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The Development of Hijab


Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph. D.


Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.

7102 W. Shefford lane

Louisville, KY 40242





Islamic modernism constituted the reexamining Islam in terms of contemporary realities. It is aimed to protect religion from narrow or erroneous interpretations, opening up Islam as a vital force in the lives of men and women as they face the uncertainties by massive economic and technological change.

Upper and middle-class men had the economic means to keep "their" women in domestic seclusion.  Men of the urban poor and peasantry did not; moreover, the labor of  "their" women was needed outside the house.   Urban women of all classes and women of the rural gentry veiled their faces if and when they went outside.  Peasant women did not veil because the custom was incompatible with their work in the fields, although Bedouin women who tended flocks covered their faces.  Confining women to the home, rendering them invisible, and segregating them from all men except close relatives were hallmarks of urban upper-and middle-class harem culture.   The Arabic word harim (from which the English word harem is derived) applied both to women and to the women's quarters of the house.  Islam ordained neither domestic confinement nor veiling the face, although both had been enforced on women in the name of religion. (Feminists, Islam, and Nation by Margot Badran, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1995, p 5).  Women were held to possess a more powerful sexual drive than men, posing a threat to society because of the chaos or fitna they could unleash.  It was popularly believed that the mere proximity of a woman to a man would lead to sexual relations.   To make matters still more fraught, women's sexual purity was linked to the honor of men and the family, while men's sexual purity was not linked to their own honor nor to that of their women and family.  Restricting women to their homes and camouflaging them if they went out were deemed necessary to the preservation of their purity and with it the honor of their men and families. In all classes girls were commonly married-without their free consent, contrary to the requirements of Islam-around the age of thirteen.


Shaykh Muhammad 'Abduh articulated the discourse of Islamic modernism.  He advocated a return to the practice of ijtihad (independent inquiry), calling upon Muslims to look to the scriptural sources of their religion for fresh inspiration.  This gave Muslims-men and women- a tool to interpret religion they and to apply Islam anew in their lives.  In this way some men and women came to see that the domestic cloistering of women and the imposition of the face veil (niqab) were not religious prescriptions.  They also discovered that other practices ordained by Islam, such as obtaining a woman's consent in marriage, were ignored, while men often abused their rights to divorce and polygamy. (Ibid  p.11).


In the late 19th century, for some Muslims a woman's voice was considered   'awrah (literally pudenda; more generally construed as anything having sexual connotations) and therefore something to be "covered" or unheard.  Hence women took to writing  and published in women's press, focusing mainly on the enhancement of women's family roles and on education as serving these roles.  Writing  women challenged the ideology of   'awrah that used to silence women.  This early " unveiling" of women's voices was paralleled by a literal unveiling, as some (non-Muslim) women began to uncover their faces.


In Egypt Qasim Amin  published Tahrir al-Mar'ah (the liberation of the woman) in 1899,  called for an end to female seclusion, which he demonstrated had nothing to do with Islam. He  advocated the elimination of abuses of divorce and polygamy.  Women must be educated. Amin also called for an end to face veiling (niqab), which likewise had nothing to do with Islam. In 1900 Amin published al-Mar'ah al-Jadidah (The new woman), applying secular arguments to his call for female, and hence national, liberation. The outcry against Amin was intense because of his status as a male Muslim and respected judge who not only insisted  that his views conformed with Islam, but also used secular arguments.


The Arabic word Nisa'ilyah is an ambiguous  term that can signify anything pertaining to women; sometimes it denotes  "feminist" and sometimes "feminine."  The term feminisme was originally coined in France in the 1880s but was not widely used until the early 1890s, after it had come into use as "feminism" in England.  "Feminism" first appeared in the United Sates in the 1910s. Just a decade later nisa'i began to be used to signify  "feminist" in Egypt.  The Arabic Academy in Cairo recently adopted a word for patriarchy, abawiyah, but it has yet to adopt a word for feminism (ibid  p.19).


In the 1920s and 1930s women in Egypt, encouraged by an independent feminist movement, decided themselves if and when to unveil, whereas their counterparts in Turkey and Iran, where subjected to unveiling by state measure.  In Algeria, which experienced a protracted French colonial rule (1830-1962) where a large French settler community was implanted, retaining the veil became a mode of nationalist defense.  Before and after the French tried to instigate unveiling as a cultural form of colonial assault, the veiled woman as the "authentic" Algerian-as Algeria-became a symbol of anticolonial resistance.


In Egypt during the 19th and early 20th century the Arabic word Hijab, veil, signified covering the face and was used as a generic term.  The specific term was burqa.  In the 1970s in Egypt hijab meant not hiding the face but simply to cover the head, while covering the face is called niqab, which is not required by Islam.  With veils in Egypt becoming increasingly transparent and cloaks becoming more seductive, veiling per se was not necessarily an expression of modesty.  The idea and practice of hijab had lost its original meaning.


