Hijab Series (Part 1): The Basics
Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim.
This article is the first in my “Hijab Series” insha’Allah (God willing). As there is much islamophobia targeting women who dress Islamically and general ignorance among both Muslims and non-Muslims regarding the hijab and other forms of Islamic dress, my intention is to do a series of articles on the topic. I am not an expert by any means. However, I plan on covering this topic in a variety of ways to include educating on the hijab, sharing my own personal observations and experiences, and relating this to other relevant topics such as feminism, religious and cultural rights issues, discrimination, hate crimes, and more.
The first misconception I wish to address is the topic of the burqa. It is not uncommon for media, government, and others who are not educated on this topic to refer to all Muslim women’s dress as “wearing the burqa.” I have probably seen thousands of Muslim women in the United States and Canada and I don’t think I have ever seen a woman in a burqa in either of these countries. On the other hand, I have seen women wearing burqas in the Asian subcontinent. Therefore, it is strange to hear so much talk in the media about “the rise of the burqa” in the West when I have yet to see it. So let’s take a look at the basics of Muslim women’s dress.
Muslim women are expected to wear what is known as the hijab in the following situations:
1) At the time of prayer even if the woman is alone in her own house. Women must wear hijab during all forms of salat (daily fixed Islamic prayers).
2) In the presence of non-mahram men. A mahram is a male guardian or a family member who is not eligible for marriage. This includes a woman’s husband, father, brother, uncle, and son. A non-mahram is a man outside of her immediate family or otherwise someone she can marry. This includes an unrelated neighbor, co-worker, or classmate as well as a male cousin in her family. There are some exceptions and specifics to these examples and it is not a complete list but I don’t think it is important to go into too much detail here as it can become technical. The general rule, however, is that a woman does not need to wear hijab in front of her family but does need to in front of men outside of her family.
3) The possibility of being seen by non-mahram men or the fear of fitna (disturbance). Even when there are no men around, Muslim women are expected to be prudent and cover with hijab in areas where they could potentially be seen by non-mahram men. Examples include going outside in a fenced yard, sitting at home by an open window, or being in a public building with security cameras. While the assumption is that nobody is there to see her, if there is a possibility of a neighbor looking over the fence or a delivery person walking by the window where he could see her, then she should wear hijab to avoid the risk. She also should not have photos or videos taken of her without hijab if she cannot be sure of how those photos or videos will be used or cannot ensure that they only remain in the hands of those allowed to view them. I don’t know the details of the rulings on this. Allahu alam (Allah knows best).
As to fitna, there may be cases where she isn’t comfortable going without her hijab even though she is in the presence of people who are permitted to see her. Islam strongly respects a woman’s right to privacy and I am not aware of any ruling requiring a woman to take off her hijab if she does not want to.
On the contrary, there are situations where she is permitted to remove her hijab where she would otherwise not be allowed to. Examples include life-threatening emergencies, medical necessity, or if wearing the hijab would put her at significant risk of danger. Again, I’m not an expert on the details of the rulings around these but this sums up the basics.
What is hijab?
Hijab commonly refers to a woman’s headscarf. However, it specifically means the entirety of a woman’s modest dress. Hijab refers to having nothing visible except her face and her hands and that the areas that are covered are non-form fitting, not see-through, and otherwise hide and veil the areas of the female body that might be sexually attractive to men. In common usage, however, the hijab is the headscarf that covers a woman’s head, neck, and the sides of her face. Some women wear this in one piece and others in two or more layers (i.e. an under scarf and an outer scarf), and some will use pins to hold it in place and some will not. There are misconceptions among some Muslims regarding the hijab. Some think it is cultural and not obligatory. The classical scholars have consistently ruled that hijab is obligatory for Muslim women. Some Muslim women wear their “hijabs” in a manner where much of their hair is visible in the front or hangs down underneath in the back. Others think it is acceptable to tie the “hijab” around the back allowing the neck to be visible. These methods are not correct and while they still count as wearing a headscarf they are not considered to be hijab. The neck, hair, and head must all be covered. To my knowledge it is also obligatory to cover the sides of the face to include the ears.
The niqab is not nearly as commonly worn as the hijab. However, it is a part of Islam and not solely culture as some Muslims incorrectly attribute to the niqab. To my knowledge, there is a scholarly difference of opinion on its role. My limited research on the topic has yielded the following results. Among the four Sunni madhabs (schools of law) the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) ranges from niqab being mustahab (recommended to wear but not obligatory) to wajib (obligatory to wear). Within the schools that state it is mustahab, they generally increase this to a status of wajib if there is a fear of fitna (i.e. a man is staring at her inappropriately or otherwise making her uncomfortable). In Jafari fiqh (Shia jurisprudence) what I have come across is that niqab is ruled to be mubah (permissible) which is a legal category below mustahab.
Mubah indicates that an action is neutral and that one can take the action or leave it but that if one does the action for the sake of Allah (swt) it becomes an act of ibadah (worship) and earns a reward. Mustahab means that while an action is encouraged for Muslims to perform, if they choose not to then there is no sin on them but if they do the action there is a reward earned. Wajib indicates that Muslims must perform the action and gain the reward by doing so but that if they do not do it then they earn a sin. Taking all of this into consideration, it is clear that niqab is a part of Islam whether women choose to wear it or not. Muslims who oppose the niqab, mock it, or fight against it are in serious error. Apologies if covering the shariah (Islamic law) on this is too technical or full of too much jargon. Niqab has unfortunately become a controversial issue among both Muslims and non-Muslims so I felt it necessary to go into some detail to dispel the myths that niqab is cultural and not a part of Islam. Niqab is definitely a part of Islam and there is no question about it.
