Hijab is to protect, not to isolate
By: Ayatullah Fadhil Milani
To understand Hijab we need to look at the following:
1. What the Qur’an and aHadith teach us about Hijab.
2. The different styles of Hijab.
What the Qur’an and ahadith teach us about hijab
Tell Muslim men to dress modestly and to lower their gaze [when in mixed company] for that will contribute to their spiritual purity...
And tell Muslim women to lower their gaze, to be modest, to conceal the embellishment of their beauty [e.g. jewelry and cosmetics] - other than that which is outwardly visible. To draw their veils over Hijab is to protect, not to isolate their bosoms and to only reveal their embellishments to their husbands, brothers, nephews... (Qur’an 24:30-31)
O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and those women who believe, to conceal their bodies under long loose garments so that they do not excite attraction. (Qur’an 33:59)
The precise word for virtuous, modest conduct - an essential Islamic teaching - is the Arabic word Haya', that is considered to lie at the root of self-discipline and moral behavior.
The Prophet (S) said: Modest behavior encapsulates the whole of religion.6
Imam Hasan (a.s.) said: Those who do not behave with modesty have no religion.7
Imam Sadiq (a.s.) said: Absence of modest behavior equates to the absence of faith.8
Imam Baqir (a.s.) said: Modest behaviour and faith are linked - where one goes, the other follows.9
In recognizing the compelling effect of sexual attraction, Islam guides us to regulate and direct our natural urges and avert their uninhibited expression. This is analogous to the trickles of pure sweet water that burble from mountain springs to flow into streams and rivers. If unchecked, these may later rise to become great torrents of water that cascade over riverbanks and flood defences, to overwhelm and destroy everything in their path. To avert such destruction, society regulates and directs such waters into reservoirs and dams to contain and preserve their mighty volumes for future use.
Sigmund Freud based his studies on the sexual urge being the foundation of all human characteristics and activity. He started with the identification of two main and powerful human objectives - the defense and protection of each human being's very existence, and the expression of each human being's sexuality. However, he later ignored the first to concentrate solely on the second. The damaging result of this indicates that love loses its spiritual purity and is transformed into sexual gratification. This distortion led him to link suckling at the mother's breast to the provocation of adult sexuality by the female bosom. He also considered the relationship between teacher and pupil, fatherly love for offspring and purity of friendship to be emanations of sexuality. Today, there is a voluminous and complex literature in this area.
At the opposite end of the scale, some consider sexual activity to be almost sinful. Indeed, ascetic Christian, Buddhist and Hindu orders link spiritual progress to a celibate life - the renunciation of sexuality.
Islam rejects both these views as extreme. It considers sexual inter course to be a natural, beautiful and pleasurable act that is to be enjoyed, even when not indulged in, to ensure the continuation of the human race. As mentioned above, Islamic teaching is to regulate and direct natural sexual urges towards beneficial and fruitful ends, e.g.to strengthen the bonds of love and mercy between men and women within the secure boundaries of marriage: Among His signs is that He created mates for you, with yourself same essence so that you may dwell together in tranquility, and He instilled between you love and compassion. (Qur’an 30:21)
The most suitable means to secure the above objective is to advocate and promote 'modest behaviour - Haya'.
In the story of the Prophet Musa (a.s.) two girls wait for their turn to water their flocks. As stronger shepherds pushed them aside to jump the queue, the Prophet Musa (a.s.) helped them. Afterwards while resting in the shade, he prayed, ‘O my Lord, I have need of the good that You have sent me.' Later, one of the girls came up to him in an exceedingly modest manner to tell him that, despite her father being too frail to come himself, he wanted to thank Musa (a.s.) for his kind help. This incident eventually led to her marriage to Hijab is to protect, not to isolate Musa.10
The respectful, decorous way in which the girl conveyed her father's message exemplifies the manner in which all contact between males and females should be conducted. Hijab is entirely to serve the above purpose.
Does Hijab hinder the freedom of women?
Those who claim that Hijab limits freedom and hinders women from taking their rightful place within society do not in reality understand the concept of freedom. A woman in Hijab is free to express her views, own property in her own right, decide if she wishes to accept a proposal of marriage, etc. Her parents cannot force her in one direction or another.
Hijab does not prevent her from pursuing her studies and fulfilling her potential, nor does it prevent her from driving a car, earning her own living or directing a commercial or industrial enterprise. Rather, Hijab enhances her dignity and encourages males with whom she comes into contact to behave in a respectful manner towards her.
While western society ridicules Hijab and claims it to be oppressive, Muslims believe that it is the answer to a multitude of societal problems. The Hijab is protection to shield them from the unwanted and lascivious gaze.
Different styles of Hijab
Having explained the concept of Hijab according to Islamic teaching, we now look at a variety of cultural approaches to meet the requirement. Women in diverse parts of the Muslim world deal with this matter differently. In parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, some cover themselves completely in a burku leaving only a small grid before their eyes. In other parts of the world, women only cover their heads with a scarf and wear modest contemporary clothes. Here is a small variety of examples of the hijab:
1. Scarf - The headscarf, regarded by many Muslims as a symbol of both religion and womanhood, comes in a myriad of styles and colors and is commonly seen in the West as a covering of the head and neck - leaving the face clear, provided that no cosmetics are used.
2. Niqab - This is a veil that covers the face leaving only the area around the eyes clear. Jurists differ regarding the necessity for a niqab to be worn - especially when no cosmetics are used and there is no intention to attract the notice of others.
3. Khimar - This is a long cape-like veil that hangs down to just above the waist. It covers the hair, neck and shoulders completely, but leaves the face clear.
4. Chador and Abaya - Both of these full-body cloaks may be accompanied by a smaller headscarf beneath them. The chador is worn by Iranian women and the abaya by Iraqi women.
The fuss over covering the hair
There is some debate over whether women covering their hair is an aspect of Hijab or not. What is significant?
Mark of a woman
As is seen in the following, hair is recognized by society to be a secondary sexual characteristic.
'Hair is so significant because of what it is and where it is,' says Dr Martin Skinner, social psychologist at the University of Warwick. 'It is part of us, much more intimate than things like clothes. If you cut it away, you are cutting away a bit of yourself. Whatever we do with it is very much part of our identity.'
So why is hair - particularly long hair - viewed as such a defining part of a woman and inextricably linked to femininity? Zoologist Desmond Morris suggests that women traditionally have long hair because their ancestors, the aquatic apes, developed long hair to give their babies something to hang on to. In recent times, he argues that women have styled their hair to reflect their self-image, with long hair suggesting a certain availability.
Nature also plays a role. People are programmed to take notice of hair because it is a secondary sexual characteristic.
'Thick, healthy, long, glossy hair or fur is seen as a sign of good hormonal health and is one of the things animals use to select a mate - humans are no different,' says evolutionary psychologist Nick Neave of Northumbria University.
Why long hair is so linked to femininity could come down to many things, say experts. It is about youth, health, grace and movement.
Just look at shampoo advertisements, typically featuring models swinging their long, glossy locks. And look at how much the average woman spends on her hair - £600 a year, according to one study. Men spend just £90.
How this association started is not so easy to answer, but it has been entrenched in what is seen as the feminine for centuries' says psychologist Lorraine Sherr. 'As far back as cavemen, there are drawings of women with longer, glossier hair.11
The purpose of the Hijab is then to shield this important aspect of feminine sexuality and beauty from unwanted attention.