Considering the recent attention Ofsted has drawn to Muslim schoolgirls who wear the hijab, the Islamic covering, it is important to have a proper understanding of hijab and the reasons it is worn by millions of Muslim girls and women across the globe. Undoubtedly, hijab is one of the most debated issues concerning Muslim women in contemporary society. The typical modern view of hijab is that it is a symbol of woman’s oppression and her inferior status; thus, many people think that liberation and freedom come with the unveiling.
However, has a woman who is free of the hijab found freedom in our society? Has unveiling given her an equal status with men? The truth is that a woman cannot find equality and dignity in a society that does not respect her for who she is. She cannot be honoured if her appearance is more important than her intellect and character. Islamic hijab grants a woman the honour and respect she deserves. It allows her to achieve her potential and be whoever she wishes to be. When a woman wears hijab, she is only the servant of God; therefore, no other force can control her.
Because the prevalent meaning of hijab is a veil, many people think that Islam wants women to remain behind a curtain, to be imprisoned in their home, and never to leave it. According to Ayatullah Mutahhari, the word satr was used instead of hijab in the sense of ‘covering’, and the word hijab is newly used in Islamic thought. Islamic hijab refers to a woman’s modest dress; it does not mean that she should be kept secluded in her home. There is nothing in hijab that restricts a woman’s freedom to express her views and opinion, to own property, to have an education and a career, or to choose a husband. Islamic hijab means that a woman covers her whole body except the face and hands; of course, her clothes are loose-fitting and she observes other etiquette regarding makeup and jewellery.
Though hijab is usually only thought in terms of protecting a woman from the gaze of men, it provides much more than just a physical cover. In fact, it is a cover that acts as a repellent of every kind of crime and vice which destroys the individual and the society. Consequently, people deal with a woman wearing hijab with the perspective that she is a human being. Thus, hijab is a weapon and a barrier, not because women are weak, but because society is. It is a spiritual barrier, an empowerment, and a guarantee that a woman will be judged by her inner spiritual beauty rather than her outer superficial appearance.
Women are equal with men in every respect to their religion, even in instructions to modesty. Modesty is an integral part of faith for both men and women; both are to be modest and cast down their glance. It is also noteworthy that men are commanded to lower their gaze first, and then women are instructed to do likewise. Since it is by the grace of God that any individual obeys Him, wearing hijab is a reflection of that submission to God. It is a symbol of Islam, the religion of submission to God. It should by no means be reduced in terms of just covering from men who are unrelated, as that is just one of its purposes. Indeed, hijab is so much more. For example, we cannot view the purpose of marriage in Islam as just a means for the satisfaction of desires. Indeed, marriage is recommended because its purpose is a spiritual and lifelong journey toward God with one’s spouse. Likewise, hijab is a symbol of Muslim identity; it may even be the greatest apparent symbol of Muslim identity. Furthermore, it simultaneously promotes modesty and chastity, essential values for a pure and ideal society.
The Islamic hijab was ordained with the purpose that women could be leaders of society, not prisoners in the home. God would not have ordered women to observe the hijab if they were supposed to stay confined in the home. In no way does Islamic hijab prevent women’s active participation in society. It does not prevent women’s talents from blossoming. Many women in Islamic history exemplify the significant role of women, not only as active participants but even as the leaders and saviours of Islam and humanity. Lady Khadija(a) was Prophet Muhammad’s first and most beloved wife, who was always at his side, giving financial support and moral inspiration. Furthermore, she was the first person to believe in him and defend him with her wealth and position. Among the first martyrs of Islam was Sumayyah, the mother of Ammar Yasir, a very close companion of the Prophet. Lady Fatima(s), the daughter of Prophet Muhammad(s), challenged the caliphs after her father and fought for her rights. Lady Zaynab(s) courageously saved Islam after the martyrdom of her brother Imam Husayn(a) by protecting Imam Zayn al-Abidin(a), unveiling the deeds of the tyrant Yazid, and ensuring that Husayn’s sacrifice would never be forgotten. Among all the tragedies she suffered, the loss of her hijab was indeed the greatest sorrow.
According to psychological studies, some of the effects of hijab are formation identity and social support. In a 2015 study by Qurat-ul-ain Gulamhussein and Nicholas Eaton, it was found that loose-fitted clothing was a potential factor for resilience in Muslim women in the US. An otherwise invisible religious minority becomes identifiable due to hijab, making them susceptible to discrimination. Nevertheless, this fact itself gives them a stronger purpose and sense of identity. A study in New Zealand concluded that the practice of hijab is associated with an increase in psychological wellbeing, greater life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of psychological distress (Jasperse et al., 2012).
Ayatullah Bahauddin states that a woman who wears hijab is like an illuminated sun. His statement fittingly contrasts the clouds of darkness which constantly endeavour to engulf society.
Hijab should always be encouraged and viewed positively, especially by those who have young daughters, sisters or friends who are near an age when they will decide to wear it. Although wearing it will become a routine and habit for her, it will in no way diminish the fact that each time she wears hijab she is performing an act of worship and submitting herself to God. Hijab is the identity, beauty, piety and purity of a Muslim woman, who follows the religion of peace. It does not denigrate a woman, but rather raises and honours her. A woman who observes hijab is not hiding or afraid; she is strong, courageous and proud of her faith.