The Issue of the Hijab
Dolly Z. Hassan, Esq., Ph.D.

With more focus now (since September 11) on the Hijab (head covering worn by Muslim women), and with an increasing number of our own Guyanese community -- young and old -- taking up the Hijab, people are asking: “Is it mandated by Islam?”

The Institute of Islamic Information and Education states: “The answer to the question is very simple -- Muslim women observe HIJAB . . . because Allah has told them to do so.” (Brochure Series.) I recall just a few months ago, I was browsing in an Islamic store on Liberty Avenue, Richmond Hill, Queens, NY, and was looking for a hijab for someone. The salesman came by and encouraged me to buy, warning also that: “Allah says woman must wear the Hijab.” So how can you argue with that? What exactly is this man’s source? Did Allah really say that? What does the noble Qur’an say about the hijab as a woman’s head-wear, which many Muslim women claim “protects” and “elevates” them?

The use of the hijab or head-covering dates back to Greco-Roman civilization. Jews, Christians, and Muslims traditionally covered their heads as a matter of respect -- as they all do even today in places of worship. Arab men and women traditionally covered their heads even prior to the advent of Islam -- it was and is common and practical in the desert to shield, for example, from the sand.

The word “hijab” is derived from the Arabic word hajaba, that is, to hide or conceal, screen, shield. Hijab/hajaba is mentioned a total of eight times in the Qur’an. But hijab does not appear to be used in the context of a woman’s head covering. Certainly, there is no detailed direction as to women’s precise attire. One key Qur’anic verse, 7:26, states: “O children of Adam, we have provided you with garments to cover your bodies, as well as for luxury. But the best garment is the garment of righteousness . . . .”  Thus, the basic Islamic rule is that the best dress is that of righteousness -- doing the right thing, behaving appropriately at all times.

Most scholars seem to agree that one specific reference in the Qur’an on women’s dress code comes from 24:30-31, often quoted as the source of the command for the veil: “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments . . . that they should draw their KHIMAR over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands . . . .”

There is much controversy over the translation of the verse and especially the word Khimar (which loosely means covering). Many translators use the word veil instead of ‘covering,’ thus arguing that the Qur’an requires the veil. However, as scholars of Arabic have pointed out, Khimar can be any covering, such as a tablecloth, blanket, dress, or shawl. What is semantically clear, even after an analysis of various translations and even if one uses the word veil in translation -- and one doesn’t need to have a superb command of the Arabic language for this -- is an order that the woman’s bosom be covered, not that the woman’s head be covered. The emphasis or concern is about the ‘exposed bosom,’ not ‘uncovered’ head. The woman must take her cloth, shawl, whatever she is wearing and cover or shield her bosom from view.

Another frequently cited passage from the Qur’an is 33:59: “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, as well as all other believing women, that they should draw over themselves some of their outer garments; this will be more conducive to their being recognized as decent women and not molested . . .” Here the advice is that properly clad women do not get unwanted attention. To put it simply, the idea from all these passages on women’s dress is what we have all been told by our parents all along: a decent woman does not wear a dress with an outrageously low-cut neck, nor does she wear skimpy mini-skirts. If she does, she calls unwanted attention to herself and sends a message of promiscuity.

Some Muslims cite various sections of the Hadiths, or the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (on whom be peace), to buttress their argument that the hijab is Allah’s command. In one tradition (some argue a weak one) Prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying: “If the woman reaches the age of puberty, no part of her body should be seen but this . . .” (He allegedly pointed to his face and hands).

The Prophet and his followers, others argue, cannot supersede the Qur’an, cannot create new rules and attribute them to Allah. Everyone acknowledges that the Hadiths do not carry the force and might of the “word” of Allah, and one writer has gone as far as to say the following:

“Accepting orders from anybody but God, means idol-worship. That is how serious the matter of Hijab/Khimar is. Women who wear Hijab because of tradition or because they like it for personal reasons commit no sin, as long as they know that it is not part of this perfect religion. Those who are wearing it because they think God ordered it, are committing idol-worship, as God did not order it, the scholars did. These women have found for themselves another god than the One who revealed the Qur’an, complete, perfect and FULLY detailed, to tell them they have to cover their heads to be Muslims.” (Ahmed Okla, Women Dress Code in Islam).

I will not take the stand that wearing the hijab is akin to idol worship. I heard my father once say to someone: “Look, I don’t know if it’s OK to eat crabs -- after all, the Saudis do -- but what is wrong if I err on the side of caution and abstain?” So women who wear the hijab, I prefer to think, want to err on the side of caution as long as they recognize that a Muslim woman without the hijab can carry herself with as much modesty and dignity as one that dons the head-wear. And we all know that there is nothing more irritating than a beautifully-clad hijab woman with a loud, shrill voice and a domineering, masculine manner (sort of the equivalent of wearing the hijab with a bikini).

Mr. Mohamad Kazim Yusuf, a Guyanese-American, editor of the Islamic periodical, Aalim, concludes: “The issue is simply this: within Islamic theology there is no mandatory requirement for wearing the hijab. A Muslim woman is free to wear it or not wear it. The essential dress code is characterized by simplicity, decency and modesty.”

As a lay person reflecting on this topic, I have learned that the argument for or against the hijab as a religious requirement is complex. The more one splits hair with semantics, the more one is inclined to adopt a common sense approach. Having draped myself with the abayya and veil (almost opaque black cloth covering my entire face, including eyes and nose) for about two years in Saudi Arabia, I know that I am the same person with or without it. Wearing or not wearing the hijab does not make an individual any more or less pious.

The argument that the Hijab protects and elevates women brings to mind another argument I often heard in Saudi Arabia, one that attempts to justify the oppression of women: A woman is queen of her home; she does not need to venture out. Leave that to men.

No, I would like to feel the sun and rain upon my head and skin.

Posted December 17, 2001. [This article was originally published in the December 2001 issue of the Guyana Journal, and it is posted here with the author's permission. Click here for the link to The Guyana Journal].