The Hijab Debate in the Muslim World.

So i wrote a paper on the Hijab debate that has been going on amongst Muslims eons and many of you (the ones that follow me on social media anyway) requested i share it with you once i was done. Since i wrote it for my Human Rights course, it had several paragraphs relating the Hijab debate to Relativism and Universalism, however i decided to remove these as they would have made this post extremely long.

(Please note that i know this is topic is quite controversial and that everyone is entitled to their own opinion.)

Ramadhan Mubarak.


The Hijab is arguably the single most powerful article of clothing in the modern world. It has stirred controversies, garnered respect, inspired curiosity, evoked disdain and generated pity. Though it is often believed that the headscarf is fundamentally misogynistic, the notion is despairingly essentialist because it has engendered respect and honour for women for decades and it often conveys a message of purity or saintliness when worn by women in several religions and cultures across the globe. In the Muslim world, the hijab in all its various forms has been prevalent for several centuries. In Arabic the term “hijab” refers to the act of “covering” or “concealing”, this could be used to refer to anything from curtains to garments. However, the term “hijab” is now commonly used to refer to the “headscarf” worn by many Muslim women across the globe. Several women wear this as a sign of their faith or identity. Others wear it in order to conform to the Islamic norms of their societies and avoid stigmatisation. A minority of them have it forced onto them by their families. Many of the women who do make the decision to wear a headscarf claim that it boosts their self-esteem and dignity.

Before getting into the details of how the hijab came to mean a mandatory headscarf and a symbol of Islamic faith, it is imperative to look into the verses that refer to the hijab in the Quran. Islam has five fundamental requirements; the Shahadah[1], fasting during Ramadan[2], giving charity, praying five times a day, and if possible, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Though Islam enforces the concept of modesty when interacting with the others, most people focus only on the dress code instead of the overall teaching. In this day and age, the meaning of hijab has been distorted not only to mean the headscarf but also other veils such as the niqab[3], khimar, burqa[4] and the chador[5]. It has,as many believe, become a political symbol for an ideology of Islam that is spread throughout the world by the theocracies of the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia (Shapiro and Nomani 2017).

According to the Quran, there are two kinds of Hijab, the “Hijab of the eyes” and the “Hijab of the body”. The term “hijab” or variations of it appear only eight times in the Quran, and not once does it explicitly refer to a head-covering (though some translators may add the phrases in their translations of the verses in parenthesis). The Quran states that modesty is “enjoined on all believers”, and women in particular were instructed to “draw their khimar[6] (cloak) around them a little to be recognized as believers and so that no harm will come to them” (Quran 33:60). What this verse refers to is the “Hijab of the body” and is often called the “Verse of Hijab”. With regards to thee “Hijab of the eyes” the Quran says “Tell the believing men to cast down their gaze and guard their private parts; that is purer for them; surely Allah is Aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to cast down their gaze and guard their private parts and do not display their adornments except what appears thereof, and draw their veils over there bosoms and not to reveal their adornment save to their husbands, or their fathers, or their brothers…” (Quran 24:30-46). In my opinion these verses clearly show that modesty in action and in attire, specifically the covering of the bosom for women, are the most important rules to adhere to. In addition, the verse clearly states that the hijab must be observed by both sexes, but this fact is often overlooked by the Muslim world when debating on this issue.

Therefore, since the hijab in the sense of a head-covering or veil is not explicity present in the Quran, it is best to turn to history in order to observe this shift in meaning. Historically, the practice of veiling was introduced in Arabia long before Muhammad PBUH, primarily through contacts with Syria and Iran, where the hijab was a sign of social status as only women who did not work in the fields could afford to remain secluded and veiled. In the Ummah[8], there was no tradition of veiling until around 627 C.E., when the “verse of hijab” was revealed. That verse, however, when collectively understood with the following; “Believers, do not enter the Prophet’s house…unless asked. And if you are invited…do not linger. And when you ask something from the Prophet’s wives, do so from behind a hijab. This will assure the purity of your hearts as well as theirs” (Quran 33:53) leads many to believe that the hijab as the veil was addressed not to women in general, but exclusively to Muhammad’s wives. This restriction makes sense when one recalls that his house was also the community’s mosque: the centre of social and religious life in the Muslim community at the time. Men and women were constantly drifting in and out of the compound at all hours of the day, just mere feet away from the rooms in which the prophet’s wives slept. Some would often live within the mosque’s walls until they could find suitable homes. Since Muhammad PBUH had become a supremely powerful leader of an increasingly expanding community, some kind of segregation had to be enforced to maintain the blessedness of his wives. Thus the tradition of veiling was borrowed from the upper class women of Syria and Iran (“Islam: The Origin of Hijab” 2009).

