What is Hijab, Really?
Everybody, Muslim and non, is talking about hijab these days. Yet it seems that much of the time we are missing the true point.
In the non-Muslim sphere, the debate often centers around whether or not women should be allowed to wear it, whether or not it is a symbol of oppression, and how much coverage is too much covering. Conversely, in the Muslim community our talks seem to center around the obligation of hijab, and the haram-ness of various ways of wearing it. It is pared down to a set of rules that must be followed, otherwise you might as well “just take it off.”
In the wake of all this, I have been saddened to see so many sisters removing their hijabs recently. From prominent social media figures to personal friends and acquaintances, there seems to be a growing number of sisters that are discarding the headscarf in favor of less conspicuous forms of modesty. Of course, each of us has a separate journey. That is between each individual and Allah, and I can never know their circumstances or struggles. But the reasons they often give for removing their head coverings are what prompted me to reflect more deeply on the question that is the title of this piece. What is hijab, really? We spend so much time talking about what hijab looks like on the outside, but what does it mean at its core? Most of the sisters I have seen take off their hijabs cite reasons like it just didn’t feel like a part of them anymore and they can still dress perfectly modestly without covering their hair.
I began to realize that whole concept of the hijab has been so cut down to external appearances and rationalizations, that the true depth of meaning behind it seems to be almost entirely lost. At the worst, the hijab these days is just another fashion accessory. And at its best, it seems to be viewed as simply a tool to ward off the unwanted male gaze. In this article, in shaa Allah, I want to focus on the concept of hijab as strictly a tool to ward of unwanted attention from the opposite sex, and why we should be looking deeper than that.
We have all heard the comparisons – Only flies flock to an uncovered lollipop. Women are precious pearls that must be protected in their shells. But at the end of the day what these metaphors do, besides completely de-humanizing and objectifying us as women, is they make our hijab completely about men. Often as a community when we see a sister who doesn’t wear hijab and we begin to make judgements: Oh she probably has boyfriends. She probably gets around. She loves showing off to men, that’s why she doesn’t wear it. Again, all statements that center on wearing (or not) hijab in relationship to men. When non-Muslims ask us why we wear hijab our go-to answer is usually something along the lines of protecting ourselves from the male gaze in public. We like to think of hijab as the fix-all solution to issues of sexual harassment and assault, but how many cases have we seen where it is not only a woman in a miniskirt who is sexually assaulted but also a fully covered woman walking down the street? I myself have been stared, catcalled, and “chatted up” while wearing a full jilbab in a Muslim majority country.
So, if it’s becoming evident that our modesty as Muslimahs isn’t really about men and that wearing hijab does not necessarily save us from the attention of men, what is it all about? To put it quite plainly and simply: Our hijab as Muslim women is about Allah. At its very core, its very essence, our hijab is a command from Allah that we follow simply because it is from Allah, our Creator. Even if there were no worldly justifications for it, we would still follow the command because we trust that Allah knows better than us, so there must be a wisdom. Hijab is, first and foremost a physical manifestation of your submission to Allah and your relationship with Him. Only secondly come the external benefits of protection from some unwanted attention, recognition as Muslim women, and relief from the never-ending fashion/trends cycle of competition.
Of course, those external benefits are the ones that we can easily notice on a day to day basis, but if we only look at hijab as a deterrent from men’s attention, of course it becomes easy to discard it. After all, it is very true that you can dress modestly without covering your hair. Many women do. But our head covering and they way we dress as Muslim women is special because of who we do it for at it’s core: Allah.
Written by Ashley Bounoura,
Ashley is a convert Muslimah from the U.S., currently living abroad. By day she is a translator and English teacher, but her true passion is for learning and sharing Islam in order to inspire and empower other Muslim women.
Find more of her work at www.theduajournal.com.