Question: Why Does Islam Impose The Veil (Hijab) On Women?
One of the most common questions asked about Islam is regarding the "hijab", which is a headscarf or veil that Muslim women wear to cover their heads. Why do Muslim women wear the hijab? Does Islam require Muslim women to wear the hijab? Does Islam teach us to impose the hijab on women by force or punish women who don't wear the hijab?
Before shedding light on this topic, let's clear up some terminology. Hijab is an Arabic word that can be literally translated as "a barrier", but in this context it is typically used to refer to a scarf or veil that a woman wears to cover her hair. The term that is actually used in the Quran to refer to a headscarf is "Khimar", although this is a less commonly used word today. Other common terms that one might hear today are "niqab" and "burqa". These two terms actually imply covering the face as well as the hair. Finally, you may also hear the words "chador" or "abaya" used in the context of a Muslim woman's clothing. These imply a loose fitting outer garment that is worn over a woman's regular clothing. To keep things simple, for the purpose of this answer, we will use the word hijab, and we will not delve into the detailed requirements of adhering to hijab. Rather, we will discuss the general concept of dress requirements in Islam.
Modesty in Islam
The hijab is part of an overall modest attire that Muslims are expected to adhere to in public places. Modesty in dress is an expectation of both men and women in Islam, although the allowed limits are different. In fact, according to Muslim tradition, there are certain clothing items that are allowed for women but prohibited for men. For example, Muslim men are not allowed to wear gold jewelry. They are also not allowed to wear clothing items made from silk. However, both gold and silk are perfectly acceptable for women. The goal of setting out these expectations in the Muslim tradition is to establish a healthy society based on an environment of modesty.
Modesty in clothing encourages people to focus on the substance of other human beings, rather than on their appearance. Some people are born with attractive bodies, and other people are not. It is not fair to have a society that judges everyone based on the attractiveness of their bodies. Instead, everyone should be accepted and feel free and comfortable to participate in all aspects of life regardless of their physical appearance and body type. Dressing modestly helps all members of society to focus on the substance of what people can offer, such as their ideas and their contributions, rather than focusing on their physical appearance.
People who dress modestly will also generally feel more comfortable, because they don't have to worry about the appearance of their bodies. Most people are self-conscious about their appearance, especially in a world that promotes super-models with perfect bodies and uses them as symbols of success and happiness. Trying to compete with such high and unrealistic standards of beauty causes a lot of anxiety, stress, and even certain disorders. Islamic teachings work to overcome many of these problems by promoting modest dress.
Every culture has norms around clothing
It is very rare in all of human history to come across a culture or society that has absolutely no cultural norms or expectations around clothing. Also, in practically all cultures, the clothing norms for men and women are different. Even in the most modern of societies today, women are expected to cover more of their bodies than men, both by law and by cultural expectation. A person that violates the accepted norms of dress would either get arrested, or they would at least be shunned and viewed with suspicion by others.
Dress norms also vary depending on context. Clothing that would be absolutely acceptable on the beach would not be acceptable in a business meeting or while attending a funeral. These cultural norms and expectations are agreed upon standards that have been formed by societies over generations.
Muslim dress norms should be seen in this same context. While they may appear unusual to an outsider who is not familiar with them, they are the perfectly acceptable cultural norms that have been adopted by Muslim societies over many centuries. Viewing Muslim dress norms as inferior or less acceptable than other cultures is simply a signal of racism, or a feeling that one's culture or race is superior.
Hijab is only in public
It is important to note that according to Muslim tradition, the expectation of modesty varies according to the context. For example, there is no expectation of modesty at all between a woman and her husband. There is no expected dress code. Women are free to dress in any way they wish while they are with their husband, and men are free to dress in any way they wish while they are with their wife. Married couples are free to enjoy each other's bodies and seek pleasure from each other. In fact, Muslim tradition teaches that a husband and wife are rewarded for having intimate relations with each other, and for exposing their beauty and physical appearance to each other. Marriage is considered a safe and healthy outlet for sexual desire, and there is no guilt associated with enjoying it within the context of marriage.
Needless to say, Muslim women also do not wear the hijab at home when they are with their family, or when visiting close relatives such as parents-in-law, uncles, nephews, among others. In such private spaces where only close family and relatives are present, men and women are expected to dress in normally accepted clothing for such gatherings. Women are not expected to wear a hijab in this context. Clothing that is generally acceptable in public in modern societies today would be acceptable for a Muslim woman in such a private space. These are generally safe spaces where it is unlikely that a woman will be looked at inappropriately or harassed over her appearance, and so women can feel safe and get comfortable in these situations. Also, in a women's only gym, Muslim women can dress in regular workout clothes, since this is a safe space reserved for women. Similarly, in a women's only swimming pool, Muslim women can dress in swimming clothes and enjoy the pool.
