The Social Context of the Veil
Veiling as an Act of Worship
The Question of Choice
In my article "Why Do You Dress Like That?", I provided a very brief introduction to the Islamic modest dress for women (hijab). That article is simply my answer to the question in its title; it is the reasons I give for the way I dress. However, these reasons may seem alien or simply insufficient to non-Muslims. For this reason, I have written this second article that discusses the issue of veiling in Islam in more depth.
In particular, I look at three aspects of hijab: the social context of veiling - is it just about "controlling women's sexuality"? - and what the rules for men are; the emotional and spiritual benefits that hijab may bring as a religious commandment; and the question of women's choice. This is not a complete and comprehensive exploration of the issue of veiling, but I hope that it addresses the most common questions that non-Muslims have about hijab, God willing.
I am a Muslim woman and I wear my hijab with pride. As I am a convert, hijab is not something that I was brought up with nor is it part of my culture. It is my choice. My hope is to try to share with you how I could choose this way of dressing - this way of being - after growing up in the West. If nothing else, I hope that I have at least succeeded in showing you that there are more ways of seeing hijab than just as some sort of "tool of oppression" even if you don't agree with these other ways either.
As an aside, if you are interested in reading further on this issue, I highly recommend the book "Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance" by Fadwa El Guindi. It is available from Amazon.com.
You can also read an excellent article about young Muslim women and why they choose hijab at Hijab: This Is My Struggle.
The Social Context of the Veil
The key concept that you need to understand is privacy, and the idea of keeping private what should be private. This idea is central to Islam and to the Islamic social code. Islamic law defines private spaces and public spaces and puts a screen between them. The Arabic word for "screen" is hijab, a word that is also used for the modest dress of the Muslim woman. That is not a coincidence.
First, the physical world is marked off into public spaces and private spaces. The private spaces are protected from any incursion. This is set out in Surah an-Nur verses 27-29:
O you, those who have faith, do not enter houses other than your own houses until you have asked permission and invoked peace on the people in them. That is better, in order that you are purified. So if you do not find anyone in (the house), then do not enter until you have been given leave. And if they say to you, "Go back," then go back. That is purer for you. And God knows what you work. There is no fault on you to enter houses that are not for dwelling in, if there is a use for you in them. And God knows what you reveal and what you hide.
Second, what people do in private space is also protected, by the conduct of others in not speculating or gossiping about it. A number of verses of the Quran deal with this issue:
(They will be rewarded) those who do not witness vanity, and when they pass by foolish talk, they pass by with nobility. - Surah al-Furqan verse 72
... and shun the saying that is only speculation. - Surah al-Hajj verse 30
And why, when they heard this (rumor), did the faithful men and the faithful women not speculate of a better in their souls and say, "This is clearly a lie"? - Surah an-Nur verse 12
O you, those who have faith, do not a folk deride a folk who may be better than them, and do not women deride other women who may be better than them. And do not defame your souls and do not revile (people) with nicknames. Bad is the name of corruption after faith. And who does not repent then, such, they are the wrongdoers. O you, those who have faith, shun the pointless speculation. Surely most speculation is a crime. And do not spy, and do not backbite each other. Would you love someone who eats the flesh of his dead brother? You abhor that! So detest it, and be in awe of God. Surely God is often Returning, Gentle. - Surah al-Hujurat verses 11-12
What is private must be kept private, by the physical walls of houses and by the conduct of Muslims in not talking about it, speculating over it, or looking into it. And these two sets of rules have their parallels when it comes to the physical person.
Parallel to the walls of the house are the clothes that protect a person's body and screen it so that whatever does not need to be seen is not seen. This rule is stated explicitly in the verse that governs hijab:
And tell the faithful women ... not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it ... - Surah an-Nur verse 31
As is explained in "Why Do You Dress Like That?", the phrase "what is apparent of it" refers to the face and hands. A woman needs to have her face visible so that her identity can be known and she can carry out honest and fair transactions with people, and she needs to have her hands uncovered so that she can handle food and other objects that she may buy. But she does not need to have her hair uncovered to take care of her errands, nor any of the rest of her body. Nor does anybody need to see those parts to identify her or to know anything else about her. It is because there is no need for more than the face and hands to be seen that the other parts of the body should be covered.
Parallel to the rules of conduct against gossip and spying is a rule of conduct that protects a person's body. This is to lower the gaze, so that a person does not see what should not be seen. Both men and women have been commanded to this.
