By Oleh: Nong Darol Mahmada
What is Liberal Islam
Network’s (JIL) interest in publishing a book on hijâb (recognized as
jilbab in Indonesia)? Actually this question is a personal one because
the answer must necessarily be subjective. I’m very conscious of the
fact that my thoughts on this issue are derived from my personal
I remember that when I was a child my grandmother was very strict about
wearing a veil though then it was merely a piece of cloth for covering
the head. She was a pious Muslim up to her death (âllâhummâghfirlâhâ).
To her, the hair of an adult (baligh) woman should not be exposed since
it is aurat (part of the body which may not be visible). If
anyone breaks this rule, her hair would be burnt in hell. Surely, the
idea of burning in hell haunts me and worse still as a statement coming
from someone I adore. Hence, when I grew up and became an adult, I
faithfully wore the veil due to the fear of the consequences for not
Nevertheless, my decision to wear the veil did not stop my criticism and
my search for the answer to the question of why it is that a woman’s
head and hair happen to be aurat and thus have to be covered. Why
is it that women are deemed aurat so that they must be covered
while a man’s aurat is limited only from the knee up to his
navel? That curiosity triggered me to study more about the veil.
Apparently, the matter is not as simple as I had been led to believe. It
is not merely about definitions of aurat and burning in hell. It is far
more complicated than that. For example, in every case of the
implementation of Islamic Shariah, the first step is to always
make women wear veils. Similarly, for example, in several regions in our
country, the first consequence of implementing Islamic Shariah in
the region would be the obligation upon women to wear veils. Thus the
regulation of wearing the veil is singled out as it is the most physical
evidence or indicator of the success of the implementation of Islamic
Shariah law. It is almost as if wearing the veil is synonymous with
Islam itself. The question is this: Is it true that wearing the veil is
an essential aspect of Islamic Shariah?
The answer is certainly lengthy and not a black or white one. Even
though the veil is merely a part of a woman’s outfit, this concept has a
long history. The word Jilbab is derived from the word jalaba
meaning to gather and to carry. In the period of the prophet Muhammad
SAW the Jilbab was an outfit covering the whole of an adult
woman’s body. In contrast, the head covering outfit in Indonesia was
initially recognized as a veil, but by the ‘eighties the word jilbab
became more popular.
Jilbab in the sense of being merely a head cover is acknowledged
only in Indonesia. In several Muslim countries it is a full body cover.
The jilbab-like costume known variously as the chador in
Iran, the pardeh in India and Pakistan, the milayat in
Libya, the abaya in Irak, the charshaf in Turki, and
lastly, the hijâb in a number of Arab-African countries like
Egypt, Sudan and Yemen.
Actually the concept of hijâb is not exclusive to Islam. For
instance in the Old Testament, the Jews Holy Book, the hijâb was
referred to as tif’eret. Similarly in the Bible, the Holy Book of
the Christians, the terms of zammah, re’alah, zaif and
mitpahat all refer to the veil. Even according to Eipstein, as quoted
by Nasa-ruddin Umar in his article contained in Journal of Ulumul
Quran, the concept of hijâb (in the sense of a head cover)
predated the samawi (sky revealed) religions (Jew and Christian).
According to Mr Nasar, this sort of wear became established in the Code
of Bilalama (3.000 SM) and continued in the Code of Hammurabi (2.000 SM)
and the Code of Asyiria (1.500 SM). The regulation of wearing the veil
was practiced in several ancient cities like Mesopotamia, Babilonia, and
Asyiria. (Kompas, 25/11/02)
The tradition of wearing the veil was an aspect of family law amongst
the Assyrians. This law stipulated that wives, daughters and widows
should wear the veil whenever they go out into public space. In
analyzing this concept further, when Adam and Eve were evicted from the
garden of Eden, covering their genitals was the first thing they had to
do (aurat) (QS. Thaha/20: 121). In this regard, the Jewish
literature mentions that the use of hijâb began with the original
sin: the sin of eve tempting her husband, Adam, to eat the forbidden
fruit. The consequence is that Eve and her clan (women) were cursed not
only to wear the hijâb but also to menstruate and to be
restricted by menstrual regulations. The difference between the concept
of hijâb in the Jewish and Christian traditions and in Islam, is that
hijâb has no relation at all with original sin or with menstruation.
In the Islamic concept, hijâb and menstruation have their own
contexts. The accentuation of the Hijâb is much more closely
related to ethic and aesthetic issues.
The hijâb institutionalization in Islam is based on two verses of
Qur’an QS. Al-Ahzab/ 33: 59 dan QS. An-Nur/24: 31. These verses affirm
the regulations in regard to dress for Muslim woman. In surah An-Nur,
the word khumur is a plural form of khimar, meaning veil.
While the word juyub is the plural form of jaib, means
ash-shadru (chest). Hence the sentence and to draw their veils
over their bosoms, is a reaction to the dressing traditions of the
women of Arab Jahiliya. In the era of ignorance, the Jahiliya period,
women used to go out in public with naked breasts and would reveal their
necks in order to show off their adornments as illustrated by Al-Allamah
Ibnu. For instance, Imam Zarkasyi wrote that in this period the women
wore dresses that revealed their necks and chests as well as other parts
of their bodies. They also drew their veils backwards while leaving the
front parts wide open. Consequently, they were commanded to draw their
veils forward in order to cover their chest.” Moreover, dress codes even
incited the war between the unbelievers (kafir) of Mecca with the
Muslims at the battle of Uhud
The tradition is political, discriminative and elitist-natured. Surah Al
Ahzab contains the verse about hijâb revealed after the battle of
Khandaq (5 Hijriyah), while surah An-Nur was revealed long after that.
