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The Essay: Jilbab and Niqab


Thursday, 13 March 2008 

I knew the issue had to come up eventually...I don't like writing too many lecture-like and serious posts here (Allah knows I get enough of this during the day!), but I felt I had to do this sometime. I also apologize for the lengthiness, but complex issues require proper explanation.

As you've probably realised, I don't wear jilbab/abaya or niqab. I wear 'Western' (shock, horror!) loose fitting, modest clothing with a scarf to cover my hair. My personal boundaries are such: I wear jeans, but only boot-cut or wide leg, and if I am wearing trousers, then I'll wear a long top over them, which comes at least to wear the trouser begins to flare or loosen. I wear ankle-length skirts, with shorter tops, though still past the waist. I don't yank my hijab over my chest all the time, as I usually wear loose tops anyway. This is what I am comfortable with, and this is what I believe satisfies Islam's requirements for dress.

Yet as with all things, there are those for whom I'm just 'not good enough'. They try to tell me that I should be covered in a black abaya, with a large khimar over my chest at all times. Some will even specify that the head covering must come all the way down to the elbows too (not bothering to actually tell me where they got this interpretation from). Others yet will try to convince me that covering my face is compulsory (click
here to see why it is not so).

I don't believe that jilbab is fard (and neither do many scholars, see one example
here). Many people will often quote verse 33:59 from the Quran which mentions jilbab to try to argue that it is compulsory. This is a huge misunderstanding. The only reason jilbab is mentioned, is because that was what women wore at that place, and at that time. We couldn't very well ask them to make their shalwaar kameez a little longer and looser now could we? The Quran needs to be read in context. You cannot just push a verse or two and think that is the whole story.

Furthermore, we should also be aware of the tafseer of many scholars regarding where the ayah says '..that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested...'. 'That they should be known' was actually meant to distinguish free women from slave women at the time, who were being molested in the streets. So it is as clear as day that the ayah is not actually saying that we should all wear jilbab, rather it is a particular command at a particular time, and does not mean that jilbab is fard for all women.

Another frequently quoted ayah is 24:31 'draw their veils over their bosoms'. Again, this needs to be seen in context. Many women at the time used to walk around in clothing which was split at the front, and so exposed the chest. They would also wear scarves loosely on their heads, which didn't cover properly. So the ayah is asking them to used their head coverings 'khimars' to cover their exposed chests. We can see that this is a very particular command. It does not mean that women at all times, and all places must wear their head scarves down over their chests. If the clothing is loose enough to cover the chest by itself, then that is sufficient. If not, then by all means draw your scarf over your chest. Simple.

As long as your clothing fits the requirements, i.e. covers everything except for face, hands (and some say feet), is loose so as not to show the figure, is not transparent, and is not worn out of arrogance, or is overly flashy, anything goes - be it tudung, shalwar kameez or jeans. There are no limitations on colour either. Women at the time of the Prophet (s) used to wear greens, reds and yellows, and he allowed that. So much for those who tell me that black is the only 'halal colour'!

So why don't I wear abaya, seeing at is satisfies the requirements, as do other forms of dress? The short answer: I don't want to! But I know this warrants a longer explanation. Firstly, I don't want to dress like a foreigner in Britain. I don't want to look too out of place, but still want to be identified as a Muslim (hence the headscarf). Jilbab is particular to one culture (i.e. Arab), but covering our hair is mandated by our religion. We should not make ourselves unnecessarily different from the community we live in, and Islam does not impose one country's dress over another.

I also do not wear jilbab because in my field, it looks very unprofessional and out of place. It's also a health hazard, and simply not appropriate for running around in. (And yes, I have tried it!)

As for the niqab, I would simply never cover my face. My face is my identity. It is the window to my emotions, feelings and opinions. If I covered my face, I would lose my identity in the public sphere, and I wouldn't be able to do the job that I want to do. I didn't work hard for years to throw it all away. Niqab is not fard for Muslim women. It was only so for the Mothers of the Believers. The Prophet (s) never ordered other women to cover their faces, and there are many hadith that show women with uncovered faces in the presence of the Prophet (s). Many people will say that we should emulate the Prophet's wives, that they were the best women. There is no doubt that they were women of superior character, but that does not mean we follow them in every literal action. If that were so, we should be sleeping on straw mats in mud brick houses.