It is therefore difficult to say with certainty when the veil was adopted by the rest of the Ummah though it was most likely long after Muhammad’s death. Muslim women probably began wearing the veil as a way to imitate the Prophet’s wives, who were revered as “the Mothers of the Ummah.” by all the women of the Muslim faith. Thus, Women who do not wear the veil use the verses mentioned above to argue that it is not a necessary part of Islam and that it was only strictly enforced on the wives of the prophet (Killian 2003). Though there are regions in the world whereby women are forced to wear the hijab, niqab, chador or burqa due to societal and familial pressure, the majority of Muslim women around the world have the right to exercise their freedom of choice to decide whether to wear it or not.

In Islam, men and women are often seen as equal, in fact, women are given a higher status than men in most cases but the patriarchs governing Islamic societies fail to acknowledge this fact unless it suits them, changing Islamic Sharia[13] with traditions that have no basis in religion (such as the wearing of the veil). Hence the best course of action for the women of the Muslim Ummah to take would be to enlighten more women on issues such as the history of the hijab and to have more female imams and female scholars, such as Fatema Mernissi, interpret the Quran and provide translations and explanations which can then be used to determine the necessity of the headscarf, niqab, burqa or chador. More women need to take part in movements that fight for their rights “Ni Putes Ni Soumises” and “Sisters in Islam” in order to tackle the patriarchal factions of fundamentalist Islam. The Quran is a book that promotes equality and peace, but I believe that some Muslims have taken its translations out of context in order to suit their own agendas. This has to be rectified by the women of the Muslim Ummah without the help of western ideals because introducing these ideals into such debates only leads to political conflict and divides the societies further due to the disdain for the westernisation of the core aspects of their cultures. It is best to stick to what is common between the conservative and liberal Muslims when it comes to debates of any kind, and this common ground is the Quran and Hadith.

In conclusion, the ongoing debate over the hijab and its true meaning is giving a meaningful insight into the development and progression of Islam as a religion. It highlights the diversity of thought and belief within the Muslim Ummah and it shows that the community is not the single-minded cohesive group that it is thought to be. There are varying opinions regarding several matters, not only that of the Hijab, from the ultra-conservative standpoint to the liberal standpoint and everything in between.  It is my opinion that all women should be free to choose the manner in which they would like to dress. Just as wearing the hijab does not signify religiosity, neither does the lack thereof denote an absence of faith. After all, a person’s spirituality is their own and if they prefer to don a scarf, niqab, burqa or khimar and feel empowered by it then no one should have the right to stop them from doing so. Similarly, if they do not wish wear a veil of any kind and adhere to what they believe are the right interpretation of the verses concerning the issue of the hijab, that should not be criticized either.

“to you be your way, and to me mine.” (Quran 109:6)

[1] Shahadah: the belief that there is only one God, Allah, and that Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) is God’s messenger

[2] Ramadan: the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar wherein Muslims observe fasts and refrain from food, intoxicants, sexual intercourse and sinful behaviour (e.g. Lying, and backbiting) from dawn to dusk. It commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad and is the month of forgiveness according to Islamic belief.

[3] Niqab: covers the entire body, head and face; however, an opening is left for the eyes. The two main styles of niqab are the half-niqab that consists of a headscarf and facial veil that leaves the eyes and part of the forehead visible and the full, or Gulf, niqab that leaves only a narrow slit for the eyes. Although these veils are popular across the Muslim world, they are most common in the Gulf States.

[4] Burqa: full-body veil. The wearer’s entire face and body are covered, and one sees through a mesh screen over the eyes. It is most commonly worn in Afghanistan.

[5] Chador: full-body-length shawl held closed at the neck by hand or pin. It covers the head and the body but leaves the face completely visible. Chadors are most common in Iran.

[6] Khimar: Comes from the Arabic word “khamr”, the root meaning of which is “to cover”.

[7] Muslim men learned in Islamic theology and sacred law.

[8] Ummah: is an Arabic word meaning “community”. Typically refers to the Muslim community.

[9] Such as Saudi Arabia; women are forced to wear a veil when in the public sphere

[10] French for “physical or intellectual pleasure, delight, or ecstasy”.

[11] For example the wearing of veils by Muslim women in order to immolate the Prophet’s wives long after his death.

[12] A collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad which, with accounts of his daily practice (the Sunnah), constitute the major source of guidance for Muslims apart from the Koran.

[13] Islamic law


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