Women who wear niqab regularly and who take the scholarly position that doing so is wajib (obligatory) should also be aware that there are exceptions. According to my knowledge, niqab may or must be removed during business transactions where the buyer and seller wish to see each other’s faces to determine honesty, when providing court testimony, and in cases where security dictates that the woman’s identity be known. There are also other cases where niqab is removed such as during certain religious acts. It is a deep topic and fairly technical. I am by no means an expert. Allahu alam (Allah knows best).
What is niqab?
Niqab is the face veil. There are variations. Some women wear what is known as a half niqab which is a veil that covers the nose, mouth, and basically the bottom half of her face. Full niqabs generally cover the entire face except for the eyes. Some niqabs have elastic bands to hold it on, some have buttons that snap together, and others are tied around the back of her head. There are one layer, two layer, and three layer niqabs. The three layer niqab can be worn with the eyes visible, with the eyes partially screened, or with the eyes fully hidden. Niqab is designed to easily breathe and talk through as well as to consume food and drink. The veil is long enough that it can be lifted up so that an eating utensil or cup is brought underneath while still providing coverage.
The burqa is predominately associated with central Asia and especially Afghanistan but can be worn by Muslim women anywhere. To my knowledge, the scholarly rulings on the burqa are no different than they are for the niqab as both of these garments function essentially the same way. The burqa is worn less commonly than the niqab.
What is the burqa?
The burqa is an outer garment that covers the entire body including the hands, face, and eyes. The eyes are covered by a screen so that the woman can see while at the same time preventing someone from seeing her eyes. The burqa is simply worn over whatever it is she is wearing underneath so that everything is covered by one piece of fabric. A woman wearing a burqa is fully veiled. On the contrary, the niqab is an article of clothing that combines with other portions of the Muslim woman’s dress. Some women who wear niqab will also wear gloves to cover their hands. A woman wearing niqab is only fully veiled if she a) wears a niqab that covers her eyes, b) wears gloves to cover her hands, and c) wears other clothing that meets the requirements of hijab. So while the niqab and the burqa produce a similar effect of veiling, they are different types of clothing and are worn differently.
This should insha’Allah (God willing) dispel the myth that all types of Muslim women’s dress styles equate to “wearing the burqa.” While the niqab and the burqa are also hijab (when worn correctly), the hijab is not necessarily niqab or burqa. There is also a substantial diversity in Muslim women’s clothing in general and many clothing styles are more common to certain regions of the world. I won’t go into this here as it would be too lengthy to cover and I’m not that educated on it myself. While I have my own dress style that I’m comfortable with, I don’t have the knowledge of what all of the world’s Muslim women wear. In any case, with 1.8 billion Muslims globally it should be clear that we don’t all look or dress the same.
Is hijab a choice or not?
There are many images on television of groups of Iranian women wearing hijab and all black clothing, groups of Saudi women wearing niqab and all black clothing, and groups of Afghan women wearing all blue burqas. Often these images also show armed police or military in close proximity to them. The portrayal is that in these societies women are required to wear such outfits. The message sent is that the clothing itself and the lack of a woman’s choice to not wear it is a form of oppression.
In America and other Western countries, one can see Muslim women wearing hijab and the occasional woman wearing niqab just about anywhere. Some women publicly protest against current and proposed laws banning these stating that hijab is their right. The portrayal is that in these societies it is the woman’s choice and right whether to wear such clothes or not. The message sent is that women who choose to wear it find that choice as well as the clothing itself liberating.
So again, is hijab a choice or not? The answer is both. As covered previously, hijab is obligatory for Muslim women to wear so that makes it not a choice. At the same time, Muslim women who live in secular societies are under no legal obligation to practice any particular aspect of their religion. Some people see Muslim women wearing hijab and say to them, “Hey, this is America and you don’t have to wear that.” It’s true that in America women do not have to wear hijab but it is a choice whether or not she wants to observe that required aspect of her faith. A similar argument can be made regarding the Jewish observance of Pesach (Passover). In a secular society it is a choice whether or not Jews follow the obligatory aspects of Judaism. So basically this comes down to the fact that one may choose to fulfill or not fulfill a religious duty.
What about the shariah (Islamic Law)? Wouldn’t that force Muslim women to dress a particular way within an Islamic state? It is obvious that if a state is to be considered an Islamic state that it would indeed be governed by Islamic law and that what is obligatory must be followed. However, in this essay I do not feel it is necessary to get into the dynamics of Islamic governance because to my knowledge there is not one legitimate Islamic state anywhere on earth. Each state currently claiming to be an Islamic state seems to contain various un-Islamic distortions with some states containing great errors and misguidance and others with less. This is a topic Western media and government often uses to promote fear of Islam. In future essays as part of this “Hijab Series” I do plan to write about the contemporary issues as well as the social and political matters related to hijab.
Hopefully this essay has accomplished covering the “what” of hijab. Next, insha’Allah (God willing) I plan to get deeper into the topic by covering the “why” of hijab followed by another essay related to my own personal experiences and observations. If there is anything in this essay that is incorrect, I seek forgiveness from Allah (swt) for my errors. Wa allahu alam (And Allah knows best).
Author: Sumayyah Dawud