Why do many Muslims today focus so much on superficial actions, and forget about the spirit of Islam? Islam is not wrap yourself up head to toe in black sheets. Islam is respect yourself, and those around you, be gentle to them, guide them with your good actions.

Hence another reason I don't wear niqab is that it is a barrier between me and the rest of society. I've heard those that claim otherwise, and frankly I'm not convinced. At a recent talk I went to, the non-Muslim members of the audience were asked to say what they thought of veiled women. The responses were, as expected, negative: unapproachable, closed-off, isolated, aggressive. This is not the kind of image I want to be giving people of Islam. I enjoy smiling at people I see, saying hello. How can I do this if I wear niqab? Facial expressions are essential to good communication, to having a meaningful interaction with another person. Again I lose out on this if my face is covered. I don't have the chance to let them get to know Muslims, especially women, who are so frequently surrounded my misconceptions.

Thirdly, whilst this might seem silly at first, niqab is a security threat. You could be anyone under there! Remember the incident of the Imam of the Red Mosque in Pakistan escaping under a burkha? Read about it here. As one friend told me 'I can't recognise my own mother in a group of women in niqab'. So how do we deal with situations where you need to prove your identity, such as universities, banks and airports? Obviously this cannot be done when your face is hidden. Niqab is not friendly, it's not approachable, and it's a risk. I don't want to be part of it.

And finally, though I know this is not a primary purpose of wearing hijab, I think it's quite important, and often neglected. By wearing stylish, modest Western clothing, I am helping to make modesty appeal to non-Muslims. So whilst most of them would not want to wear jilbab, they appreciate that you can look good whilst covering up, hopefully changing the attitude that the only way to look good is to show skin.

So in conclusion, I feel that often more harm than good will arise from wearing jilbab and niqab, but this all depends on the environment you are living in. Will I wear jilbab in the UK? No. Will I wear it in Saudi? Absolutely.

I look forward to reading your responses.

Posted by Hayah[image]



Vanessa Fatima said...

Very well written sister. You made really good points and the environment that one is in most definitely should be taken into consideration.

"My face is my identity. It is the window to my emotions, feelings and opinions. If I covered my face, I would lose my identity in the public sphere"

"...they appreciate that you can look good whilst covering up, hopefully changing the attitude that the only way to look good is to show skin."

I vehemently agree!

14 March 2008 01:07 daphy said...

i generally agree with you :) and also, remember that saying something is haram while it is not is haram... i don't know why people can be so careless to just claim something is haram without proper knowledge/reference of it.

as for niqab... i myself won't wear it, generally because i would like to show my face. however i do think one can pretty well express her emotion without face showing. eyes, behaviors, actions, languages, are all good enough; i might not be able to recognize my mom a group of niqab women, but i'll definitely catch her once she starts to talk or to move :)

i don't like to wear niqab, but i respect and admire sisters who wear niqab...

14 March 2008 01:56 Organic-Muslimah said...

I used to wear niqab for a while. It's sorta cool to walk-in a department store and get all the stares.

What I hated most about it was how de-attached I felt from the world. It's like it took away from my vision. Mind you, some people I know have worn it forever and don't seem to have my problem. I am just not a niqab kind of girl.

14 March 2008 02:01 Organic-Muslimah said...

P.S: I discourage sisters from wearing niqab in the West. That's just my personal opinion.

14 March 2008 02:02 Alixianna said...

I live in an abaya and in my professional work enviroment it fits in just fine (I am entirely Western here in Canada LOL). It does not work though, for running around. That why they have salweer kameez sort of outfits in Oman in the mountains, and loose beduoin robes in the desert. Women always comment that my jilbabs are elegent, but they are afraid of black niqab. Not pink niqab though---everyone wants to hear what you're saying. But people still are distanced from you when you wear niqab, I do agree with that feeling the few times I have worn it. 