Badran, says "The veil was clearly more than an emblem of modesty.  It was a symbol of the harem culture designed to keep women contained and subordinate, and ultimately for this reason patriarchalists supported veiling.  However, as feminists recognized, the practice  was on its way out; with time and resocializing of the rising generation, it would disappear-until its resurrection, albeit in a different form, at the end of the twentieth century." (Ibid p.69)


In 1937 the Fatwa Committee of  al-Azhar issued a ruling declaring that  the Hanafi School of jurisprudence did not  oppose unveiling and the Maliki school did not require veiling. (Ibid, p. 93).


There are some Muslim countries, most notably Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan, that have sought to implement Islamic law, and whose interpretation of Islamic law is that every sin should also be a crime. This is a distortion of Islam. As stated at the beginning of this section, it violates one of Islam's most basic tenets: "There is no compulsion in the religion." And the evidence in the hadiths clearly shows that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) never implemented the Quran and Sunna this way. His is the example Muslims should follow.

The fact is, if a woman fails to cover her hair, it doesn't harm anyone. This is because men are commanded (in Surah an-Nur verse 30) to look away from what they are not allowed to see. When a woman came before the Prophet (pbuh) in revealing clothing, he didn't arrest her or beat her or take any other actions that the "religious police" of Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Afghanistan would do. Instead, he merely advised her that God had commanded women not to display themselves in public except for their faces and hands. With the example of the Prophet (pbuh) to follow, no Muslim who is sincerely committed to his or her religion would ever force a woman to wear hijab or make failure to wear hijab a crime under the law. It's as simple as that.



The hijab: A symbol of dignity, propriety and women's modesty 2


Basically, there is no binding prescription for the veil in Islamic law, but there are suggestions, as in the 33rd verse of the Holy Quran: "Oh Prophet, say to thy wives, and thy daughters, and the women folk of the believers, that they let down some part of their mantles over them, that is suitable for their being recognised and not insulted" (33:59). 

In another verse, "And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty, that they should not display their beauty and charms except what (normally) appears of them, that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and display their beauty only to their husbands, their fathers" (24:31).

This verse is interpreted as evidence of the exhortation to Muslim women to veil themselves.  Accordingly, the hijab became a basic practice for all Muslim women. Moreover, it represents a symbol of women's dignity; a cover that shelters them from the public's eyes. This is the wisdom behind the hijab.

In Islamic literature, nothing more illustrates the interaction of Quranic prescription and customary practices than the development of the hijab and seclusion (harem) of women. Both are believed to be customs assimilated from the conquered Persian and Byzantine societies and viewed as appropriate expressions of Quranic norms and values. The connection between the hijab and the seclusion appeared only when, during Muslim conquests of Persia and India, many noble women went into seclusion as a sign of prestige.

Opponents of the veil, however, claim that the Holy Quran does not stipulate the veil or seclusion. On the contrary, it tends to encourage women's active participation in the public life and emphasizes equal religious responsibility of both sexes. They also point out that while on pilgrimage (ritual consecration) men and women are required to uncover their face and hands. 
Muslim jurists interpret the imposition of the veil as a way to shelter and protect women from being exposed to the public glare. In fact, the  concept of  the veil already existed in countries that were conquered by Muslims, and where the veil was considered a symbol of class distinction. It was the right of free women to wear it. In contrast, the slave who did this was liable to be punished. When Islam arrived, it imposed the hijab as a common practice for all female believers, regardless of their status. In fact, in Islam modesty is required of both sexes.

Through the years, the concept of the hijab went through certain stages of development, according to the nature of the society where it was worn and according to the time in which it was adopted.  Although it is not specified in Islam, the hijab's color has also developed over the years, according to the area in which it is worn and the status of those wearing it.

Black seems to be favoured by noble women and by those from the upper strata of society. It represents women's propriety and dignity.   With the spread of Islam, the custom of wearing the veil spread quickly.

In fact, it became the most visible sign of religion in secular societies. It was this sign that some secular societies found alarming. Although it might be seen as purely internal issue, France's action has many implications.  The most serious of all is the standpoint, which interprets this action as a part of the so-called "clash of civilizations". Muslim communities worldwide viewed France's action as hostile and irresponsible one that could affect the lives and freedom of millions of Muslim women in France.

It also affects the mere concept of France's values and what it stands for, as far as human dignity and freedom are concerned.  France, which is multi-cultural and one of Europe's freest societies, has chosen to adopt a strict law that deprives some of its citizens of their rights.

Although France's action is criticized by many human rights groups, who see it as a breach of civil liberties, the French Parliament went ahead and approved it, thus creating a rift between France and millions of Muslims worldwide. It also affected the image of France as a free society in the eyes of many, including some westerners.  By adopting such a law, France has opened the way for other European countries to follow suit. Whether France's action has far-reaching political implications or not remains to be seen.




1. Feminists, Islam, and Nation by Margot Badran, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1995

2. Fatma Al Sayegh: The hijab: A symbol of dignity, propriety and women's modesty Articles/opinion.asp?ArticleID=111519

 Special to Gulf News  20/02/2004

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