Why Do Muslim Women Cover Their Heads?

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asked May 19, 2015 by admin (4,310 points)

1 Answer

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Summary

There are a number of misconceptions about women covering in Islam, and many headlines in the media make false and misleading statements about this issue. This simple misunderstood cloth does not aim to attack Western and Judeo-Christian values of modesty, good character and righteousness; rather, it seeks to uphold them. The primary reason a Muslim woman covers herself in a particular way is submission to Almighty God, recognising that in His infinite knowledge, He knows what is best for His creation. However, the Qur’an also mentions two fundamental reasons:

1. That it serves to make it known to the society that the individual is a practising Muslim. In this way, it becomes a uniform that a Muslim woman adopts, making her an ambassador for Islam, and showing others the true moral conduct of the religion, as well as sending out a message that the woman wearing it is an individual who is valued for her intellect and her character, and not an object of desire to be leered at.

2. The Islamic view that no woman should be subjugated as an object of lust and desire for her male counterparts, and that every woman has the right to be protected from abuse. The Qur’an tells us that the covering worn by Muslim women is one of the means to achieve this.

“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their outer garments over themselves. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.” [The Qur’an: al-Ahzab: 33:59]

This serves to dispel the idea that covering is forced upon women to subjugate them to men, when in fact, covering is a choice that the Muslim woman makes solely based on her religious commitment and she makes a willful decision to adopt it, wearing it with honour because she knows that she has fulfilled her religious duty towards God Almighty.

Full Answer

The head covering worn by Muslim women has been an issue that has seen a great deal of controversy in recent years. Several countries have attempted to ban or restrict its use, and the topic has stirred strong emotions on both sides of the debate.

This simple misunderstood cloth does not aim to attack Western and Judeo-Christian values of modesty, good character and righteousness; rather, it seeks to uphold them. To illustrate this, the hijab resembles the habit of a nun in Christian Europe, who is almost always seen as a symbol of piety and someone who upholds good morals. This is also supported historically in Christianity and Judaism, in which paintings of righteous women such as Mary, the mother of Jesus (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon them both), depict them with a head covering.

One may further ask the question: “Who defines what is modest?” This is illustrated by the ever-evolving world of fashion. What may be modest to one society or civilisation, may be immodest to another. For example, some indigenous tribes in Africa would regard body painting instead of clothes, and the nakedness of a young warrior for his ceremonial initiation, to all be a part of modesty in their dress and clothing. However, such dress would likely cause extreme controversy and public outcry if seen in other countries. This all points to the need for someone or something to define modesty for societies and individuals, and Muslims regard Allah (God), the Creator of all things, as the one who gives that moral compass and definition, in a way that is suitable for all people, in all times.

It is also important to define the various Arabic terms which are frequently mentioned in relation to Muslim women’s dress:

1. Hijab: Literally, ‘a veil’ or ‘a cover’, the hijab refers to the modest clothing which Muslim women are required to wear, comprising of the head scarf, a loose outer garment, and for some Muslim women, a face veil. Muslims often use the word hijab informally to refer to only one component of the full hijab, the head scarf.

2. Khimaar: Something used to cover the head, for both men and women. This is the proper Arabic name for a head scarf that is worn by women; however, most non-Arabic speakers will still refer to this by the word hijab.

3. Jilbaab (also called an ‘Abaayah): A loose outer garment that covers most or all of the body, normally from either the top of the head to the ground, or from the shoulders to the ground, and conceals the figure.

4. Niqaab: A face veil which may or may not leave space for the eyes, normally tied over the top of a headscarf, seen by many Muslim women as being an obligatory extension of the hijab, and by others as a recommended and praiseworthy style of dress.

5. Burqa’: A particular style of hijab, most commonly worn in Central Asia, although similar garments exist in other countries, comprising of a head cover, a loose outer garment, and a face veil, usually in sewn together in one piece.

After understanding these terms, it becomes clear that many statements made in the media about the hijab are false and misleading, including headlines such as “Ban the Burqa’!” since the burqa’ is just one type of hijab, customarily worn by Muslim women in certain countries, and is not the only kind of hijab which contains a face covering. Furthermore, these terms themselves vary from country to country, so the meaning of a burqa’ in Afghanistan is different to the burqa’ worn in Qatar, and the meaning of jilbaab in Indonesia is different to the understanding of jilbaab amongst Muslims in the United Kingdom, both of which differ to a greater or lesser extent from the classical Arabic meaning of the word.

Historically, veils of varying types had been worn by women of the Jewish and Christian faiths for hundreds of years before the advent of Islam, particularly for women associated with religion. In several ancient cultures, they were reserved for women of high status, distinguishing between those women who were considered to be respectable and those who were available to men.

In the early years of Islam, during the Makkan period, there was no command for women to adopt a particular dress code; however, the command to wear the hijab was revealed in the early years of the Prophet’s time in Madeenah (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), after his marriage to Zaynab bint Jahsh (may Allah be pleased with her).

