No symbol is so linked to Muslim women as that of “the veil.” Whether a simple headscarf or a head-to-toe cover such as the chaddor or burka, Muslim women’s covered dress has meaning for many far beyond its simple use as clothing. Those who advocate “Islamic dress” stress it as crucial to Muslim women’s modesty; it also signifies adherence to what they understand to be scriptural and prophetic requirements. Others, including many non-Muslims but also some Muslims, understand covered dress to symbolize – and even constitute a form of – women’s oppression. Much has been written about various forms of dress and the history of veiling and unveiling in various parts of the Muslim world, and there is no scholarly consensus as to how it affects women.
For many women, wearing the hijab in the Muslim world today is not the continuation of traditional ways of dressing, but rather a new trend. The contemporary adoption of “Islamic dress” consisting of a headscarf along with a long gown or overcoat is linked to the spread of Islamist movements that promote such ways of dressing. Scholars have disagreed tremendously over the meaning and effects of this phenomenon. Some have suggested that it represents a practical compromise strategy for women who wear it. Since they must move in public spaces by necessity, covered dress keeps them from being harassed. Further, they gain freedom to study, work, and even interact with men being viewed as unchaste. In this view, wearing the hijab permits a degree of autonomy and freedom. Others have suggested, nonetheless, that any use of “the veil” is ultimately self-defeating because it carries such powerful connotations of women’s subordination and the idea that women’s proper place is in the home.
For numerous Muslims, however, none of that is the point. Most conservative scholars, and numerous Muslim women, hold that wearing a headcovering is an absolute obligation for Muslim women, regardless of other social considerations. Advocates of this position point to several pieces of evidence for their views, including two Qur’anic verses and several prophetic traditions.
In contrast, others argue that it is modesty that is important rather than the specifics of a woman’s dress. Thus, if a woman is likely to be the subject of special attention on the basis of wearing a headscarf, she need not do so. In a context where other women wear miniskirts and halter tops, long pants and a loose shirt are modest enough. These Muslims, mostly moderate and progressive, argue that the Qur’anic verses and prophetic hadith are not nearly as clear as some claim. Further, some argue that it is the spirit and aim of the scriptural rules rather than their specific provisions that are important.
Another group of Muslim women who do wear hijab claims a feminist reason for doing so: they reject the transformation of women into sex objects that occurs when women are constantly judged on their appearance. Instead, these women argue, wearing a headcovering frees a woman, and those around her, to concentrate on what is inside her head–her mind–rather than what is on her head–her hair–and, by extension, her physical attractiveness. (Click here to read about one woman’s personal experience wearing the hijab.)
Discussions around the issue of hijab often lead to discussions of female ‘awra – what is too shameful to be exposed publicly. A small extremist minority argues that everything about a woman is ‘awra, including her voice, thus women should not speak in earshot of unrelated men. The position today assumed to be the “traditional” one is that everything but the face, the hands up to the wrists, and (for some) the feet below the ankles is ‘awra. This view is the most common today among advocates of women’s covering, though a smaller number also recommend a face-veil (niqab) and gloves. However, despite general agreement today that this view has always been held by a consensus of jurists, historically there has been significant dispute on this topic. A minority of early jurists held that a woman’s hair was not ‘awra, and still others made a distinction between ‘awra in prayer and outside of it; a woman must cover her hair while praying, but otherwise need not. Nearly all jurists differentiated between (Muslim) slave and servant women and free women, and many considered that slaves need only cover the portion of their bodies between their navel and knees.1 This early disagreement and debate, though often overlooked today, is an indication that class factors as well as general community norms were vital in setting standards for female dress and in choosing how to interpret scripture.
1. For a more extended discussion of these issues as well as citations to the primary legal texts where they are discussed, see Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority, and Women (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001), pp. 255-260, (especially notes 106 and 107).