In public spaces, anybody could be around and no one knows who they may be interacting with. While the expectation is that most people are decent human beings, there is a high likelihood that one would run into people who would harass others, comment on their appearance, or otherwise make them feel uncomfortable. In fact, sexual harassment is a well recognized and unfortunately common problem in many cities today, and it is typically targeted at women. This can include unwanted sexualized comments, provocative gestures, whistling, stalking, persistent advances, and even touching by strangers. In such an environment, Muslim tradition teaches that practicing modesty can protect us and help to minimize the opportunities for such harassment. For women, dressing in loose fitting clothes that cover their form and wearing a hijab can be excellent ways to avoid being put into these uncomfortable and traumatizing situations.
What is the goal of hijab?
The Quran directly addresses the reasons for modest dress:
O Prophet! Tell your wives, your daughters, and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their persons: That way it is more likely that they will be distinguished and not be harassed. And Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (Quran 33:59)
The verse clearly states that the purpose of modest dress is so that women would not be harassed. Rather, they would be recognized and distinguished as people who want to be respected and not harmed.
The Quran also encourages both men and women to lower their gaze. This means that they should not stare at people who they find attractive. In other words, they should not focus on the physical attractiveness and beauty, and disregard the humanity of the people they interact with.
O Prophet! Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their chastity. That is purer for them. Surely Allah is All-Aware of what they do. (Quran 24:30).
And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their chastity, and not to reveal their adornments except what normally appears. Let them draw their veils over their chests, and not reveal their adornments except to their husbands, their fathers, their fathers-in-law, their sons, their stepsons, their brothers, their brothers' sons or sisters' sons, their fellow women, those in their possession, male attendants with no desire, or children who are still unaware of women's attractiveness. Let them not stomp their feet, drawing attention to their hidden adornments. Turn to Allah in repentance all together, O believers, so that you may be successful. (Quran 24:31).
The Quran also teaches that the requirements of modest clothing can be relaxed for elderly women who no longer seek marriage:
As for elderly women past the age of marriage, there is no blame on them if they take off their outer garments, without revealing their adornments. But it is better for them if they avoid this. And Allah is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. (Quran 24:60).
It is clear that the intention of hijab, and of modesty in general, is not to subjugate women or impose the will of men on them. These concepts do not appear anywhere in Islamic teachings. Rather, the purpose and goal of modest dress is to protect both men and women and to build a more pure and comfortable environment for everyone.
Does Islam teach us to forcefully impose the hijab or punish women who don't wear it?
There is no evidence in the Islamic tradition of the hijab being forcefully imposed on women. There is also no evidence of women being punished for not wearing the hijab. At the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), it is narrated that when women heard the verses of the Quran regarding wearing the hijab, they willingly cut up parts of their clothes to quickly fashion veils that they could use to cover their hair. The narration states that the next morning, the women came out covering their hair and dressing modestly in adherence to the Quran. They did this because they recognized that this teaching was not to oppress them but rather to protect them and build a healthy society for both women and men.
The narrations from the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) do not indicate that he or any Muslim men imposed the hijab or forced any women to wear it. It simply became a cultural norm among the Muslim community, because as believers in the Quran they made its teachings the standard that they lived their life by. There are also no narrations regarding any sort of punishment for women who do not adhere to the hijab.
Unfortunately, in the modern world the issue of hijab has become over emphasized by both Muslims and others around the world. It has become a political issue that has been exploited by some people to justify their racist attitudes towards Muslims. On the other hand, some Muslim extremists have misunderstood the teachings of Islam by forcefully imposing the hijab on women or punishing women who do not wear it.
Such practices do not represent Islam or the teachings of Islam, but in many cases are inherited tribal customs that have nothing to do with Islam. Sadly, some people use the teachings of Islam to justify tribal customs that Islam came to free people from! Only the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) represent Islam. The Islamic tradition deals with the issue of hijab through education and through building of societal norms, and not through forceful imposition or punishment.
Freedom of choice
The issue of the hijab should not be viewed as a political issue, and we should prevent anyone from using this issue to advance their political agendas. Anti-Muslim political parties have misrepresented the hijab as a symbol of the oppression of women. This cannot be further from the truth. In some jurisdictions, they have imposed laws that prevent women from wearing the hijab.
These political parties are often dominated by men. So in other words, in an effort to save women from oppression, these men are now telling women what they are not allowed to wear! This perversion of logic and hypocritical stance must be condemned just as loudly as the forceful imposition of hijab on women.
Rather, we must advance the freedom of women to choose how they dress. Those who want to wear the hijab should be able to do so proudly and without fear of persecution, and the same applies to those who decide not to wear it.