hijab mandatory for women. Little girls are tortured into believing that they will go to hell and that their bodies will be covered with snakes as they burn in hell fire if they do not “cover”. Such radical positions are based on ignorance and misinterpretation of certain verses of Qur’an and are rubbished by many scholars and experts of Islamic thought.

Historically, the term hijab is not found in the Qur’an or Hadith in the context of dress code or women’s hair. The word hijab, as it is used in the Qur’an, means a ‘screen’, ‘partition’, or ‘barrier’. It appears in a total of about five instances in the text. In a loose sense, it is closer in interpretation to a ‘curtain’ than anything else. The word is used to mean a ‘screen’ or ‘barrier’ in a number of instances, e.g., between Muslims and non-Muslims (Chapter 7 Al-A’raf: verse 46, and Chapter 41 Ha-Mim: verse 5), between Maryam and her family (when she “withdrew” from them and conceived Jesus; Chapter 19 Maryam: verses 16-17), and between the wives of the Prophet and the nāmahram male visitors of the family (Chapter 33 Al-Ahzab: verse 53). It is also used to refer to a ‘veil’ or ‘screen’ from behind which “Allah could speak to a human” (Chapter 42 Ash-Shura: verse 51).

The words that do refer to ‘(type of) covering’ and ‘headdress’ are jalabib (Singular jilbab) and khumur (respectively), independently used at two separate instances in the Qur’an. The words are pre-Islamic; while khumur was used by both Arab men and women as a headgear (to protect the head from weather and dust/sand), jilbab was probably only used by women to cover the body. The occurrence of jalabib is found here (Chapter 33 Al-Ahzab: verse 59):

“O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their jalabib close around them; it is more suitable that they should be known (recognized) and not harmed (annoyed). And Allah is ever forgiving, and most merciful.”

If we pay attention to the words “known (recognized)” and “harmed (annoyed)”, it is very clear from the verse cited above that being “known (recognized)” is “more suitable” (than not being known (recognized)). Therefore, a face veil or naqab is simply out of the question as far as the Qur’an is concerned. Further, women are advised to cover their body so men are unable to (physically) harm them (i.e., touch or grab on their naked bodies). There is no mention of hair or hell-fire in this verse or the adjacent verses. Both men and women are advised to “reduce their gaze (or cast down their glances) and guard their private parts” (Chapter 24 Al-Nur: 30-31). Women are further advised (not necessarily mandated) to “draw their khumur over their bosoms” and “not display their zinat (beauty/adornment)” to strangers (i.e., men other than their “husbands, fathers, fathers-in-law, sons, husband’s sons, nephews, male attendants having no physical desires, and children”) (24:31).

In this context it is very important to draw one’s attention to the type of clothing that Arab women wore during the Prophet’s time in the early 7th century Arabia. In absence of properly stitched clothing, the idea of “drawing the khumur over the bosom” or the “jilbab around the body” is to cover a woman’s nakedness as opposed to wrapping herself in an all-concealing (black) shroud or the modern-day abaya – a word that does not appear in the Qur’an. The word hijab as a ‘screen’ is used in the Qur’an to cater to the sense of privacy in a society where it was very common for male visitors to show up any time uninvited and violate the private space of the hosts, especially women (and more specifically the women of the Prophet’s household in the context of the Qur’anic verses; See Chapter 24; 27-29 where men are advised to “not enter houses other than their own without permission”, to “go back” when asked, and not linger around unnecessarily). During those times, houses had very little privacy, with no separate compartments. There were no covered toilets and no specific means of sanitation. With utter disregard for women’s personal space, menfolk would often indulge in socially undesirable activities and harass women. Oftentimes, during the night, when womenfolk of the Prophet’s tribe went out to relieve themselves (away from the household), they would be attacked by men of other tribes. Furthermore, in the absence of modern facilities and sanitary napkins, menstruating women, had to be temporarily “screened” (separated) from the rest of the people with limited interaction with the public. Thus, for instance, when they hesitated to come out even after his invitation one day, the Prophet advised the screened (menstruating) women that they could have themselves “covered” by jalabib and participate in the upcoming Eid elebrations; one of the (screened) women who did not possess a jilbab, was asked to “borrow one from a companion.” (Sahih Bukhari, Book 8, #347).

Here I would like to make a note of an account of the 13th century Arab women in Tarikh-al-Mustabsir by Ibn-al-Mujawir, a Persian traveler to Mecca. The upper class womenfolk of the sacred city, Mujawir notes, “wear bonnets” (perhaps akin to khumur). In an account of the poor women in a town about two miles from the sacred city, Mujawir writes: “the woman takes two pieces of leather and stitches them together, cuts a round hole in it and puts it on. When she walks, the whole of her body can be seen, above and below” (quoted from Sardar 2014: 157). In such a context, going backwards to the 7th century Arabia when fewer women would know how to stitch clothes in absence of the modern tools, it makes perfect sense to have to “draw” the jalabib “around the bodies” or the khumur “over the bosoms” to cover the nakedness. Note also that none of these verses indicates the use of both khumur and jilbab at the same time.