14 March 2008 02:42 M. Landers said...

There are many things I appreciate about niqab. But my biggest reason for not wearing it myself is connected to your preference for clear facial expression -- namely that I have young children. While I know a lot of mothers wear niqab with no apparent problems, I just can't imagine trying to make myself clear to my children in any situation in which it might be difficult to hear. And anyone who has ever tried to regularly navigate urban street markets knows those occasions are not rare. Someday I'll have to ask niqabi mothers how they do it ...

14 March 2008 03:05 Organic-Muslimah said...

Alexianna, I've also had people (most older women) admire my jilbabs and appreciate them :-)

14 March 2008 04:45 Anonymous said...

Very well written, Hayah. Some Muslims think those who wear niqab are.. Oh-my-god-so-religious. No offense to niqabi's, but I'm just sayin that the one's I've met judge you by what you wear. Like.. Western: I don't wanna talk to you. Potato Sack: You're worth it.
I like pretty abayya's though. Like Alixianna said, some of them look really professional too. But like you said, it's not religion, its culture. And there is nothing wrong with following any culture as long as you stay within the rules of Islam.
I once saw this lady at a store... who was wearing like really tight a** jeans and a really tight shirt that didn't even cover her waist.. and to top it off, A HIJAB. (

**Whoops.. I'm cursing.. excuse me. Saawwwwyyyy :-D.
sigh~ Still practicing to get over them...

14 March 2008 04:50 Firdaus said...

Assalamualaikum, was just blog hopping ! And came across yr blog.

Firstly, mashallah and thank you for all the post here. I really like them. =)Will definitely visit this site often, insyallah.

And as for this post, eventhough i am not a niqabi/jilbabi/abaya wearing muslimah. But i do dress modestly alhamdullilah. But I do not have anything against those who do wear niqab, as at the end of the day they are doing it for the extra hasanah from Allah swt.

Really love what you mentioned here " Many people will say that we should emulate the Prophet's wives, that they were the best women. There is no doubt that they were women of superior character, but that does not mean we follow them in every literal action. If that were so, we should be sleeping on straw mats in mud brick houses " !

Okie enough of my blab b4 i go about creating a small post here.

Thanks for the lovely post once again.

yr sister in Islam

14 March 2008 05:16 Anonymous said...

What an insightful blog! I couldn't agree with your sentiments more!
I don't think any of us need to apologize or make excuses as to why we choose NOT to wear Abaya or Jelbab. Simply not wanting to wear them is as noble a reason as any. We are peoples of different races, cutural backgrounds and PREFERENCES. We are not meant to be clones of one another. Imagine every Muslimah in a black Abaya...scarry. Allah is Merciful and Just. As long as you are covered modestly you have no need to worry. Sisters don't be afraid of colors, styles and textures! Remember that the way you carry yourself is just as important as what you wear.

14 March 2008 05:18 Anonymous said...

i agree also with what you said its really well written, i have worn niqab once or twice and for a few years but i just felt like the other person it leaves you detached and a smile is a charity but many of my close friends do wear niqab and i respect them for it as its become really difficult in this kind of anti muslim atmosphere, yesterday i spent a lot of time on flikr looking at pictures of morocco and couldnt believe how colorful everything was its really changed how i view things i dont thing we all have to wear black but i guess its just easier to wear, by the way i love your blog, take care

14 March 2008 09:12 Hayah said...

Wow so many responses already!

Thank you all for your considerate comments, I was truly worried that I'd get flamed straight away!

Just to clarify a few things: I agree, some abayas are absolutely stunning, and I do like to wear them to special events to celebrate my heritage, or at home when we have guests, or to the mosque, but I just don't find them suitable for everyday use. And I don't ascribe to the school of thought that somehow jilbab is a 'higher form' of dressing.

Also M. Landers made a good point which I missed, that if you are out and about with young children in a crowded place, it can very difficult to get their attention/run after them in a dangerous situation.

Also the reason I said they look unprofessional (and this is taken from the opinion of Western people), is that it is too 'ethnic' and too 'religious' if you see what I mean. The same goes for salwaar kameez. It's bad enough with hijab, without compounding the issue further with jilbab - a lot of emphasis is placed on separating your personal beliefs from your duties in the field I am in. People have a lot of hang-ups with regards to clothing in the UK!

