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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 17 Feb 2022, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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On The Hijab Controversy

By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam

17 February 2022

Hijab Is Not Just Religious Clothing for a Muslim Female but Also a Standard of Female Modesty

Main Points: 

1.    Hijab is observed not by only Muslim women but also by Christian nuns, several Hindu women etc.

2.    The veil was also worn by the upper-class women in Europe.

3.    In the not-too-distant past, the lower-class women were not allowed to cover up their breasts and were fined or severely punished if they tried to do so.


Representative Photo: from the files


Hijab is not just religious clothing for a Muslim female but also a standard of female modesty which is observed not by only Muslim women but also by Christian nuns, several Hindu women etc. In the past, the veil was also worn by the upper-class women in Europe. While public decency and order may require what may necessarily be covered, it is obscene to require what must be exposed by the female if her sense of modesty requires it to be covered up.

In the not-too-distant past, the lower-class women were not allowed to cover up their breasts and were fined or severely punished if they tried to do so. There are women who resent the fact that the men can expose their upper bodies while they are forced to cover up their breasts in public places. Going by today's standards of acceptable behaviour, it would be outrageous to demand that the women also not cover their breasts in swimming pools etc. although many women may favour such a rule. This is because there are still many who don't. There may come a time when the women who have inhibitions about exposing their breasts are few when such a rule may also be imposed.

In principle, no rule or law should be held valid that requires a woman to expose any part of her body that her sense of modesty requires covering up. It is not for others to decide what she should expose while rules of public order and decency may dictate what a person should necessarily cover up.

When the Quran says “let there be no compulsion in religion” (Verse 2:256), it can be argued that nothing in Islam is essential as there is no compulsion in anything! However, what this means is that no one shall compel another in matters of religion or everyone is free to follow their religion according to their understanding of it. Nothing can be forced by anyone on another. The test of essentiality is therefore flawed. Every person has the right to follow religion according to their understanding of it as long as doing so does not harm others.

Representative Photo


The arguments being reported are disappointing such as the logical fallacy of false equivalence when comparing wearing of hijab with carrying of arms! Arif Mohammed Khan’s argument that only what has come to be known as the five pillars of Islam are essential to Islam displays his ignorance of Islam. The five pillars come from theology and not from the Quran. The Quran is a complete code of moral living covering every facet of life and all the codes are essential for the Muttaqi or the conscientious Muslim for achieving success in this life and the Hereafter. The Hijab (not the Burqa), as practiced by Muslim women all over the world through the ages, conforms to the explicit code for female modesty in verse 24:31, as commonly understood. It matters little that those with their own agendas may like to interpret the verse differently. They are free to follow their own understanding in their own life.

I heard a seventy-year-old gentleman argue in a TV debate that in his time, the Muslim female students did not wear hijab in his class. He didn’t say which college he attended. That was a time when female participation in college education was very low and that of Muslim women even lower. Moreover, Muslim women preferred going to only girl/women school/colleges and rarely to a co-ed school/college.  It is understandable that those who didn’t mind going to a co-ed college or preferred doing so didn’t practice purdah in the past.

In the past decade, the participation of Muslim women in higher education has doubled and this wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t shed the inhibition of attending co-ed schools/colleges. It is the freedom to wear a hijab that has drawn many of these girls out of their homes, and if this is disallowed, it would be a retrogressive step and force many of them back into their homes. This will do more harm than good to the cause of progress and modernity. Let the women freely choose to wear what they are comfortable with.

Representative Photo: From the Files


While some women may be forced to wear hijab because of prevailing patriarchal attitudes, this is not true in every case. Many women have chosen to wear hijab because it gives them the freedom to move about freely without which they would be inhibited and stay indoors. In my own family, my mother-in-law never wore a hijab and my wife didn’t until she was 25. I was taken by surprise when she suddenly started wearing Burqa. This was after our children started going to school and she had to step out of the house very often. I persuaded her to give up the Burqa as that made me uncomfortable but then she adopted the hijab and has stuck with it. I know of many women who didn’t wear hijab until they took up a job or when their going out often became necessary. The Hijab gives such women freedom and is liberating. I dare say, that if the hijab had not become as closely identified as religious clothing of Muslim women, many non-Muslim women may also have adopted it and found it equally liberating.