Tell the faithful men to lower their gazes ... and tell the faithful women to lower their gazes ... - Surah an-Nur verses 30-31
So everything that does not need to be known publicly should be kept private. It should be physically guarded and screened, and if for some reason it does become visible, Muslims should turn their eyes and their minds away from it and pretend that the screen is still there. This is true of the privacy of the house and it is true of the privacy of the body (or as a Muslim woman once memorably wrote: "My body is my own business.")
And there is another kind of "inviolable space" that Muslims can create by their behavior. This is the inviolable space that is marriage and the family. The way this works is to reserve certain types of behavior for people who are married or closely related to each other. When people who are not married or related to each other refrain from these types of behavior, then it creates the sense of marriage and family as a special, reserved state; a place that others do not enter into.
What are the behaviors in question? They are: going into and coming out of privacy with someone of the opposite sex, engaging in physical contact with someone of the opposite sex, and conversing in depth and at length with someone of the opposite sex. Only men and women who are married or related to each other may be in private together, touch each other, and talk intimately with each other. When all others refrain from these behaviors, it marks the behaviors as special to marriage and the family. Another way of saying this is that only people who can be in private space together can behave in "private" ways together in public.
What I am getting at here is that when men and women who are not married or related to each other refrain from being in private together, from touching each other, and from having intimate conversation, they not only avoid getting into any kind of illicit relationship, but they also strengthen marriage in the society and make it a reserved or inviolable private space that no one goes into who has not sought the right entrance.
And hijab is obviously part of this as well. Men and women who are not married or related to each other refrain from looking at more of each others' bodies than is absolutely necessary. This makes the physical person inviolable as well.
In all of what I've said so far, I've focused only on the dress of women (hijab), and stressed how women should cover what is not necessary to be seen of them. But what about men? Are men to cover what is not necessary to be seen of them too?
The answer is yes, it's just that more is necessary to be seen of men. Remember that men are the ones who do most of the manual labor outdoors. The kind of labor that can get the body wet and dirty. The rules for men's dress must be flexible enough to allow men to uncover what they need to uncover to do this work. That is why the Quran does not mention anything more about men's dress than that men must cover their "private parts" (defined as from navel to knee; a woman's is from the upper chest to the knee.)
But we have to remember that Muslims do not just follow the Quran, they also follow the Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Prophet (pbuh) is an example that men are to imitate. And indeed the Prophet's example in dress can be seen in the traditional male attire of Muslim cultures. Men wear outfits such as long-sleeved, ankle-length robes or long-sleeved tunics over trousers. They even cover their heads with caps, kaffiyahs, or turbans. Here are some pictures of traditional Muslim dress for men.
As you can see, the only difference between this dress and the hijab of the Muslim woman is that women cover their hair completely and draw their headcoverings to cover their necks and upper chests. And that is for the simple reason that the hair and upper chest of women are different than the hair and upper chest of men, and are sources of attraction (let's not be naive here, folks.)
So in fact, both men and women are to cover everything that does not need to be revealed to complete their work. Men's work requires more in the way of uncovering, but when men are not engaged in this work, they too cover themselves fully. In this context, the hijab of the Muslim woman is not at all unusual, nor some great oppression for her.
In summary, modest dress is part of a larger system in which everything that does not need to be known in public is kept private and out of sight, and in which private behaviors are reserved for those joined in marriage or family. Men and women are completely equivalent in this regard since the only differences in their dress relate to physical differences between men and women, while the rules of conduct are exactly the same for both of them.
Veiling as an Act of Worship
Veiling as an act of worship? What kind of an idea is that? If this is your response, I encourage you to read on.
First, obedience to what God has commanded is a form of worship or service and an orthopraxic religion like Islam provides commands relating to all areas of life, including dress. Thus, to dress as God has commanded is a way of serving or worshiping Him.
Second, we can look a little at psychology. Sometimes the observance of outward things, like dress, seems trivial. Surely it's more important to work on the inner things and on becoming a good person. Yet the outward things can often help us improve the inner things. There are several ways this is true. A woman may struggle with herself over the decision to wear hijab. It may be that she's nervous about it, or that perhaps she likes to take pride in her attractiveness. Finding the courage to overcome fear is a positive character development, and subduing pride is a positive character development. Thus, the process of coming to wear hijab can be beneficial to a woman's inner self. Also, when a woman wears hijab on a regular basis, she makes a decision each day to put it on before she goes out, and she sees it every time she looks at her reflection. She may often think, "Why do I bother with this?" And she may answer herself, "Because God commanded it, and I know that He watches what I do." Or it may be that her awareness that her dress makes her a walking symbol of her religion reminds her not to do things that would bring her or her religion into disrepute. All of these are ways that the act of undertaking an outward observance can promote inner development. A woman may come to have a greater consciousness of God because she chooses to wear hijab for His sake, and this can only improve her character.
