Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim.
This article is the second in my “Hijab Series.” The previous article was “The Basics.” 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. In the first article, I covered the definitions and some details regarding the hijab. This included covering the niqab and the burqa along with the hijab and discussing their role in Islam.
Now I wish to address why Muslim women wear the hijab to further resolve as many misconceptions as possible in sha’ Allah (God willing). There are a variety of reasons for Muslim women to wear the hijab. I do not intend to speak on behalf of all Muslim women because not all women who wear the hijab do so for the same reasons. Instead, I wish to cover many of the common reasons as well as the Islamic reasons the hijab is worn. In sha’ Allah this article is also a defense to those who oppose the hijab. How often do we hear from the media the narrative that Muslim women are oppressed by their veils? That we are silenced by our scarves? That our daily dress makes us second-class citizens to be hidden away from men and not seen nor heard? While there are men—both Muslim and non-Muslim—who oppress women, this is not a result of the Islam religion nor is it a result of the hijab itself.
Why wear hijab?
1. Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) has commanded Muslim women to wear hijab.
“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.”
Islam is submission to the will of Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala). All Muslims are required to follow the obligatory aspects of Islam and avoid what has been prohibited to us. Muslims are encouraged to do extra permissible acts of ibadah (worship) and avoid distasteful things that are not of benefit for the believers. Therefore, we follow what Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) has told us to do even if we do not immediately understand the benefit of it because we accept that Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) knows best. Islam, however, is a logical religion to follow and consequently there is a benefit to everything Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) has commanded us to do.
2. Muslim women have a right to privacy as do all women.
Our Islamic clothes are a freedom for us, not a freedom taken away from us. Nobody—especially men—has the right to see any part of our bodies that we do not choose to show them. In many societies and particularly in the West, women are encouraged to show as much skin as possible. In addition to the promotion of female nudity, the way in which women are encouraged to expose themselves is done with the intent of sexualizing the female body. The message sent to such women is that showing off bodily beauty adds value to how they are judged and that covering is viewed as archaic and discouraged. It is not uncommon in various environments in the West to see men more covered and women more exposed. I would argue that this is the norm consistently across virtually all types of places where men and women gather in public.
In any case, rather than become too detailed on the cultural practices of various societies, the argument here is a very simple and straightforward one. Women do not have to show anyone any part of our bodies that we do not want to be seen. We have the right to cover and protect our bodies. We only choose to show our bodies on our terms to those we want to see us. Islamically, other women and mahrams (male guardians or family members who are not eligible for marriage to us) are eligible to see more of us than unrelated men. Our husbands are eligible to see more of us than other family members or other women. We decide what we show others and through the guidelines of Islam. We do not allow society or the media to dictate what we show and to whom.
3. Muslim women want to be modest and to be treated with dignity, honor, and respect.
Hijab gives us the respect we seek. It helps us to feel dignified and honorable. If you haven’t worn hijab, you may have to try it so that you can experience it yourself as it is not always easy to explain. Some Muslims will call the hijab our “crown” and that hijabis (Muslim women who wear hijab) are “queens.” In hierarchical societies, it is custom for people to dress up more when present in front of authorities. A person is not going to dress the same way when dining in the king’s castle than when dining at home. This has consistently been the custom throughout virtually all of human societies both present and past. As a Muslim, however, I do not consider one person to be better than another person on the basis of human-established hierarchy structures. When Muslims perform the Hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah), people of all ethnicities, economic statuses, and social statuses worship together without distinction. All are equal before Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) from the perspective of humans as only Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) has the authority to judge one’s rank. Do we dress up for authority? Yes we do—the authority of Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala). If a woman is willing to dress very modestly and conservatively in the presence of human leaders, why not dress the same way in front of the One who is the creator, owner, and sustainer of the entire creation? This is our modesty and this is how we feel dignified, honored, and respected because we are dressing the way Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) wants us to in His presence.