Also to Firdaus,

I know women in niqab believe they are getting hasanat, but the idea was to question, does it really? As in, will we be rewarded more for doing an unnecessary action, which often drives people away, as opposed to making people more comfortable with Muslims? I hate to say this, but the women I know who wear niqab in the UK are cut off from non-Muslims. Yes they work, but in an Islamic company. Yes they go out to visit friends, but they are all Muslim too. The only way to change people's perception of Islam is to interact them - a smile goes a long way!

Of course I respect all women regardless of what they wear, some of the females who are close to me wear niqab, some wear mini skirts, and I love them all.

Remember, Islam is the middle way. Balance is key.

14 March 2008 10:19 Sofi said...

To play the devil's advocate, if you can take quotes from the quraan and claim its about context (for eg: in reference to wearing a jilbab or covering your chest area ) and what happened at the time, then surely, one can also argue that covering the head is not necessary either ?

One of the comments from an Anonymous commentor was actually amusing. I quote:

"…..No offense to niqabi's, but I'm just sayin that the one's I've met judge you by what you wear. "

And then

"I once saw this lady at a store... who was wearing like really tight a** jeans and a really tight shirt that didn't even cover her waist.. and to top it off, A HIJAB. (WTF!!!) "

Who are we to judge? Or is that part and parcel of where we would draw the line?

14 March 2008 11:19 Hayah said...

Good point Sofi,

However, it is not just the Quran we rely on, but the hadith as well. The Quran itself does not specifically say which parts we should cover, but the hadith do. And the hadith are clear that it applies to all Muslim women. This is not simply my opinion, but the opinion of trustworthy scholars.

14 March 2008 11:41 Anonymous said...

Even though I wear hijab I find myself staring at women with niqab on- I personally wouldn't want to wear niqab because I don't like the idea of drawing so much attention to myself.

I often make train and bus journeys by myself- I think I would feel more vulnerable wearing niqab; scared of being targeted by some people.

It took me a long time to get to the point of wearing hijab and it's still an ongoing process for me to dress more modestly.

14 March 2008 12:35 Kima - We Love Hijab said...

Very insightful post! I wish you could have called in to the show when I was on! :o)

Inshallah, I'll be making a page called "The Rules" for the
new site which will have to do with a lot of the points that you mentioned in this post. It's such a heated topic because there are so many different beliefs about what Muslim women have to wear.

I think that people tend to forget that Islam is a religion of moderation in the sense that we are not to be extreme. Saying that women must not be seen at all is extreme and saying that women should flaunt what they have is extreme. To me, the middle ground is following the rules on what
has to be covered and not focusing so much on what you use to cover it up... As long as you cover the proper body parts in the proper way, you're good.

14 March 2008 13:53 Anonymous said...

In our beautiful religion of Islam, we are told to be brothers and sisters of one another and not cause divisions in the religion.

Sadly, I feel that we have become so divided over this issue of how much to cover, when the real issue should be how to strenghten our iman.

I have always dressed modestly, even when I didn't wear hijab, but still I felt the inimity of those who wore hijab. Now that I wear hijab, along with my still modest "western wardrobe", I find that same kind of inimity from those who wear abayas and niqab.

In short, I feel that for some people, I'll never be good enough. But if you want more people to emulate you in your religion and the way you dress, you must be approachable.

I've had many people tell me that they would like to learn more about Islam, and would love to wear hijab seeing me. This makes me feel like I'm doing my part as a muslim spokesperson, and it makes me feel happy.

The final judge is Allah, and we are doing our best to please Him, regardless of what others may think. I love your blog, mash'allah. Not really sorry about the long post. :-)

14 March 2008 16:52 Anonymous said...

@ Sofi

Actually what I was trying to say there is.. if you wear TIGHT clothes then there is NO point of the hijab. I mean it would make more sense to wear tight clothes with no hijab.. cuz tight clothes and a hijab doesn't make any sense. What also disturbed me... is those girls were giggling really loud at some dude... if you get what I'm sayin. That was a bad representation of hijab. It makes non muslims think "hijab" is just this peice of cloth Muslim's wear on their head that's supposed to cover your hair... (for no reason at all.???)

u digg meh.. 

