By Sadat A. Khan
Long before Islam, veiling and seclusion appear to have existed in the Hellenistic Byzantine era and among the Assyrians of Persia. In ancient Mesopotamia, the veil for women was regarded as a sign of respectability and high status. Decent married women wore the veil to distinguish themselves from women slaves and unchaste women, indeed, the later were forbidden to cover head or hair. In Assyrian law, harlots and slaves were forbidden to veil and those caught illegally veiling were liable to severe penalties. Thus veiling was not simply to mark aristocracy but to distinguish “respectable” women from disreputable ones. Evidence from its usage in the Qur’an and from early Islamic feminist discourse, as well as anthropological analysis, supports the notion of hijab in Islam as referring to a sacred divide or separation between two worlds or two spaces ,deity and mortals, men and women, good and evil, light and dark, believers and non believers, or aristocracy and commoners.
By dressing this way in public these women translate their vision of Islamic ideas into live contemporary models. Encoded in the dress style is a new public modesty that reaffirms an Islamic identity and morality as it rejects Western materialism, commercialism, and values. The English term “veil” is commonly used to refer to Middle Eastern women’s traditional head, face or body covers, but in fact it has no single equivalent in Arabic. Instead, different terms refer to diverse articles of women’s clothing that vary according to region and era. Some of these Arabic terms are burqua, abayah, tarhah, burnus, jilbah, and milayah. Over garments such as the “abayah” of the Arabia and the “burnus” of the Maghrib tend to be very similar for both sexes.
Origin: Islam did not introduce veiling or seclusion to the Arab region, nor are these institutions indigenous to Arabs. Strict seclusion enforced by eunuchs and the veiling of women were fully in place in Byzantine society some evidence indicates that in the south western Arab region, only two clan ( the Banu Isma’il and Banu Qahtan ) may have practiced some form of female veiling in pre- Islamic times. No seclusion or veiling existed in ancient Egypt either, although according to one reference some women may have been using a head veil in public in the later period, during the reign of Remises III (20th dynasty ) .
Long before Islam, veiling and seclusion appear to have existed in the Hellenistic-Byzantine era and among the Assyrians of Persia. In ancient Mesopotamia, the veil for the women was regarded as a sign of Respectability and high status. Decent married women wore the veil to distinguish themselves from women slaves and unchaste women indeed, the later were forbidden to cover head or hair. In Assyrian law, harlots and slaves were forbidden to veil, and those caught veiling were liable to severe penalties. Thus veiling was not simply to mark aristocracy but to distinguish “respectable” women from disreputable ones.
Successive invasions brought into contact the Greeks, Persians, and Mesopotamian empires and the Semitic people of the regions. The practices of veiling and seclusion of women appear subsequently to have become established in Judaic and Christian systems. Gradually these spread to Arabs of the urban upper classes and eventually to the general urban public.
At the time of the birth of Christianity Jewish women were veiling the head and face. Biblical evidence of veiling can be found in Genesis 24.65, “And Rebecca lifted up her eyes and when she saw Issac...she took her veil and covered herself,” in Isaiah 3.23 “In that day the lord will take away the finery of the anklets …the headdress…and the veils,” and in I Corinthian 11.37, “Any woman who prays with her head unveiled dishonors her head it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil.
Herself then she should cut off her hair, but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shaven let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.”
In medieval Egypt, public segregation of the sexes existed among Jewish Egyptians, women and men entered their temples from separate doors. Evidence suggests also that Jewish women of that period veiled their faces.
Veiling of Arab Muslim urban women became more pervasive under Turkish rule as a marker of rank and exclusive lifestyle. By the nineteenth century, upper class urban Muslim and Christian women in Egypt wore the habarah, which considered of a long skirt, a head cover, and a burrqua , a long rectangular cloth of white transparent muslin placed below the eyes, covering the lower nose and the mouth and falling to the chest. In mourning, a black muslin veil known as the bisha was substituted. Perhaps related to the origins of the practice among Jews and Christians. the word habarah its khimar, jilbab, and elf derives from early Christian and Judaic religious vocabulary.
Hijab is not a recent term, but it was revived in the 80’s. It has been part of the Arabian Arabic vocabulary of early Islam. Darb (adopting) Al – hijab was the phrase used in Arabic in discourse about the seclusion of the wives of the Prophet. When the veil became the centre of feminist/nationalist discourse in Egypt during British colonial occupation, hijab as the term used. The phrase used for the removal of urban women’s face/ head cover was raff (lifting) al – hijab (not al - harab).
Qur’anic references: The Qurr’an has a number of references to hijab, none of which concern women’s clothing. At times of its founding, as Islam gradually established itself in the Medina community, “seclusion” for Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) wives was introduced in a Qur’anic verse: ‘O ye, who believe, enter not the dwellings of the Prophet, unless invited…. And when you ask of his wives anything, ask from behind hijab. That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts (33.53).