Hijab also has many benefits among the people. By wearing hijab, several things are accomplished. First, it sends a message to men that we are not interested in them. As we have hidden the features of our bodies that are often sexually attractive to men, we are silently telling them that our body is off limits to them. While the hijab provides no guarantee of protection from unwanted male attention or men harassing us, it does help. Islamically, men have the obligation to lower their gaze and not to harass or mix inappropriately with women. Second, it sends a message that we are religious people. That does not mean we wish to act as if we are better than others. Modest and conservative dress does, however, suggest that we have a specific code of conduct we live by. It also suggests that we have different cultural practices when worn among people who do not dress Islamically. This encourages others to be extra mindful in their interactions towards us in order to be respectful.
Third, modesty also governs our own actions. Our clothes remind us of Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) on a regular basis especially when worn in environments where Muslims are few and far between. Feeling the cloth around our heads and across our faces are sure reminders of Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala), that He (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) is watching us, and that we are to act in a way that is pleasing to Him. Therefore, when women wear hijab we are encouraged to combine our modest dress with modest behavior. This includes not talking loudly or yelling when unnecessary, avoiding the use of profanity, foul, or inappropriate language, not engaging in conversation topics that are not of any benefit, and respecting the rights of others as to not interrupt them or to make ourselves center of attention when it is not needed.
Hijab is a mutual benefit for ourselves and others so that we may insha’Allah be treated with respect, dignity, and honor and that we may treat others in a respectful, dignified, and honorable manner as well.
4. Muslim women want to be judged by the quality of our character rather than on the basis of our looks.
When others around us can only see our faces and hands, it limits social interactions to focus only on the topics being discussed. It minimizes distractions by our physical appearance. We can only be judged by the content of what we say and how we present it and not by our bodies. Unfortunately, it is prevalent in many societies for women to be promoted or punished in workplaces and other environments on the basis of looks alone. Should a woman’s worth be determined by how much and how well she applies makeup to her face? Does she need to wear high-heel shoes to be taller, more noticeable, and more competitive? Does she need to wear form-fitting clothes to show the curves of her body to attract men and raise her social status among them? Does she need to wear revealing clothes with a lot of skin showing to gain acceptance? Or should she simply be valued based on the quality of her work? The quality of her character? Her intellect? Hijab does not provide any guarantee of how a woman will be judged by others but it removes the sexualization of her body from the equation.
When a woman covers her face, hands, and/or eyes to become mostly or fully veiled, this also accomplishes some other things. It makes it difficult if not impossible for others to determine her age or ethnicity. If a person can only see a woman’s eyes then it is very difficult to judge her on anything other than her character. Her character will be determined by what she says and does not by how she looks.
5. Muslim women who wear hijab are easily identified as Muslims.
Women who wear hijab clearly stand out as Muslims. While there are non-Muslim women who also cover their heads, usually the head coverings worn by them differ in style and the amount of coverage. Being easily identified as Muslim has a number of benefits. First, it makes it easy for Muslim women to identify other Muslim women. When two Muslims meet, it is custom for one to initiate the greeting with “Assalamu alaikum (Peace be upon you)” and the other to respond with “Wa’aleikum salam (and upon you, peace).” It encourages community among Muslims when Muslims can easily identify each other in public.
Second, it helps Muslim women become stronger Muslims. Wearing the hijab encourages Muslim women to avoid the things that are haram (prohibited) and do what is required. If a Muslim woman is not wearing hijab, then it makes it easy for her to blend in with non-Muslims. If it is Ramadan during the daytime, then fasting is obligatory for her so long as she does not fall under one of the exceptions. If she is not wearing hijab and is in public and nobody knows her, then it will be easier for her to cheat and eat or drink. Nobody among the people will notice although Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) knows everything. If she wears hijab, then there is a high probability she will run into other Muslims in public and it is possible that non-Muslims will be aware that it is the month of Ramadan due to having studied Islam or heard news about it. She will be less likely to eat or drink if she is not allowed to. Even if she is exempt from the fast she is more likely to eat or drink at home to avoid confusing others. Further, a Muslim woman who consistently wears hijab is less likely to enter a bar and drink alcohol knowing that it is prohibited. A Muslim passing by could see her enter or leave and the patrons inside would find it extremely unusual to see a Muslim woman in a bar. If she is used to wearing hijab and her nafs (soul’s desires) have brought her to want to go out and drink, then she is presented with two basic choices. She can take the hijab off which she is not used to doing so that she can blend in and enter the bar or she can change her mind, keep her hijab on, and not go inside. By regularly wearing the hijab, if she goes with the first choice she will likely feel guilty about it, make taubah (repentance), and avoid doing it again. If she goes with the second choice, then she has feared Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) and abstained from committing sins. Hijab, therefore, acts as a barrier to help keep Muslim women on the straight path of Islam.
