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Origins of Hijab

by Mohammad Gill

Published: June 23, 2004


The pre-Islamic society in Arabia, the so-called Jahiliyya, was structured in a way that the women were totally handicapped; the men dominated in every conceivable way. The women were owned by men just like any other piece of property (many would probably like to argue that they still are!). They could acquire them, use them, and dump them in whatever way they wanted with impunity and without any moral compunction or punity. The women could be bought as slaves who had no rights whatsoever. The society was completely free and unrestrained in matters of sexual exploitation of women. Physical beating of women for a reason or no reason was a common practice; the women did not have any recourse for alleviation or remediation of their social condition; they were completely at the mercy of the men.

When Umar Ibn al-Khattab learned that his sister had embraced Islam, he went over to her house and beat her mercilessly. When her husband tried to rescue her, he beat him up too. And that incident curiously was also a turning point in his life because he embraced Islam immediately afterwards, though surely not to atone for his cruel behavior toward his sister. His attitude towards the women was not much changed even after he had embraced Islam. At least one incident is reported after his embracing Islam when he slapped his wife with overwhelming force.

In this background, Prophet Muhammad sought to reform the evil society. The measures that he prescribed for the Muslims were considered much too severe for those times because the people were used to free license that the existing society had bestowed on them. They were used to free sex and uncontrolled drinking; Islam restricted them only to four wives and gradually prohibited alcohol for them. Specific rules were prescribed for divorce, inheritance, and compensation to the divorced wives. In the pre-Islamic society, the women were physically part of the inheritance that the male descendents would acquire after the death of his father. The oldest son would normally marry his step-mother after the death of his father.

The reforms introduced by Islam were quite revolutionary for that time but unfortunately the process of reformation froze at the stage where Prophet Muhammad had left. Further evolution of these reforms was not allowed by the descendents on the plea that nothing beyond the Quranic injunctions could be used. Quran is the word of God and nobody has the authority to amend or change it. Reinterpretation of the Quranic injunctions is grudgingly accepted but not practically allowed. Sometimes, the Sharia, the code based on the Prophet’s sunna, takes preference over even the Quran injunctions. This causes confusion because the source of the Prophet’s sunna is Hadith whose authenticity is not always trustworthy and beyond question.

However, all the women in Arabia were not hapless, disadvantaged, or without material resources. There were women of wealth also in the society who owned their own businesses and had their own free will and ways in day to day life. But such women were few and far between. Khadija, Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, who had employed Muhammad to manage her business, was one of them. The wives of the aristocrats had social status which was due to their husbands’ endowment. Generally, the women had a pitiable lot.

The veil entered the Muslim society in two distinct stages. It was a common practice in Arabia even after the advent of Islam that the people would go to visit other people uninvited whenever they wanted to do so. They would not care to seek permission of the master of the household to enter his home. They would sit, chat and while away the time without paying any heed whether they were welcomed or not or whether they had already overstayed and should leave. Such visits were not unusual even if they were not accepted all the time and became harassing for the host.

When Prophet Muhammad married Zaynab Bint Jahsh, he invited nearly all the Muslims to his house for the wedding supper. Muhammad’s servant, Anas ibn Malik, narrated the proceedings as follows (1):

The Prophet had wed Zaynab Bint Jahsh. I was charged with inviting people to the wedding supper. I carried out this charge. Many people came. They arrived in groups one after the other. They ate and then they departed… At a certain moment, the Prophet said: End the meal. Zaynab was seated in a corner of the room. She was a woman of great beauty. All the guests departed except for three who seemed oblivious of their surroundings. They were still there in the room chatting away. Annoyed, the Prophet left the room. He went to A’isha’s apartment…. He thus made the round of the apartments of his wives…Finally; he retraced his steps and came again to Zaynab’s room. He saw that the three guests had still not departed…The Prophet was an extremely polite and reserved man. He quickly left again and returned to A’isha’s apartment. I (Anas ibn Malik) don’t remember any more whether it was I or someone else who went to tell him that the three individuals had finally decided to leave. In any case, he came back to the nuptial chamber. He put one foot in the room and kept the other outside. It was in this position that he let fall a sitr (curtain) between himself and me and the verse of the hijab descended at that moment.

The above referred verses are included in Chapter 33, Al-Ahzab, of the Holy Quran. According to verse 53:

O Ye who believe! Enter not the Prophet’s house until leave is given you - for a meal (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation; but when ye are invited, enter, and when ye have taken your meal, disperse, without seeking familiar talk. Such (behavior) annoys the Prophet, he is ashamed to dismiss you but Allah is not ashamed (to tell you) the truth. And when ye ask (his ladies) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen; that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs. Nor is it right that ye should annoy Allah’s Messenger, or that ye should marry the widows after him at any time. Truly such a thing is in Allah’s sight an enormity. (A. Yusuf Ali’s translation)

The curtain or screen separating the visitors and the Prophet’s wives became a general prescription and practice for all the Muslim wives. The last line of the above verse seems somewhat out of place but it is not, if it is reviewed under the circumstances at that time. The Arabs in those days were quite loud and outspoken in their day to day affairs. Some of the injudicious ones had let it be known in public that they would marry the Prophet’s widows in due time. This line of the verse clarified the social situation of the Prophet’s wives in relation to the other Muslims. Afterwards, the Prophet’s wives were addressed as the “mothers of the believers” (um’haat-el-momineen) to dispel any lingering doubt.