The primary reason a Muslim woman wears the hijab is the same reason that Muslims – male and female – implement any of the commandments of Islam: because the fundamental concept of Islam is submission to Almighty God, recognising that in His infinite knowledge, He knows what is best for His creation. This is a concept which is mentioned frequently in the Qur’an:

“Does He who created not know, while He is the Subtle, the All-Aware?” [The Qur’an: al-Mulk: 67:14]

“It is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decided a matter, that they should [thereafter] have any choice about their affair. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into clear error.” [The Qur’an: al-Ahzab: 33:36]

Having said that, as is often the case in Islam, Allah conveys to us part of the wisdom behind the revelation of this command, as is found in this passage of the Qur’an:

“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their outer garments over themselves. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.” [The Qur’an: al-Ahzab: 33:59]

This passage tells us two things about the hijab:

1. That it serves to make it known to the society that the individual is a practising Muslim. In this way, it becomes a uniform that a Muslim woman adopts, making her an ambassador for Islam, and showing others the true moral conduct of the religion. Like the veils worn in ancient civilisations, it serves to make a statement that this woman is of high moral standards, and must be treat with honour and respect. There is no doubt that people are – rightly or wrongly – judged by their appearance, and that certain forms of dress affect the way that we deal with the people who adopt them. For example, the uniform of a police officer serves to command respect and authority. This is particularly important when we consider that, in many countries, images of scantily clad women are regularly used in advertising to sell products, and in societies where women are encouraged to dress in ways that are appealing to the opposite sex; in this environment, the hijab sends out a message that the woman wearing it is an individual who is valued for her intellect and her character, and not an object of desire to be leered at.

2. The Islamic view that no woman should be subjugated as an object of lust and desire for her male counterparts, and that every woman has the right to be protected from abuse. The Qur’an tells us that the hijab is one of the means to achieve this. It protects the woman from the advances of men whom the Qur’an describes as “having in their hearts a disease,” and gives women a degree of protection from unwanted attention. Once again, the emphasis is that the woman is not to be judged by how she looks, and that those who wish to see her in all of her beauty must fulfil the stringent conditions of Islam. This is once again particularly relevant in societies in which harassment of women is common, and societies in which women are commonly employed for how they look, rather than their skills and proficiency. Furthermore, in societies in which people are pressured to look and dress a certain way, and often go to extremes in order to achieve the look that society demands of them, this protection extends not only to protection from men, but protection from these pressures in society and the ills which are associated with them.

As was previously mentioned, this only represents part of the reason why Muslim women cover, but at least it serves to dispel the idea that the hijab is forced upon women to subjugate them to men, when nothing could be further from the truth. The hijab is a choice that the Muslim woman makes solely based on her religious commitment and she makes a willful decision to adopt it. In fact, in countries which do not impose the hijab as a legal obligation, women who cover often complain of pressure from their families and the wider community not to do so, and many face significant pressure to remove their religious clothing. In many societies, there is a huge pressure on women to look a certain way and dress a certain way, and a woman who chooses to wear the hijab does so as a symbol of her faith; something she wears with honour because she knows that she has fulfilled her religious duty towards God Almighty.

There is no doubt that there are cases of women being forced to wear the hijab, especially in countries in which the hijab is a legal obligation or forms a normal part of the culture, and Islam has proper provision for dealing with these cases in a way that protects the rights of the individual members of society, as well as the society at large. However, cases like this are the exception, rather than the rule.

Some people may also argue that in societies where it is not part of the customary dress code, the hijab brings more attention, rather than reducing it. Whilst it may be true that the hijab can attract attention in this kind of environment, it is not the kind of attention which stems from lust and desire, and is instead the kind of attention which is rooted in curiosity at seeing something unusual.

Another common misconception is that Muslim women are always veiled. Islam does not require a Muslim woman to be veiled when she is with other women, or with her close blood relatives, and she may wear whatever she wishes, within the basic limits of modesty set by Islam for both men and women. As for when she is alone with her husband, there are no limits to what she can wear. Many Muslim women are just as interested in fashion and take just as much care in their appearance as their non-Muslim counterparts; however, for the reasons mentioned above, they choose to conceal that in circumstances when they may be seen by men other than those mentioned above. In some Muslim countries where veiling is common, they entire country is orientated around this need, with parks, shopping malls, and other facilities dedicated to women, where they can remove their hijab, or at least a part of it.

It should also be noted that the command to dress modestly is addressed to both men and women, and that men also have a dress code in Islam, although it is somewhat more relaxed, reflecting the differences between the two genders, and the way in which they interact with each other.

In summary, there are a number of misconceptions about women covering in Islam, and many headlines in the media make false and misleading statements about this issue. This simple misunderstood cloth does not aim to attack Western and Judeo-Christian values of modesty, good character and righteousness; rather, it seeks to uphold them. The primary reason a Muslim woman covers herself in a particular way is submission to Almighty God, recognising that in His infinite knowledge, He knows what is best for His creation. However, the Qur’an also mentions two fundamental reasons:

1. That it serves to make it known to the society that the individual is a practising Muslim. In this way, it becomes a uniform that a Muslim woman adopts, making her an ambassador for Islam, and showing others the true moral conduct of the religion, as well as sending out a message that the woman wearing it is an individual who is valued for her intellect and her character, and not an object of desire to be leered at.

2. The Islamic view that no woman should be subjugated as an object of lust and desire for her male counterparts, and that every woman has the right to be protected from abuse. The Qur’an tells us that the covering worn by Muslim women is one of the means to achieve this.

“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their outer garments over themselves. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.” [The Qur’an: al-Ahzab: 33:59]

This serves to dispel the idea that covering is forced upon women to subjugate them to men, when in fact, covering is a choice that the Muslim woman makes solely based on her religious commitment and she makes a willful decision to adopt it, wearing it with honour because she knows that she has fulfilled her religious duty towards God Almighty.

answered May 19, 2015 by admin (4,310 points)
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