For some, the word hijab means an Islamic practice imposed on Muslim women and symbolizes a form of, or perhaps, an excuse to oppress women. For others, it is what differentiates between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim woman, and what distinguishes between a “good” Muslim woman and a “bad” Muslim one. While the level of depth and genuineness of these perceptions of hijab may vary and may as well be questioned, other more important factors and concepts must be realized when attempting to understand hijab, especially for new Muslims or for those interested in knowing about hijab. In this article, I will try to explain a few issues related to hijab.
Hijab in Muslim and Arab Societies
Many women in the Arab World and in Saudi Arabia wear hijab as a tradition, which they rebuff once they get the chance. It doesn’t represent anything to them except the domination of tribal and patriarch laws and norms. Those women have been brought up as sexual beings, whose mere existence means sin, shame, and an invitation to adultery or making love. At the same time, those male-dominated tribes or communities allow men to commit adultery with prostitutes as long as nobody knows and as long as the prostitutes are not women from the tribe, i.e. as long as they are foreigners and are not expected to be children bearers. In such tribes, Islam is practiced only in mosques, but where women are concerned, traditions rule and prevail under the name of a superficial sort of Islam. Naturally, in such unjust societies women have no other choice but to accept and submit or to rebel against anything that forces them to cling to their Islamic and Arabian roots. Fused with traditions, the religion of the “ignorant” Muslim Sheikhs becomes the villain that is to be blamed for women’s repression, and once there is a beam of knowledge, revolution occurs and throws out all tribal customs along with Islam.
When women from such tribes become educated, they learn things upside down. They learn about the “superior” culture of the West and embrace its so-called freedom, for it is the only salvation they know. After being taught all their lives that Islam is praying, fasting, and wearing hijab only, the whole idea of Islam doesn’t seem to make sense for them. Some declare their radical views on Islam and Muslims and live as outcasts or as slaves to the glory of rebelling against any standard. Others preserve their newly obtained knowledge about the liberated cultures and start to live by double standards. In both ways, they are the result of their tribes’ intended poor teaching of Islam.
On the other hand, some Muslim women in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon wear hijab at their free will. Most of them are highly educated women, who understand the message hijab sends: don’t look at my body, look at my mind and look at me as a human being, not as a means for pleasure. I am equal to you, so treat me like you treat any fellow man. Those women understand that by wearing hijab they shift men’s focus from their bodies to their minds and personalities. They set limits and boundaries and give men a practical lesson on how to treat and respect women as partners in building the nation of Islam. Unfortunately, the Muslim women who comprehend this concept of hijab are very few.
Many other Muslim women who wear hijab do it as a way of showing that they are Muslims or as a way of imitating other women in their families. Such women get caught between what’s right and wrong, and they are very vulnerable and defenseless when hijab is attacked because they don’t fully understand why they are wearing hijab. For them, hijab is not a matter of conviction; it is a matter of belonging to the group, so even when they try to defend hijab, their arguments appear pointless and poor.
Hijab, Non-Muslims, and New Muslims
So far the issue seems the Muslim woman’s personal business, but it gets complicated when non-Muslims and new Muslims witness Muslim women renouncing hijab, see the various styles of hijab, and read about the conflict among Islamic scholars about hijab. In the midst of these diverse hijab issues and do’s and don’ts about hijab, new Muslims and truth seekers become puzzled. According to Sheikh Ali Al-Jiffri(born in 1971), a Yemeni notable Islamic scholar, the problem of hijab is that all people talk about it and discuss it. People who are not specialized in Islamic legislation and have superficial knowledge about hijab discuss the issue and pass their personal opinions and judgments and sometimes their “fatwa” about hijab. Imagine me talking about a medical concept and trying to refute it, how would I sound? I will only ridicule myself and insult the people who know better.”
The main problem is that most people look at hijab as a single practice; not as a part of many Islamic practices. One cannot understand hijab as a single order for women; it must be understood within the whole system of a Muslim’s life. Islam aims to create a balanced life for Muslims, and it aims at making marital life happier and more settled because when the Muslim family is happy, it can produce and take an active role in the society. When some Muslim societies don’t raise their girls properly and force them to wear hijab without explaining to them anything about their role in society and without emphasizing their humanity, Islam is not to be blamed; it is the people who divided Islam into sections and chose to follow the parts that they like or that suit their tribal traditions.
Shiekh Ali explains a very essential issue regarding hijab. He says that he respects and understands the views that reject hijab, but he cannot change the Islamic religion to please them. More importantly, he sends a vital message to Muslims who defend hijab. Sheikh Ali emphasizes the difference between stating the “fatwa” of hijab and calling for Islam and trying to convince a new Muslim to wear hijab. According to Sheikh Ali, hijab is not the first thing I ask a new Muslim woman to do. I might ask her to dress up decently, but I don’t focus on that from the beginning. I focus on a new Muslim’s heart and relationship with Allah. I focus on love and faith. Hijab comes later on by default. Yet if a new Muslim woman asks me about hijab, I tell her the Islamic opinion clearly. We have to look at the cultural backgrounds that new Muslims come from. It is impossible to convince a Muslim-to-be or a new Muslim of hijab by saying: “You must wear hijab or you must cover from head to toe, or you will go to hell!” How can we ask for such a thing without planting the love of Allah and a thorough understanding of Islam in the hearts first?” Even the way we ask new Muslims to do something should be very gentle, tolerant, and understanding.