The second stage of the veil, popularly known as hijab these days, was occasioned by the wayward behavior of many men in Medina. According to Fatima Mernissi (2), “Women, whatever their status, were being harassed in the streets, pursued by men who subjected them to the humiliating practice of ta’arrud – literally taking up a position along a woman’s path to urge her to fornicate, to commit the act of zina. At this point, the Prophet’s problem was no longer freeing women from the chains of pre-Islamic violence (because he did not have unchallenged authority, author), but simply assuring the safety of his own wives and those of other Muslims in a city (Medina) that was hostile and out of control.”

The Prophet enquired through emissaries from such hoodlums why they molested the women like that. They said, “We only practice ta’arrud with women we believe to be slaves, thus excusing themselves by claiming confusion about the identity of the women they approached,” (2).

In this situation, Allah revealed verse 59 of Sura 33, Al-Ahzab, to eliminate any confusion regarding the identity of the Muslim women. The verse reads as follows: “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments (jilbab) over their persons (when abroad – outside their homes, author); that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving – Most Merciful.” The attire that was used by the Muslim women to veil themselves was called jilbab. The hijab that is used by the Muslim women these days, although different from jilbab, has the same function as stated above. The social norm for the Muslim women for the purpose of modestly dressing themselves and their social posture, while going out in public was further elaborated in Sura 24, Light, verse 31 as follows:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosom, and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of shame of sex; and they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O Ye Believers! Turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.

After the conquest of Mecca, the Muslims were practically the unchallenged rulers of Arabia and the social conditions in Medina were also not menacing for the women. But, since hijab had been formally ordained by the Quran, there was no going back and it stayed irrevocably in the Muslim world. Commenting on this point, Mernissi (3) wrote, “For women, security would never return to the city. No more than dreams, can a journey back in time change the fact that the Medina of women would be forever frozen in its violent posture. From then on, women would have to walk the streets of uncaring, unsafe cities, ever watchful, wrapped in their jilbab. The veil, which was intended to protect them from violence in the street, would accompany them for centuries, whatever the security situation of the city.”

Hijab in the Western World

Over the past several centuries, the hijab has become an item of daily attire of the Muslim women in Arab countries. It is not so much of a factual tool of female exploitation because many women wear it routinely and voluntarily. If it were oppressive and degrading of their feminity in any way, the Muslim women, at least in the western countries, would discard it and that would be the end of it. The Muslim men have accorded a secondary and subservient position to their women-folks in several other important ways, which of course is irrelevant in the perspective of the western world where the immigrants have chosen to live and raise their families.

There are two icons of real power in the Muslim culture and power structure, at least conceptually, namely the caliph who has the supreme political power and the Imam who is the religious head. According to Fatima Mernissi (4), “There is no feminine form of the words imam or caliph, the two words that embody the concept of power in the Arabic language in which the Koran was revealed. The Lisan ‘al-Arab dictionary informs us without qualification that ‘al-khalifatu la yakunu illa al-dhikar’ (caliph is used only in the masculine).” Thus the issue of a woman becoming Head of a Muslim state is moot. This came in the open and became a topic of heated discussion when Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister of Pakistan after the tragic death of President Zia-ul-Haq. There are very few Muslim women leaders and intellectuals who would fight for the rights of women and equality of sexes in the Muslim world. Likewise, there are only a few writers, like Fatima Mernissi, who would enlighten the Muslim women that they need to fight for their rights.

Hijab in the western world is just a symbol of the Arab/Islamic culture, which the wearer wants to preserve. It is like the identity badge which the women in Medina had started wearing to identify them to avoid harassment at the hands of the hoodlums. Unfortunately, it has been politicized in several western countries which seem to be paranoid of the Muslim culture. In the face of this opposition, many non-Arab Muslim women have also started wearing it to assert their Muslim identity. A multicultural society is a diverse society which of course doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t require to be regulated. Such regulation should however be moderate and tolerant and avoid hurting the individual cultural susceptibilities whenever possible. The debate on hijab and jilbab will presumably continue in the western world until the ghosts of xenophobia are laid to rest for ever.


1. Fatima Mernissi, “The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam,” tr. Mary Jo Lakeland, Perseus Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1991, p. 86.
2. Ibid, p. 180.
3. Ibid, p. 191.
4. Fatima Mernissi, “The Forgotten Queens of Islam,” tr. Mary Jo Lakeland, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993, p. 4.




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