The headscarf on Muslim women: Why so Controversial? (Part II)

Pamelia Khaled:

(Part I:

Covering women’s heads loosely was the old tradition in Saudi Arabia, Persia, Asia, and Europe; the practice was present in Arabia before Muhammad. Professor Reza Aslan, a Harvard Professor of Theology, thinks that the hijab or “veil is surprising, not enjoyed upon Muslim women anywhere in the Quran.” However, the “verse of hijab” was revealed not for general women; it was exclusively for Prophet’s wives. It says, “believers, do not enter the Prophets’ house…unless asked. And if you are invited…do not linger. And when you ask something from the Prophet’s wives, do so by keeping space and purdha. This will assure the purity of your hearts as well as theirs” (33:53). This restriction was made as, at that time Prophet’s house was the center of religious and social life, a community mosque. Aslan asserts that the veil was applied solely to Muhammad’s wives; the word is used donning the veil –”darabat al-hijab was used synonymously and interchangeably with “becoming Muhammad’s wife”.  For this reason, during the Prophet’s time, no other women in the Ummah observed hijab.” It is difficult to determine the exact moment, possibly Muslim women followed Prophet’s wives, but it was most likely after Prophet’s death. However, which women were supposed to wear hijab was determined by other scholars as well. Reza Aslan cites Leila Ahmed, who correctly observes, “nowhere in the whole of the Quran is the term hijab applied to any women other than the wives of Muhammad.” 


If we turn to history, we will see the head covering was used even during the 13th century B.C as a sign of the high status of elite, respectable women. However, in ancient times this Assyrian rule was not imposed on the enslaved people and prostitutes. 

The veil was used by Greeks, Romans, Zoroastrians, Jews, and pagan Arabs. Women in India and Bangladesh also covered their heads even pre-date Islam as a sign of a respectable woman. 

M Aamer Sarfraz, a consultant psychiatrist & director of medical education in England, describes in her article ‘the idea of hijab’ that “females in some Hindu castes in India also practiced a form of hijab called ghoonghat that might pre-date Islam. 

In the Jewish tradition, cursed was the husband whose wife’s hair was seen, as it was believed to invite poverty into the house. Similarly, in the Christian tradition, a woman without a headcover dishonored her head, which equated to her “hair being shaved off.” M Aamer Sarfraz further notes that “as late as the Middle Ages, European Royalty and the elite wore the veil with or without headgear. Throughout British history, hats and fascinators have been a part of upper-class etiquette. The headgear also denotes social standing. Some Christian sects in the West, Africa, and the Middle East still practice this. Nuns of most denominations still wear the ‘hijab.” 


Most scholars agreed that provisions of the hijab were revealed to Prophet’s wives to uphold their holiness. Prophet asked his wives to cover entire body parts with a veil/ cloak to distinguish them from the commoners (as Prophet’s words were revealed through Quran) and asked the public not to enter his home without his permission and knock at the door. During the reign of Prophet Muhammad, Prophet came in contact with public and political associations in the mosque and at his home, and courtyard, and there was minimal privacy for his wives. Quran verses clearly describe the public’s entrance to Prophet’s home, saying that there must be a boundary to entering men/outsiders Prophet’s house while the Prophet is in rest during the day or nighttime. 


It is true that maintaining purity and piety Quran suggests for both men and women regarding their clothing, the organs of reproduction, especially the external organs, and the way they should look (gaze) to others. For women, it was specific not to express their beauty to unknown men besides their husbands and close relatives (distinguished relatives only) and cover their bosoms with a shawl/chador when going outdoors. 


 According to the Quranic verse, Muslim women were also asked to use an extra cover on their upper body part, bosoms (not nikab), to be distinguished as Muslim women, so they could save themselves from eve teasing by evil men on the street during that time (according to hadith, an explanation of the verse: in a regular religious meeting, neo-Muslim women asked Prophet a solution how they can save themselves from the evil passerby), Aiyame Jaheliat’s era. 


There is a possibility Prophet’s suggestion moved Muslim men and women, in suspense for more rewards in the afterworld, to implement veils/hijab towards women. However, exploring the Quranic verses reveals that the rules of wearing hijab and nikab, or covering face and palm are not mandatory/ compulsory for Muslim women. For a Muslim woman, it is her choice/ personal preference to keep her faith up if she wants to follow the suggestion made for the Prophet’s wives, as it is a part of sunnah (Sunni Muslims follow what the Prophet did in his lifetime). However, it is essential to note that wearing a veil, hijab, nikab, hand gloves, etc., is not obligatory for Muslim women. It is important to note that nikab, hand gloves, hijab (the headdress, an article of clothing) none of these were mentioned in the Quran as mandatory accessories for women. 


 Thus, the hijab is not a religious obligation in Islam, as it has no religious significance. It was not imposed as a moral value on Muslim women. We must be responsible for sharing the meaning of veil/cloak and wearing hijab/nikab and use of hand gloves for Muslim women, as this is a momentum to give back to women, their equal status as human beings and freeing women and empower them to choose what they want for their lives. We need to share knowledge to remove the veil of ignorance and reduce the gap between Islamic and non-Islamic thoughts, specifically the harmful information to women and Islam.  


Amartya Sen, a renowned social scientist, and noble laureate discusses that “human beings have always lived in groups, and their individual lives have invariably depended on group decisions. But the challenges of group choice can be daunting, particularly given the divergent interests and concerns of the group’s members. So, how should collective decision-making be carried out”? 

The group behavior or social choice is discussed from the economic context of worldly-wise philosophy. When we discuss a social choice and individual life from a religious context, it is no longer only a worldly naive issue; it is much deeper thoughts related to a person’s faith and the afterworld. It may be Muslim women’s choice; thus, need to stop the objectification of women.

(Photograph has been provided by the writer. The photo may not be used elsewhere without the writer’s permission.)

The writer is an expert in Curriculum and Pedagogy (CP), Peace and Conflict educator, Toronto, Canada. She can be reached at [email protected]

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