Moreover, although this may seem odd to non-Muslims, hijab is about a lot more than just "modesty" or "sexuality". As a religious commandment, it brings with it a whole set of issues relating to our awareness of and obedience to God. As a visible and recognized symbol of Islam, it turns each woman who wears it into a standard by which others judge the religion. And as something that is difficult to do in our sometimes beauty-obsessed culture, it requires commitment, confidence, and a sense of purpose. Each hijabi woman struggles in her soul over how important obedience to God is to her; over what her greater awareness of God tells her about her own shortcomings; over what her role as a "spokesperson" for Islam tells her about the image her conduct presents to others; over her worries and concerns about adopting such a distinctive style of dress; over her caprices or pride that may turn her away from it; and over how important it is for her to stand up for what she believes in.
In short, hijab can be a battleground in a woman's own soul where she is forced to confront some very serious questions about who she is and what she stands for. And this battle is also an opportunity for her, an opportunity to improve herself. To be sure, it is not that way for every woman (indeed a few women may think they have done enough just to wear it and fail to seek further personal development.) But it can be, and this is an aspect to hijab that I feel is often overlooked.
The Question of Choice
Do Muslim women have any choice about whether to wear hijab? This is a complex and highly emotional issue for many people. What I would like to do, God willing, is to address several aspects of this question.
First, Quran Surah al-Baqarat verse 256 says, "There is no compulsion in the religion." Each person can, should and must be free to choose whether or not to be religious, what religion to follow, and how observant to be in that religion. Any Muslim who says otherwise is violating this basic tenet of Islam.
At the same time, we need to recognize that making a statement such as, "The Quran and Sunna say that women should cover up," is not to deny any person's freedom. The Quran and Sunna say what they say. To dispute that they tell women to cover is as silly as to dispute that the Quran says, "There is no compulsion in the religion." The question of choice comes in whether a person decides it's necessary to follow what the Quran says.
It also needs to be clear that as an observant Muslim, I believe that it is a necessary part of my commitment to God to obey His commandments. If you ask me, "Why do you dress like that?" my answer will be, "Because God has commanded it," and I can show you where He did, and how. In fact, that's what my article "Why Do You Dress Like That?" is about.
I also believe that other Muslims who are committed to God should strive to obey the Quran and Sunna, and for women that includes hijab. There are many ways that we can choose to commit ourselves to God. Which one we pick depends on many factors, including which religion has a vision that we agree with. The choice of Islam over other religions implies that a Muslim feels that the Quran's vision is best or most correct. If this were not the case, the individual would have chosen a different religion. I hope to encourage my sisters in Islam in a positive manner that there is wisdom in the commandments of the Quran and Sunna, and benefit for them in following these commandments; all the same, I do encourage them that if they seek commitment to their religion, hijab is part of the way.
The Prophet Muhammad spoke of the "struggle with the inner self." This refers to a struggle to purify our souls from caprices and selfishness, to become better human beings. This is the struggle that each one of us is engaged in, and it is lifelong. Coming to think that religion and God are important is one such struggle and, as a former agnostic, one that I have gone through. Having selected a religion, there is also the ongoing struggle over how important it is to be observant in that religion.
This brings me to another point. Religion, particularly an orthopraxic religion like Islam, sets out that there is a "preferred" way of doing things. There is a preferred type of food to eat (or, foods that are not preferred, such as pork), a preferred time and format of prayer (such as the salat), and a preferred way to dress (hijab). Are these things important in becoming a better person? I already touched on this issue above in my section Veiling as an Act of Worship. Quite often, outward forms of observance can lead us to inner development. We struggle with the question of how important our own desires are in the larger scheme of things, we may struggle to give up something we like, because we've decided it's bad for us, or to adopt something that's challenging, because we've decided it's good for us. The act of observing a commandment may increase our awareness of God, and that in turn may prompt us to be more aware, for instance, that God does not want us to lie or cheat.
