A hijab should not be required attire for Muslim women

S. Amjad Hussain

Increasingly, Muslim women are opting to cover their hair in public. And increasingly the questions are being asked if wearing a hijab in public is part of the Islamic dress for Muslim women. The simple answer: It is not. There is no such thing as Islamic dress for women.

There is no mention of any specific dress for women in the Qur’an. There are, however, three passages that lay down guidelines for Muslim women. They are advised to cover themselves appropriately when they are outside the home and not to display their beauty, their embellishment, and their adornments. Interpretations vary and scholars draw opposing conclusions from the same passages in the Qur’an.

Like the colors of a rainbow, Muslims come in all colors and hues, and they in turn bring their own cultural traditions that are well within the limits prescribed by the Qur’an.

The underlying principle is to dress modestly and not be a walking sex symbol. Under this rubric, Muslim women can wear any style of dress – whether from the West, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, or the Far East.

About 25 years ago, a few Saudi young men stopped by the Islamic Center in Perrysburg for the sunset prayer service. At the time, the governing board and the board of elders of the center, comprised of both men and women, were in session for their monthly meeting. The visitors, probably newcomers to America, promptly reported to the Saudi press that in one of the mosques in America, they allow participation of half-naked women. Their only reference point was where they had come from.

Even to a casual observer, it becomes apparent that women in different parts of the Muslim world dress differently. Even within one country there are regional variations. To the orthodox Arab Muslims, the shalwar kameez and long scarf, called dupatta, worn by Muslim women in India and Pakistan appears outrageous. Similarly, most Indian and Pakistani women would consider the obsessive covering of every single strand of hair as overkill.

So where did this covering of the hair come from? From Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. It is ironic that while they constitute merely 15 percent of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, most Arab Muslims consider themselves as the final arbitrators of what is Islamic and what is not.

For more than 50 years, the Saudi Wahhabi interpretation of Islam has swept the non-Arab Muslim lands. Under the influence of this rigid and unyielding version of Islam, it is a must for a woman to cover her hair in public and preferably to cover herself from head to toe as in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.

This restrictive philosophy rode on the wings of petro-dollars and reached the far corners of the Muslim world, where compliant imams started shoving a totally alien and foreign cultural tradition down the throats of Muslim women.

For the past 38 years, I have annually visited to teach at my alma mater Khyber Medical College and a few other institutions in Peshawar. Each time I see more young women wearing the hijab and quite a few wearing a niqab or the veil that covers their faces. The girls who do not, I was told, are under pressure from the student religious organizations on the campus to toe the line. In contrast when I was a student in the late 1950s and later as a faculty member in the 1970s, there was not a single hijabi girl on the large university campus.

Why don’t the imams and the scholars lead the way? I believe they are weighed down by history and tradition. Many of them rely on old commentaries, some going back hundreds of years, to find answers. A majority of them have ceased to break new ground in religious thinking and have instead morphed into mere conformists who are comfortable in following in the footsteps of the scholars and jurists of yore. In the process they have let their inkwells run dry.

If that were the modus operandi of the Islamic scholars in the first three centuries of Islam, the four major schools of thought in Sunni Islam and two in Shia Islam would not have developed. In that case, we would have a monochromic and monolithic religion.

Wearing a hijab should be a personal choice for Muslim women and not a religious obligation. Once it is made a religious obligation, as some Muslims have done, it automatically consigns non-hijab wearing Muslim women to a lesser status. It is hard to accept that tens of millions of Muslim women in non-Arab societies had it wrong for centuries.

S. Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo. His column appears every other Monday in The Blade. Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net.

Posted August 3, 2016. This article was published in The Blade, it is posted here with the author's permission.