14 March 2008 23:05 Sara said...


Thanks for the post!
I agree almost completely, particularly with the point you've made clear in the comment:
"And I don't ascribe to the school of thought that somehow jilbab is a 'higher form' of dressing". Unfortunately in my home country, Iran, many have the same attitude towards the Persian version of jilbab, the chador.

I think that Sofi has brought up an important point, we should not be so judgmental. It's not easy, all of us find ourselves doing it at least once in a while, but we could at least be aware of it and try to control ourselves (isn't it a kind of jihad ul-akbar?).

I personally subscribe to the answer you have given to her, but there are some scholars (maybe not in the traditional sense, and rather controversial) that have come up with it being ok not to cover your hair even, based on taking the texts out of their contexts. There are also many muslim women who do not wear a hijab, but pray and fast and practice Islam in every other sense, how do we hijabis know that we are better muslims? Can anybody except Allah judge a person's "taghwa"?

If half of the effort that the Muslim world puts into obsessing about what women wear was put into strengthening the spirit of Islam (honesty, not backbiting, being kind and considerate, helping the weaker ones, ... shall I go on?), how better off would we have been in terms of "Iman"?
If it would have been put into "working", wouldn't there have been a smaller gap between the muslim world and the West?

Oh! I didn't mean to preach so much!
I wish you success, and keep up the good work!

14 March 2008 23:30 Sara said...

By "gap with the West", I mean in the economic sense.

BTW, you really used to wear niqab Organic? Wow, couldn't have guessed!

14 March 2008 23:34 DawnUK said...

Salaam Aleikum.

Al-hamdullilah! Someone who seems to think like me!

I find wearing hijab draws enough attention here in the UK let alone wearing abayah/niqab,and bearing in mind hijab is not suppose to draw attention to you I wear the minimum while still adhering to Islam,inshALLAH.

The world sees us all all a threat - but as my Mum says "if a headscarf is good enough for the Queen then its good enough for my daughter! (my Mum is not Muslim but IS very defensive of me mashALLAH. InshALLAH she will be one day.)

P.S. My latest order via your blog arrived today! Thank you!

14 March 2008 23:35 Ayesha said...

While I don't wear nikab or Jilbab myself, I admire women who do for gaining some extra hassanat. I have some family members who wear the nikab and a friend who does as well. I don't agree that nikab cuts you off from the rest of the world. I think that depends on your personality and how open you choose to be. You could totally blend in by not wearing hijab/nikab/jilbab and be totally invisible and unheard of, but also one could be a hijabi/nikabi who is very outspoken and heard. Some of my most outspoken,confident, articulate, and elouquent friends wear jilbab/nikab. They do an excellent job explaining to non-muslims who are curious about islam, and I honestly wish I could be more like them and the way they express themselves. Anyways I guess my point is we should join together regardless of whether we wear nikab/jilbab/hijab or whatever and not separate ourselves as sisters based on what we wear. Whatever we are do or choose to wear, we are doing so for Allah, and inshallah we will be rewarded for it.

15 March 2008 03:34 Hayah said...

Thanks everyone for your comments!


Yes there are some 'scholars' who say that you don't even need to cover your hair, but I've studied what they have written, and to be honest they have no proof at all to back what they are saying. They also usually tend to be apologetics, and go to the extreme in watering-down Islam. The middle way is always best.
And of course it's not our place to judge our sisters on their Iman, that is for Allah (swt) alone.


I guess I just don't see the point in wearing nikab whatsoever. Why should women have to be hidden away from head to toe, but men are free to walk around in their jeans and t-shirts?

And yes there are some outspoken nikabis, but tbh they are so few and far between. I just don't understand why they feel the need to cover their faces for. It's really difficult to form a connection with someone if you can't see them when they are talking to you. And what about vulnerable elderly people. They gt intimidated by people in sunglasses and hoodies, so what about niqab?

We also forget about people who have hearing problems and learning difficulties, and need to rely on facial expressions and lip movements to understand what someone is saying.

And I'm still wondering why no one commented about the security aspect of niqab? Is it an issue? If you do wear niqab, how do you get around it?