In my opinion, the courts should have ordered restoration of the status quo ante rather than forbidding hijab until further orders which amount to keeping the hijab wearing girls out of the schools/colleges. This is unfortunate as many girls have had to miss writing their exams. I hope good sense prevails and we stop dictating to the women what they should expose.



Relevant Quranic Verses on the Subject of Hijab

The relevant verses are reproduced below and explained. The part of the verse that covers head covering for Muslim women is verse 24:31.

 وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ

This means: do not display their adornment (Zeenat) except what is apparent and let them draw their head cover (Bikhumurihinna) over their bosoms ……

The word Khumuri to mean a part of the dress is used only once in the Quran. The Khimara according to the Arabic-English Lexicon by Edward William Lane, is “A woman’s muffler, or veil, with which she covers her head and the lower part of her face, leaving exposed only the eyes and part or whole of the nose: Such is the Khimara worn in the present day.

The word used in the Quran is not Khimara but Khumuri which means a head covering and could also mean a man’s turban according to Lane’s lexicon. The word used in the Quran therefore certainly means a head covering but not necessarily what has come to be known as Khimara today. The head covering or Khumuri of the woman is required to not only cover her head but also the جُيُوبِهِنَّ or the bosom according to verse 24:31. The Khumuri is undoubtedly a head covering. This verse is binding on Muslim women. There is no element of discretion here.

We are aware of the phrase "A woman's hair is her crowning glory" and the number of verses on a woman's hair/Zulf in poetry. So, besides the Khumuri being a headcover that is required to be long enough to cover the bosom also, the requirement of covering her Zeenat doubly reinforces the need to cover the head also.

The word hijab has been used in the Quran in several verses to mean a screen that hides completely the object that is required to be screened. In the context of women, it is used only once in verse 33:53.

ۚ وَإِذَا سَأَلْتُمُوهُنَّ مَتَاعًا فَاسْأَلُوهُنَّ مِن وَرَاءِ حِجَابٍ ۚ ذَٰلِكُمْ أَطْهَرُ لِقُلُوبِكُمْ وَقُلُوبِهِنَّ ۚ

And when ye ask (the Prophet’s wives) for anything ye want, ask them from before a screen: that makes for greater purity for your hearts and for theirs.

Why has it been used only for the Prophet’s wives? That is because the Prophet was a public figure and many men visited his home to clarify their doubts and consult him on issues. The Prophet was not always at home and his wives, therefore, had to necessarily interact with the strangers. Why is the Quran prescribing a screen in such a situation and what does it mean by saying that the screen makes for greater purity for “your hearts and theirs”? This is because of human nature. "Both men and women show signs of being programmed to be monogamous in a certain way and promiscuous in a certain way.  We don't say men and women always opt for short-term strategies, what we are talking about is that when they go for infidelity or promiscuity, men focus on large numbers and women focus on quality." (David P. Schmitt, PhD, Bradley University, team leader of the International Sexuality Description Project. The project's findings appear in the July 2003 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.)

The common man does not have the same problem as a public figure. By analogy, this verse would apply equally to others who are public figures whose women have to necessarily interact with strangers on a regular basis. So, if a woman chooses to cover herself fully when she goes out in public, that is her choice and in the spirit of this verse. Who can deny that a woman fully covered is safer from situations that lead to casual promiscuity?  The full covering is a matter of discretion and optional. It cannot be made mandatory and should be left fully to the woman’s choice.