Third, it helps to facilitate dawah (inviting to Islam). A visible Muslim woman may not say much when in public other than small talk among those she interacts with when shopping or doing other business. Everyone will know, however, that there is a Muslim present and the idea of Islam enters their minds momentarily. We are in an age where people are saturated with advertisements and imagery is often what people respond to. It is common for people’s clothes to contain messages or to advertise companies or products. While I would certainly not argue that Islam is a mere commodity to be marketed, the reality is that in a visual array of messages and ideas, a woman in hijab is bringing Islam to the table. When people see a woman in hijab, they are shown an alternative form of dress, an alternative religion, an alternative culture, and an alternative way of life—all without a word spoken. When she interacts with others, if she does so positively then it gives a positive impression of Islam. Consequently, if she behaves poorly, then this portrays Islam in a negative light.
While ideally people should not judge Islam on the basis of those who follow it as no human is perfect, the reality is that the one Muslim that people see in public may be the only Muslim they see for awhile. The mere presence of hijabis and niqabis (Muslim women who wear niqab) also dispels myths about Islam. The image that the media presents is one where Muslim women are not allowed to leave the home, not allowed to speak in public, are uneducated, and do not speak English. When a Muslim woman dressed in all black with only her eyes showing enters a crowded public place, people are led to believe that she is not there to conduct business like anyone else. Her only purpose is to detonate the explosives worn under her outfit to kill as many kuffar (infidels/disbelievers) as possible. That is the message the media presents. On the contrary, when people see Muslim women in public engaging and interacting as normally as everyone else, it helps remove the fearful misconceptions that they once had. Muslim women are seen as a normal part of society rather than as bombers or second-class citizens abused by their husbands and fathers.
6. Islamic clothing can help protect against bad weather.
There is also a practical side to wearing Islamic clothing. Covering one’s head when outdoors can help protect her hair against sun damage over time. The more one’s body is covered, the more this blocks the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. The hijab helps when it is windy or there is rain or snow. The niqab helps protect her face from the sun and blowing dust. Clothing acts as an insulator. If what you wear helps to keep you warm in the winter then it will help to keep you cool in the summer. It is a common myth that covering our bodies causes us to be warmer in the summer months. I have actually found summers to be more tolerable than before I began wearing Islamic attire. Wearing a full face veil in which the eyes are covered protects against the bright sunlight much in the same way sunglasses do. In difficult weather, it can be easier to see veiled than not. Wearing outer garments such as the abaya or the burqa help with cleanliness. Dust, pollen, particles, and pollutants collect on clothes whether we see them or not. She can simply take her abaya off upon entering her home and her clothes on underneath are likely to be very clean. There are probably many more examples I have not yet thought of where our dress style is very practical for the conditions.
In sha’ Allah this article along with the first in the series helps dispel the myths that our hijabs are oppressive, impractical, outdated, and are only worn because our fathers or husbands make us. We love our hijabs and we love to wear them. We do not all dress the same but we love dressing in a way that is pleasing to our creator Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala). Hijab is part of our identity as Muslim women. We want privacy, respect, honor, and dignity. We seek modesty in our own behavior as well as in the behavior of others towards us. We want to be judged by the quality of our character not on the basis of our looks. Our clothing is very practical and enjoyable to wear.
The first article focused on the “what” of hijab. This article focused on the “why” of hijab. For the third article in the series, in sha’ Allah I will be discussing my personal experiences and observations as someone who converted to Islam and wears the hijab and the niqab on a daily basis. I also anticipate writing at least two more articles on this topic to cover contemporary issues such as discrimination, anti-hijab politics, and hate crimes. If there is anything in any of these articles that is incorrect, I seek forgiveness from Allah (Subhanahu wa Ta’aala) for my errors.
Wa allahu alam (And Allah knows best).