15 March 2008 10:35 Umm Salihah said...

Salaams Sister,
I understand what you are saying about feeling judged by people who wear niqab. I wear abaya and have worked in central and local government, it has never held me back and I have never felt unprofessional (I wear it with a smart bag and heels and have often been told I look elegant - I also try to avoid black as it seems to scare people). Saying this though, as a Hijab-wearer I do feel you have to be very good and work very hard to get past stereotypes about hijab/abaya-wearing women.

I have tried niqab before (in Saudi) and found the hardest thing was people couldn't see me smile at them, other women didn't warm to me as quickly, they assumed I would be strict or judge them - so as a very noisy, friendly person, I don't think its for me.

I don't feel its my place to judge sisters whether they wear hijab or not or whether they dress tight. In the past I have found that if I am open and try to be non-judgemental people will come to me ans ask questions and even ask for help in how to start wearing hijab.

P.S. I love your site, I have been visiting Sis Kima's We Love Hijab, and this is great because the stuff is mostly English and also lots of it is high street.

15 March 2008 15:45 Aalia Always said...

Asalaam 3alaikum wa ra7matullahi wa barakato:-D

Came by from my girl Alix's Blog--she said u had nice stuff... Awesome post but I will have to respectfully disagree about whether the jilbab/3abaya has any place in Islamic dress--but that doesn't mean I look down on my Sisters who don't wear it! Me personally, I generally wear jilbab or 3abaya but some days I will go out with a long shirt and a skirt. The one thing I cannot stand seeing is a 7ijabi who is wearing TIGHT BOOTY JEANS, or HALF-HEAD 7IJAB which covers the hair but shows the neck etc. I'ts like oo0ookay LoL!

Salaam 3alaikum wa ra7matullahi wa barakato:-D

16 March 2008 02:43 Anonymous said...

Agreed with "aalia always" ... about the "The one thing I cannot stand seeing is a 7ijabi who is wearing TIGHT BOOTY JEANS, or HALF-HEAD 7IJAB which covers the hair but shows the neck etc. I'ts like oo0ookay LoL!" part. That's the point I was trying to make earlier... :-D

16 March 2008 03:24 Alixianna said...

I like niqab when I feel strong and don't want to be messed with: when I just want to walk and not be stared at: people stare at my hijab already and sometimes I like the idea of preventing people from seeing me---they can stare but they don't see. It is very personal.

16 March 2008 03:47 Naeemah said...

I agree with what Alix just said. Niqab is very personal, and I like the fact that no one can see me and my body. It's precious to me and I like to protect it to the fullest. I just feel very special with niqab. And to have to courage to wear it in these days and times takes alot. I like to be covered! I don't think that just b/c you wear niqab means that you are now 'hidden from the world' and have no mouth and no feelings to express. People can see the smile in your eyes:) You can still be fun and dramatic in your gestures and let people know that you are normal and like to have fun. There are some niqabis I who are the loudest sisters I know:) (i mean that in a good way) they are outspoken, and just beautiful sisters mashAllah. but just b/c of how I dress, doesn't mean I put down other muslimas who, for instance, wear jeans and tunic tops. It's called sisterhood people:) and I don't think clothes should get in the way of that. Let's just all embrace the diversity between us all and inshAllah we will all have the ultimate sisterhood. really sisters, we can't afford to be fighting amongst ourselves.
Nice topic of discussion Hayah:) Jazakilla,

16 March 2008 15:33 KAV-Z said...

I was ewxpecting to read such negative comments against ur post hayah! ALhumdulillah everyone has been civil.
Im a hijab wearing sister in london (altho i would like to move onto jilbab soon!)
In terms of islamic clothing I think we shud wear something that is suitable for the environment whilst maintaining islamic etiquette.

16 March 2008 20:12 terrylynne said...

As Hayah said "Remember, Islam is the middle way. Balance is key."

That is what we all need to keep in mind in all areas of life. Allah did not set out to make our lives as difficult as he could, he wishes only to challenge and test us. The middle path is the path of the muslim; there are no extremes in Islam. Fee Iman illah. 

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