To conclude, the primary question that I wanted to delve into in this article was whether or not the Qur’an mandates any specific dress code for Muslim women and whether they are entitled to wear layers and layers of certain type of clothing as a religious binding. As revealed by the available historical evidence, it turns out that that is not the case. The recommendations in the Qur’an are clearly contextualized and ought not to be interpreted in the extreme sense as a strict dress code observed in the modern day, as many people would erroneously tend to believe or argue. The imposition of hijab in its more recent connotation as a strict religious dress code for Muslim women is an innovation; it seems to be an outcome of the puritanical canonization of the Islamic tenets that occurred centuries after the death of the Prophet.

© Sadaf Munshi, December 28, 2015.

Traditionalist Islam and the death of inductive intellect

One of the characteristic features of most reverential legends is that they obfuscate more than they reveal about religious personalities. When the Prophet of Islam returned to Mecca, his point of origin, in January 630 and consummated what Ziauddin Sardar (a scholar/writer/critic specializing in Muslim thought, in his seminal work “Mecca: The Sacred City”, 2014) calls “the moral heart of his mission”, his most important message at this moment of his most complete triumph was the assertion that peaceful coexistence is not only possible but the essential basis for doing good, for enacting ways for justice and equity as living realities for all. There are obvious references, which clearly indicate the necessity of such coexistence among people of different communities, more specifically, Muslims, Jews, Sabians, Christians, Zoroastrians (“Magians”), and polytheists as mentioned in the Qur’an (Cf. Qur’an 2:62, 5:69 and 22:17).

At its inception, the idea of “Islam” (literally ‘submission’) was a call for justice, a protest of inequity. It was a demand for inclusiveness, for unity and equality for all under the umbrella of one god. Aside from the politics of the times, the original community founded by Muhammad in Medina was a multi-religious community comprising Muslims, Jews, Christians, and polytheists. It was this kind of heterodoxy that thrived in some of Islam’s greatest cities, such as, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Marrakesh, Cordoba and Tehran for long. Yet, ironically, the city of Mecca, the very “portal of paradise”, was to be closed to all but Muslims. This was a particular legacy of the Umayyad dynasty, which receives little mention by religious scholars of Islam – a legacy, which, in effect, led to a certain closing of the Muslim mind.

When Baghdad was a center of Muslim thought and learning in the 8th and 9th centuries, Mecca turned into a haven for anti-rationalists. This was partly due to the influence of the Kharijites, the puritans obsessed with the idea of keeping the religion “pure” and uncorrupted by what they called bid’ah (‘innovation’, or ‘foreign thought and ideas’). This view expressed itself in the form of an utter distaste for philosophy which was perceived as a product of human reasoning, and, therefore, as bad as “associating partners with God”. Under this view, taqlid (‘imitation’) of the Prophet’s companions, their successors, and the successors of the successors, was to become the norm. The latter, as would be expected, was likely to suffer an enormous misinterpretation, and that is what happened.

In continued tension with the idea of taqlid was the notion of Ijtehad – the principle of movement, which gave birth to inductive intellect in Islam. Here, in order to achieve full consciousness one must finally be thrown back on one’s own resources. Ironically, under the most traditionalist and regressive views of Islam, this beautiful concept of Ijtehad is condemned as “heresy” and “innovation”, and has been more or less completely ignored by the modern Muslim world, with some exceptions which are often debarred from claiming the faith by the traditionalists.

Note that it was during the 9th century that the old idea that “only what was stored in memory was truly known” was replaced by a new emphasis on writing down hadith and legal judgments. And it was now that the traditions of the Prophet were being compiled, collected and canonized by various scholars. Consequently, the degree and extent of the authenticity of some of these compilations is rather questionable (Recall that the holy Qur’an itself was revealed in disjointed verses and chapters over a period of twenty-two years, i.e., between 610 and 632 C.E. The Prophet recited the verses to his companions who, in turn, were instructed to memorize them. The verses were “collected” later on and compiled and organized in the form of the chapters of the manuscript that we see today).

What was sacrificed in the exercise of the canonization of the hadith was the idea of complete authority in legislation. Hence, the significance of change and continued reinterpretation of the Islamic Law was gradually erased from its history, giving way to the ever-strengthening radical ideologies, which are not only primitive in their nature but also extremely regressive and anti-humanitarian. Until and unless the notion of Ijtehad is reclaimed, the Muslim communities across the world are highly vulnerable to radical ideology and, hence, susceptible to intellectual degradation.

© Sadaf Munshi. Dec. 10, 2015. (Updated on Dec. 27, 2015).


(Ref. Ziauddin Sardar. 2014. “Mecca: The Sacred City”. Bloomsbury, India.)