My feeling on this matter is that when we are presented with a statement that a certain way of doing things is preferred by our religion, we should be willing to give it a try. We should try to seek its wisdom, look for ways that observing it might be beneficial to us, examine our objections to it to see if perhaps they are shortsighted and should be overcome, and commit ourselves towards following it. To me this is part of trusting in God, that is, trusting that He knows what is best for us, better than we often do, and that if He has commanded a thing then there is benefit for us in that thing. Trust in God involves a surrender or submission of our will to His, and that's what the struggle is all about.
When we look again at the issue of hijab we need to keep all of these aspects in mind. The word "islam" means nothing other that "surrender (to God)" in Arabic. The struggle to surrender our will to God's that I just mentioned is the very essence of the Islamic vision of religion. Choice of Islam as a religion implies an individual's belief that this vision is best or most correct, and that the individual has made a commitment to the struggle to surrender her or his will to God.
In light of this, a Muslim who encourages other Muslim women to wear hijab is making the following points:
Some Muslims are still learning their faith and its bases, and need to have a clear explanation of the third point. Other Muslims have decided that the Quran and Sunna do command hijab, and they need help in striving to implement it. And still other Muslims are uncertain of how to approach commandments relating to practice. Each of these groups has a different concern, and each needs to be addressed individually. A given presentation may focus on only one of these groups. If the author is sincere, she will indicate whom she is writing for. If the reader is sincere, he or she will look to see what viewpoint the author is taking and why.
I'll reiterate what I said earlier. That an author makes a presentation focused on "why the Quran and Sunna command hijab" does not mean that she is trying to remove women's choice. Most likely, she is simply trying to set out what the rules are so that other Muslims can make an informed choice about whether and how much to observe these rules.
This also applies to presentations of Islam to non-Muslims. The Quran and Sunna direct women to cover themselves and explain the details of how they should do so. This is simply a fact and it would be foolish to deny it. Any attempt to present Islam correctly and in a truthful way must acknowledge this fact. Nor more would we hide that the Quran says, "Do not steal."
To summarize: The tenets and rules of the religion are there. It is our choice, and as well our struggle, whether or not to follow these tenets and rules. Do we really think they're that important? Do we think they have relevance to our lives? But let's not fudge the fact that the religion does set out tenets and rules and ask people to follow them and to prefer those ways.
Having said all this, it would be good to go back and look at the specific question of whether Muslims seek to force people to obey the tenets and rules of Islam. After all, we talk about "Islamic law" and a "law" is something established by a state that we are compelled to obey.
This essay is not the place to get into a lengthly discussion of Islamic political theory. However, we can start by looking at a question of American law. The right to freedom of speech is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Yet there are certain types of speech that are against the law. These are when the speech is slanderous or libelous, making false and damaging statements about another person. In short, our freedom of speech is not absolute, but rather there is a certain line, set by the law, beyond which the speech is deemed so injurious to others that it should not be allowed.
Legal systems are always seeking such a balance, and Islamic law is no different. In particular, Islamic law distinguishes between a sin and a crime. A sin is a disobedience of God, and is punishable by Him. A crime is something that is punished by the state. A study of the sources of Islamic law will quickly show that although many things are mentioned as sins, only certain types of sins are designated as also being crimes, which the state is given the authority to punish. And the acts that are designated as crimes are those which harm others. For instance theft, slander, assault, murder.
There are some Muslim countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, that have sought to implement Islamic law, and whose interpretation of Islamic law is that every sin should also be a crime. This is a distortion of Islam. As stated at the beginning of this section, it violates one of Islam's most basic tenets: "There is no compulsion in the religion." And the evidence in the hadiths clearly shows that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) never implemented the Quran and Sunna this way. His is the example Muslims should follow.
The fact is, if a woman fails to cover her hair, it doesn't harm anyone. This is because men are commanded (in Surah an-Nur verse 30) to look away from what they are not allowed to see. When a woman came before the Prophet (pbuh) in revealing clothing, he didn't arrest her or beat her or take any other actions that the "religious police" of Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Afghanistan would do. Instead, he merely advised her that God had commanded women not to display themselves in public except for their faces and hands. With the example of the Prophet (pbuh) to follow, no Muslim who is sincerely committed to his or her religion would ever force a woman to wear hijab or make failure to wear hijab a crime under the law. It's as simple as that.
Note: If you are interested in reading still further on this issue, see Understanding the Face Veil.