BY AMAL BUMBIA (staff writer)
Upon hearing the word “hijab”, Muslims and non-Muslims alike associate it with the headscarf worn by Muslim women. What many fail to understand is that the hijab is not simply just a headscarf. The hijab is modesty--of speech, of dress, and of action. It is a mechanism by which Muslims can practice humility, introspection, and respect. Every Muslim is expected to follow the concept of the hijab. When it comes to clothing, there are different guidelines regarding gender expression.* For instance, women are to cover not only their hair, but their bodies as a whole except for their faces, hands, and feet in a public setting or around non-mehrams.** Men are to cover from their navel to their knees. Men are obligated to lower their gaze in the presence of women regardless of what they may be wearing.
In taking these basic rulings at face value, it is very easy to make the assumption that the regulations are “not fair” or “oppressive”. It doesn’t help when western media portrays the hijab as a misogynistic tool used to restrict Muslim women, feeding into islamophobic stereotypes and perpetuating the notion that Muslim women need to be saved.
The truth is that there are Muslims and Islam-based governments who ascribe to the misogyny present within society and do force women to wear the headscarf as well as other articles of clothing such as the jilbab, khimar, abaya, or niqab. However, it is important to note that behaviors like these are prohibited within Islam. According to the principles of Islam, nobody is allowed to be forced or coerced into following any Islamic ruling, nor are they to be shamed if they aren’t necessarily adhering to it properly. The feelings and experiences of women whose rights were not upheld are just as valid as those of the women who chose to wear hijab of their own accord.***
That said, the hijab is not an extension of the patriarchy--it is, first and foremost, a method of worship. The purpose of the hijab as a whole is to serve as a reminder to Muslims of their identity. By dressing a certain way, we are constantly reminded of our faith and community because we are connected to both in a tangible manner. Another focus revolves around combatting objectification and sexualization. I mentioned the concept of “lowering your gaze”. While it applies to everyone, in the Quran, men are commanded to lower their gazes first, meaning that they are under no circumstance are they allowed to objectify or sexualize any woman. It doesn’t matter if they are dressing modestly, showing skin, or not wearing anything at all. Men are to be held accountable for themselves. Women are not responsible for how a man may perceive them. The dress code for women emphasizes coverage for the same reason clothing standards today do not: bodily autonomy and empowerment. Hijab teaches us that we do not have to show our bodies or ascribe to beauty standards in order to be respected. We have the right to cover ourselves and reject the male gaze in its entirety. Just as there are women who find confidence and freedom in wearing more revealing clothing, there are also many Muslim women who find that same comfort in loose-fitting garments and headscarves.
*This article will not go into the nuances of gender identity and expression in Islam. As I am not a scholar, I can only provide basic knowledge in regards to rulings for binary gender. There is much more to the concept of hijab than what is outlined here, but hopefully, this article provides some basic insight and clarity.
**A mehram is essentially a person of blood relation to you. This is a slightly simplified definition though. Muslim women do not need to wear hijab in front of other women or men they are blood-related to (not including cousins). There are exceptions when it comes to identification or medical purposes, etc., but even in these situations we avoid taking the scarf off in front of other men unless absolutely necessary.
***Though there are people who defy their faith and force women to wear hijab, these scenarios should not be used:
to justify islamophobia in general
to perpetuate the stereotype that all Muslim women are oppressed
to justify legislation that forces Muslim women to take off their scarves
Despite wearing a proper hijab being obligatory, it is ultimately a personal journey for each Muslim. Whether it be forcing women to cover up or forcing them to take garments off, attempting to dictate what we wear is a sheer violation of our bodily autonomy and personhood.