This refers not to women’s clothing, but rather to a partition or curtain. Other references further stress the separating aspects of hijab. For example, al - hijab is mentioned in non gendered context separating deity from mortals (42.51), wrongdoers from the righteous (220.127.116.11), believers from unbelievers (17.45), and light from darkness and day from night(38.32),with regard to the sexes, one verse tells men and women to be modest, and women to cover their bosoms and hide their ornaments: “ tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them and tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and display of their adornment only that which is apparent and to draw their khimar over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their husbands”(24.30.31). Another verse states , “ ‘O Prophet tell thy wives and thy daughters, and the women of the believers to draw their jilbab close round them ….so that they may be recognized and not molested”(33.59).
These verses refer not to hijab but to khimar (head cover) and jilbab (body dress or cloak), and the focus of both verses is modesty and special status. The desirability of modesty is further stressed by referring to the contrasting concept tabarruj (immodesty): “‘O ye wives of the Prophet! Ye are not like any other women. If ye keep your duty, then be not soft of speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease aspire, but utter customary speech, and stay in your houses. Bedizen not yourselves with the bedizenment of the time of Ignorance.”
In none of these verses is the word hijab used. The three terms khimar, jilbab, and tabarruj were used to stress the special status of the Prophet’s wives. Al – tabbaruj (immodest display of a woman’s body combined with flirtatious mannerisms) was used to describe women’s public manner in the pre Islamic “days of ignorance.” The phrase stands in the in contrast with al – tahhajub (modesty in dress and manners), a term that that derives from the same root as hijab...
Meaning: Hijab is derived from the root h – j – b, its verbal from hajaba translates as “to veil, to seclude, to screen. To conceal, forming a separation, to mask” hijab translate as “cover, wrap, curtain, veil, screen, partition.”The same word refers to amulets carried on one’s person (particularly as a child) to protect against harm. Another derivative, hajib, means eye-brow (protector of the eye) and is also the name used during the caliphate period for the official who screened applicants who wished audience with the caliph.
Evidence from the usage in the Qu’ran and from early Islamic feminist discourse, as well as anthropological analysis, supports the notion of hijab in Islam as referring to a sacred divide or separation between two worlds or two spaces, deity and mortals, men and women, good and evil, light and dark, believers and non believers, or aristocracy and commoners. The phrase min wara al- hijab (“From behind the hijab”) emphasizes the element of separation /partition.
The connection among clothing, modesty, and morality in Islam can be found in the Qu’ranic imagery of creation. Here clothing acquires meaning beyond the familiar: “Satan tempted them, so that he might reveal to them their private parts that had been hidden from each other” (7.20); and “we have sent down to you clothing in order to cover the private parts of your body and serve as protection and decoration; and the best of all garments is the garment of piety” (7.26). In another context, “they (women) are a garment to you and you are a garment to them” (2.187), an inter dependent mutuality of the sexes is expressed. By using the imagery of clothing, Islamic creation focuses on gender relations rather than on irreversible sin and conceptually links clothing with morality, privacy, sexuality, and modesty.
The European term “veil” (and its correlate seclusion), there fore, fail to capture these nuances and oversimplify a complex phenomenon. Further more “veil” as commonly used gives the illusion of having a single referent, whereas it ambiguously refers at various times to a face cover for women, a transparent head cover, or an elaborate headdress. Limiting its reference obscure historical developments, cultural differentiations of social context, class, or special rank. And sociopolitical articulations. In western feminist discourse “veil” is politically charged with connotations of the inferior “other” implying and assuming a subordination and inferiority of the Muslim women. In fact in the Middle East the veil was historically worn to distinguish women of high status: it was in the Hellenic, Judaic, and Christian systems to which the west traces its roots that veiling was associated with seclusion in the sense of the subordination of women.
The Qu’ranic terms hijab khimar, jilbab and tabbaruj reappeared in the mid 1970s as part of an emergent Islamic consciousness and movement that spread all over the Islamic East. It was distinguished by the voluntary and active participation of young Muslim college women and men. Women’s visible presence became marked when they began to don a distinctive but uniform dress, unavailable commercially, which they called al-zi al-Islamic (“Islamic dress”)
A muhajjabah (woman wearing hijab) wore aljilbab an unfitted long sleeved, ankle- length solid gown in austere solid colors and thick opaque fabric and al-khimar, a head cover resembling o nun’s wimple that covers the hair, low to the forehead, comes under the chin to conceal the neck and falls down over the chest and back. Whereas the nun’s wimple is an aspect of her seclusion and a sign of her state of celibacy and asexuality, the Muslim woman wears alkhimar in order to desexualize public social space when she is part of it. Modesty extends beyond her clothing to her subdued, serious behavior and austere manner, and is an ideal applied to both sexes. A munaqabba ( woman wearing the niqab or face veil )more conservatively adds al-niqab, which covers the entire face except for eye slits, at the most extreme, she would also wear gloves and socks to cover her hands and feet.
By dressing this way in public these young women translate their vision of Islamic ideas into live contemporary models. Encoded in the dress style is a new public modesty that re-affirms an Islamic identity and morality as it rejects Western materialism, commercialism, and values. The vision behind the Islamic dress is rooted in these women’s understandings of early Islam and the Qu’ran. Embedded in today’s hijab is imagery that combines notions of modesty, morality, identity and resistance. Fighting it are women (and men) who appose absence of choice, as in Iran. Resistance through al-hijab or against it, whether it means attire or behavior, has generated dynamic discourse around gender, Islamic ideals, Arab society, and women’s status and liberation.