How can we explain hijab to a new Muslim? It is not enough at all to say that Muslim women must wear hijab to be good Muslims. Some scholars, unfortunately, make the situation even worse when they tell new Muslims that they cannot be Muslims unless they wear hijab. To begin with, hijab is very essential in a Muslim woman’s life, yet it is not as important as gaining knowledge about God and the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). If I want to talk to a new Muslim woman about Islam, I would explain to her first and foremost the meaning of Allah; the meaning of his sacred names and characteristics. A new Muslim should be taught the meaning of Quraan and should be taught about the Prophet’s life and his sacrifice for the good of our nation. The second step would be learning how to pray and fast and learning the wisdom behind prayer and fasting and the other pillars of Islam. Teaching the importance of hijab at this point is also important, but it should be taught as part of Islam; not as the sole manifestation of Islam.
The Levels of Hijab:
Sheikh Ali has a very interesting view on hijab, which I haven’t read or heard about from any other scholar. He says that hijab comes in levels. It is impossible to expect all Muslim women to wear hijab the same way. Hijab comes in different styles according to the culture, country, and time. It is a healthy thing to have different types of hijab as long as these types follow the general guideline of hijab. The different Islamic scholars’ views on hijab is a positive thing as it shows the flexibility of Islam and of hijab. For instance, in a country that has half-naked women everywhere, it is illogical to ask Muslim women to cover their faces. Islam is meant for all times and all regions of the world. A Muslim woman must dress up decently in a way that does not contradict completely with the norms of the society she is living in.
Hijab has two basic levels:
The obligation level:
It is the regular hijab that all Muslim women must wear, which is covering the body except the face, hands , and feet (some scholars said to cover the feet as well)
The perfection level:
It includes covering the face and the hands, which takes a high level of faith from the woman.
We also have to put into consideration that in so many cases, the woman should be able to decide for herself whether to cover her face or uncover it. If a woman is wearing make-up or if she feels that the men around are looking at her in a demeaning or sexual way, her conscious must guide her immediately to take the decision of covering her face without anyone telling her to do so. But again, this is a very high level of hijab.
Islam is a package; take it or leave it. When a woman becomes a Muslim, she must believe in the necessity of hijab even if she cannot wear it at first. Islam is all about ascending higher gradually. A true Muslim is always in a struggle to perfect him/herself . It is enough for a new Muslim to believe in hijab, and when she truly understands Allah and the prophet (peace be upon him), she will seek wearing hijab and she will develop this sense of modesty and chastity that she feels insulted if a man looks at her is a sexual way.
What about Muslim women who don’t Wear Hijab?
Shiekh Ali adds, “I am often asked about Muslim women who don’t wear hijab; what do I think of them?” That’s an issue that has many aspects. Some say that there are Muslim women who wear hijab but act in a bad way, i.e. they lie or don’t pray while other Muslim women who don’t wear hijab are honest and nice. I say it is very natural. Those women who misbehave have not worn hijab with a thorough understanding of Islam and of their mission in life. Probably some have worn it without having enough faith to practice the other Islamic teachings. They don’t realize that Islam is not a religion of looks only; it is a religion that caters for both. The other women, who are well-behaved but don’t wear hijab are not bad Muslims. It is a very harsh judgment to accuse them of being immoral or bad just because they don’t wear hijab. They are surly committing a sin, but it is not as big as adultery for instance. These women also understand hijab and Islam in the wrong way. They feel that as long as they’re not committing the big sins, they are on the safe side. We want these women to make their pure inside come to the surface, so it reflects who they truly are and to become better Muslims. Again..it is always about ascending higher.”
When a Muslim woman wears hijab, she is sending men a very important message; I am not easy…respect me and look at me as a human being, not as a sex object…some people might argue that sexuality is part of a woman’s nature and by asking women to wear hijab, Islam denies women’s humanity and their sexual rights, but this is not true…it’s not a denial of women’s sex appeal; it’s putting the sexual appeal into its right context with the right man at the suitable time.
According to Sheikh Mohammad Al-Ghazali (1917-1996), an Egyptian notable Islamic scholar, Islam is not against women’s beauty. In fact, Islam admits the innate need of women to beautify themselves and to feel beautiful, and this does not contradict with hijab. A woman can be beautiful, neat, and elegant while wearing hijab as long as she abides by the Islamic rules when dealing with men. Moreover, Islam asks women to put all their “beautifying energy” to their husbands, so Islam is not actually preventing women from being beautiful; it is just guiding them to be beautiful where they really should be.
Unfortunately, women these days dress beautifully only when they are at the mall or at a wedding party, and that is what has created the imbalance in the relationships between men and women, says Sheikh Ali Al-Jiffri.
Hijab is not a sort of oppression; it is a part of a balanced life that Islam aims at developing in a Muslim’s life. Throughout history, Muslim women who wore hijab used to be active and productive in their communities and it never hindered them from fulfilling their roles as wives, mothers, or working women. If there are many problems in the Islamic societies today, it is because many people use Islamic principals in the wrong way; to suit their interests and moods. Hijab is, unfortunately, used by both Muslims and non-Muslims as a tool to attack the “other” and the only victim of this extremist’s acts is the Muslim woman. Still many women in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, the UK, and the USA wear hijab at their free will. It is illogical to expect all people to understand hijab, but it is time that we all respect women who wear hijab. It is a struggle to wear hijab, I admit, but we, Muslims women, are doing it to please Allah and to be close to Him, so don’t make our lives harder by looking down at us.
Stay tuned for part II
Muslim women and the balance between beauty and hijab
Muslim Women and Sex