They are political because the verses are revealed in order to answer
the attack by the munafik (unbelievers who pretend to be Muslims,
hypocrites), in this case Abdullah bin Ubay and friends. This attack of
munafik “used” the Muslim women by slandering the wives of
prophet, especially Aisha. The event is known as al-ifk.* In that
period, this event was so important so that it was affirmed in five
separate verses: QS. An-Nur/23: 11-16. The problems this has created for
Muslim women are incessant though the verses were intended to protect
Muslim woman from acts of disrespect. Allah has decreed that the reason
for wearing jilbab is so that women maybe recognized and not
annoyed and so that the free can be distinguished from slaves.
Thus the laws can be understood to be both elitist and discriminative,
since this verse distinguishes between free and slave Muslim woman. Here
the ambiguity of Islamic law regarding slavery can be observed. On the
one hand Islam is opposed to slavery yet on the other hand, it still
supports the distinction of dress for different classes. In my opinion,
to avoid ambiguous interpretation, the interpretation should stress the
ethical issue of the verse, and not be read merely as a code about the
regulation of dress. There should be no difference between a free woman
and a slave, good manners and modesty should apply equally to both.
In the Muslim world, many books have been written about hijâb
which mention that it is a good Muslim woman’s clothing which separates
woman and limits contact between women and men who are not family. The
verses do not deliver explicit orders rather they provide expectations
about woman’s modesty and the regulations applied to the prophet’s
wives. Fatima Mernissi in Women in Islam, has written that in the
beginning of Islam the Prophet did not set up a dichotomy between the
his own private space and his wives’ with that of other Muslims’. QS.
Al-Ahzab/33:53 affirms that there was originally no dichotomy between
public and private space.
The institutionalization of the veil and the separation of woman from
public space crystallized when the Muslim world came into contact with
Hellens and Persians in cities. In these contexts, the veil which was
formerly used as an occasional costume became institutionalized
and women became obligated to wear it. Moreover, the codification of the
standard books like hadits, tafseer, fikh, history, including the
codification of standard writing (rasm) and reading (qira’at)
of Alqur’an, were influenced by Hellenism and Persian culture. For
example, the Israiliyat (transmitted from Israel) history is
included in the book of Tafseer al-Thabary and it subsequently
became the reference of the ulemas in codifying the tafseer.
According to Ruth Rodded in her book Kembang Peradaban, the
debate has centered upon the meaning and practical implementation of the
verses of hijâb. Her opinion is based on what consists the proper
definition regarding certain words (including the terms hijâb),
their contexts and whether the regulation set for the prophet’s wives
should become norms for every Muslim woman. Nevertheless as it has been
argued by Harun Nasution, “the view that says that hijâb is an
obligation, could be answered yes to. And those who say it is not an
obligation, could be answered yes to as well. But the clear regulation
boundary regarding hijâb is not mentioned in the Qur’an and the
hadits mutawatir.” (Islam Rasional, p.332).
In short then, this book takes the view that wearing the jilbab
is not an obligation. Even Al Asymawy has proclaimed that the hadits
taken as the reference regarding jilbab or hijâb obligation is a hadits
ahad (transmitted by single person) which cannot be perceived as having
a legal foundation. If jilbab was obligatory for women, the impact would
certainly be substantial. As he quoted: “the statement that woman’s hair
is aurat, is because it is their crown. It follows that her face, which
is her throne, is also aurat. Then her voice which is her authority
becomes aurat and her body which is her kingdom aurat. Eventually, the
entire female being is considered aurat.” The implication is ultimately
that woman cannot do anything as Allah’s creature because she is all-aurat.
We are used to reading books or booklets regarding the obligation of
wearing jilbab in the verses of Qur’an and Hadits as well as in
experiencing threats made to women who do not want to wear it. For us,
this book, bluntly and frankly, explains that wearing the jilbab is not
an obligation. Even the tradition of wearing the jilbab amongst the
sahabat (prophet’s companions) and amongst their followers is more of a
cultural obligation than a religious one.
I wish this pocket book could be a positive contribution for everyone
who does or does not wear jilbab. I am not entirely for or against
wearing the jilbab as long as wearing it is due to someone’s
consciousness that it is an option and one potential mode of expression
of self-searching for a Muslim woman. When used without coercion it is a
legitimate dress code.
-- Utan Kayu, 17th April 2003
* The event of al-ifk occurred when Aisha was left out of the group in a
battlefield because she was looking for her lost necklace. When she
reached the camp, nobody was there anymore. The entire troop had left
the location. During the time when Aisha was alone in the camp, Safwan
ibn Mu’attal al-Sulami arrived with his camel and carried her to Medina.
This incident became widely known and was utilized by the munafik
(hypocrites) coordinated by Abdullah bin Ubay such that the Prophet
formed a special team to investigate the case.