The Head covering which is large enough to cover the bosom is mandatory for a Muslim woman as per verse 24:31. However, there is no compulsion in religion as per verse 2:256. A believing woman (Momina) may or may not choose to be a practicing woman (Muslima), but for a believing woman who also wants to become a Muttaqi or a conscientious Muslim, it is mandatory.

Notes: Momin means a believer in the Quran. The Quranic verses address the Momin on what they need to practise to become a Muslim. There isn’t a single verse that addresses the Muslims because by definition a Muslim is one who submits completely to Allah or one who practices what the Quran enjoins and refrain from what it prohibits. 

A Muslim is a Momin who practices the Quranic code of life. A Muslim is a practicing Momin. There is no such thing as a non-practicing Muslim. "Non-practicing Muslim" is an oxymoron. You can have a non-practicing Momin however.

The shedding of Khumuri or head covering by the believing women will make them non-practising Momina to the extent of their dress and therefore deficient as Muslims.

There is no secular subject such as philosophy, psychology, or sociology that deals with the requirements and purposes of modesty and the most appropriate way of covering the human body. It is religion alone that does that. So, without religion, subject to the weather permitting, we may have gone around stark naked. Keep that in mind. Even if you are an atheist, your sense of shame/modesty as well as all your moral values derive from religion.

The design of clothes that conform to the religious norms became part of the culture of a people/region and one culture influenced another. The Ghoonghat or the covering of the head and the face is not prescribed in Hinduism but an influence of Muslim culture. The veil covering the face is not prescribed in the Quran but an influence of Christian culture. The wearing of bangles and Mangal Sutra by married Muslim women is in turn influenced by Hindu culture. Tribes that went naked learnt to cover themselves when they came into contact with “civilization”. The prevailing cultural norms of modesty were incorporated into the Civil Law of nations.

The sense of shame is not what children are born with and they are unaware of their nakedness until they are made aware of it by their elders after which they cover themselves and are able to experience shame when their naked body is exposed. Modesty/shame is learned behaviour.

 When people move away from religion, the norms loosen and nudity becomes acceptable as is happening in the “Christian West”, although, their religious norms are far more onerous than in Islam as shown below:

 Norms in Christianity

The requirement of covering of the head by women is covered by Corinthians 11:2–16. Genesis 3:21, Exodus 20:26 and Exodus 28:42–43 deal with covering the body.

Apostolic Tradition commands: "let all the women have their heads covered with an opaque cloth, not with a veil of thin linen, for this is not a true covering." Although this practice has waned in some parts of the world, such as in North America, it is commonplace in other regions, such as Eastern Europe and South Asia.

The early Church stressed the importance of modesty in the practice of Christianity, with early Church Father Clement of Alexandria teaching:

Woman and man are to go to church decently attired, ……, pure in body, pure in heart, fit to pray to God. Let the woman observe this, further. Let her be entirely covered, unless she happens to be at home. For that style of dress is grave, and protects from being gazed at. And she will never fall, who puts before her eyes modesty, and her shawl; nor will she invite another to fall into sin by uncovering her face. For this is the wish of the Word, since it is becoming for her to pray veiled.” (Wikipedia)

 For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. Corinthians 11:6

Without religion, we may not have had any sense of shame while exposing our naked bodies. The norms for covering our nakedness have primarily come from religion. Then came culture and intercultural influences which influenced norms of modesty incorporated in civil law. It, therefore, does not matter whether an individual’s sense of modesty is governed by his/her religion, culture, prevailing social norms or civil law. He/she is entitled to cover any part of the body that his/her sense of modesty requires to be covered subject to certain reasonable restrictions for the purpose of security such as not covering up the face when the person needs to be identified.

This is a video from Firozabad (UP) which shows random people being interviewed on the streets. Several Hindu women have their heads and bosom covered in the manner described in 24:31.

Look at any of the videos covering the electorate and you will find many Hindu women covering their heads and bosom as Muslim women do.


A frequent contributor to, Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He has spent years studying Quran in-depth and made seminal contributions to its interpretation.



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