When a male scholar speaks of the hijab, there can often be the retort that men shouldn’t be telling women how to dress. Yet there is both truth and mistruth to such sentiments (as with many other things in Islam these days). Normatively, scholars do not tell women how to dress, or what to wear, but what God would have them cover (i.e. awrah). Some pretenders might use a platform to obsess over women’s clothing or pursue some form of cultural hegemony, but that must not negate that it is the job of Islamic jurists, both men and women, to study the will of God on a range of issues, including the shar’i dictates around bodily exposure. There are shar’i guidelines pertaining to the amount both men and women ought to cover, and the nature of that covering – but that doesn’t dictate that colour, cultural representation, or design of such covering. Let us remember that in the same way as male scholars, female scholars might also point out what men ought to be covering.
Whilst feminists might focus concertedly on deconstructing gender, seeing it as the product of illegitimate patriarchal structures, clearly God marked out differences such as what is considered the awrah for men and women. On this there is also the issue of terminology which I believe to be useful:
- The head covering is generally referred to as a khimar.
- The entire face covering (including the eyes) is a burqa’. That which covers the mouth and nose is a niqab.
- The body covering is a jilbab which is legitimately understood or interpreted in various ways. An abaya is not a synonym for jilbab nor a divinely stipulated representation, it is a cloak worn in the Arabian peninsula and refers to both the cloaks Arab men and women wear. Thus for the Arab women of the Arabian peninsula – it is a particular cultural expression of the jilbab.
So what is the hijab? It is a state of covering appropriate to shar’i standards. That means that it is not limited to merely covering the head but describes the entire way a women covers. For example, if a Muslim woman dons a khimar along with a miniskirt, we cannot justifiably male the shar’i claim that she is in hijab. For a woman to be in hijab means for her to withhold her entire awrah from those who may not be permitted to see it.
In the Qur’an, God says concerning the Prophet, “When you ask his wives for something, do so from behind a hijab” (33:53) Clearly, it does not mean from behind a ‘head covering’ (as it wouldn’t logically be possible, nor make much linguistic sense). A hadith that comes to mind that contextualises this is found in the sahihain where Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas and Abd b. Zum’ah disputed over whom a young man belonged to (as a family member). In the context of the hadith, and at the end the event, the Prophet told his wife in regards to the boy, “واحتجبي منه يا سودة” meaning: “Hijab from him, Sauda.” The statement of the prophet shows that it wasn’t merely a statement to don a khimar but her general outward covering would subsequently treat the young man as a non-mahram.
A side point, and one the majority of western Muslims I’m sure are fully cognisant of, is that it’s juvenile to assert that non-Muslim women who do not wear a khimar or jilbab, or those in jeans and a t-shirt etc to be ‘naked’, not only is it an extreme exaggeration that absolutely fails to reflect reality but also a considerably lame attempt to assert moral superiority in a very misplaced way. The way most non-Muslim women dress in public is the way Muslim women dress away from non-mahrams; can it be said that they’re all naked amongst one another! Yes, there are general understandings of indecent exposure, and by societal norms there are variant degrees to covering: extensive to minimal, conservative, (in)appropriate (for certain contexts), provocative, indecent, and so on. Whilst not everyone will agree precisely where the line is to be drawn between all of these (as will tend to be the case with most norms in all societies), cultural capital in wider society tends to inform us of the generalities. Only ignorant, insular, and insecure people tend to resort to such hyperbole. Believers are far more intelligent and civil.
On occasion, I’m particularly forthcoming in challenging the “hijab (or niqab) is my Muslim identity” narrative – we find such expressions nowhere in the Qur’an nor in the sunnah. But that is not to undermine that God the Most High has ordained the hijab. It is to counterbalance fickle narratives on Islam and Muslim identity, as well the overarching obsession found in the statements and books of clerics that erroneously and absolutely reduce a woman’s piety and contribution to communal faith down to covering. Often this has an adverse effect to the one intended where Muslim women are perversely sexualised, since they are primarily seen through the lens of sexual provocation rather than free intelligent believers.