by an American Sister
"And tell the
believing women to lower their eyes, and guard their modesty, and that they
display not their ornaments except what appears of them. And that they draw
their veils over their bosoms and display not their ornaments except to
their husbands, their brothers ... And repent to Allāh, all of you O
believers, that you may succeed." [Al-Qurān 24:31]
"That will be
better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed. Allāh is Forgiving,
Compassionate." [Al-Qurān 33:59]
American Muslim women today are rediscovering
Islām as revealed by Allāh, to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him,
more than 1,400 years ago but without any of the contradictions of ancestral
culture. Consequently they are essentially engaging in a life-long exercise of
rediscovering their own selves; what it means to be a human, a Muslim, and more
so, a Muslim woman. Wearing the divinely mandated hijāb, the veil or head
covering, as a part of their everyday dresses is among the first steps toward
this rediscovery. In a society which shamelessly and publicly exposes a woman's
body and intimate requirements where nudity somehow symbolises the expression of
a woman's freedom and where the most lustful desires of men are fulfilled
unchecked, it is of little wonder such an introspection leads many Muslim women
to decide to wear the hijāb.
However, generalisations about Islām and
Muslims are replete in today's media and, by extension, in the minds of many
Americans who shape their image of the world through the media. Veiled Muslim
women are typically unfairly stigmatised. They are regarded on the one hand as
suppressed and oppressed, and on the other, as fanatics and fundamentalists.
Both depictions are grossly wrong and imprecise. Such portrayals not only
misrepresent these women's strong feelings towards the hijāb, but also
fail to acknowledge their courage and the resulting identity the hijāb
lends to them. Amongst such misconceptions is also the belief that any Muslim
woman who wears the hijāb is forced to do so. Nothing could be further
from the truth. Indeed, the final determination to wear the hijāb is
often not easily reached. Days of meditation, an inevitable fear of consequences
and reactions, and ultimately, plenty of courage weigh heavily in reaching the
decision. Wearing the hijāb is a very personal and independent decision,
coming from appreciating the wisdom underlying Allāh's command and a sincere
wish to please Him.
"I believe the hijāb is pleasing to
Allāh, or I wouldn't wear it. I believe there is something deep down
beautiful and dignified about it. It has brought some beautiful and joyous
dimension to my life that always amaze me," said Mohja Kahf, assistant
professor of English and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Arkansas,
Fayetteville, in an internet posting.
"To me the hijāb is a gift from Allāh.
It gives me the opportunity to become closer to Allāh. Also quite
importantly, (it provides me) the chance to stand and be recognised as a
Muslim," Fariha Khan, 18, of Rockville, Maryland, said.
However, with this recognition comes tremendous
responsibility as highly visible representatives of Islām and Muslims.
Anywhere covered sisters go, Muslims and non-Muslims alike recognise them as
followers of Islām. In a land where misinformation about Islām and
Muslims abounds, Muslim sisters have the opportunity to portray Islām in
its true light. But the greatest responsibility related to the hijāb is
the understanding that there is more to it than just the scarf; the internalised
modesty really matters. This internal moral system gives meaning to the external
scarf. This can be perceived from the overall demeanour of any Muslim woman -
how she acts, dresses, speaks, and so on. Only when the internalised modesty
manifests itself through the external hijāb can sisters represent Muslims
according to the beautiful example set by the Prophet, upon whom be peace,
and followed by his companions.
"The hijāb by itself is just a piece
of cloth, at some level. I do not think we should take (it) as an exclusive
marker of a woman's moral worth or level of faith. It is the surrounding
context - the etiquette, the morals - which make it anything," Kahf said.
Saba M. Baig, 21, is a recent graduate of Rutgers
University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. She was 17 when she seriously started
wearing hijāb, and feels she is still in the process of learning internal
"My biggest realization was that the hijāb
was not just about wearing a scarf on my head, but more of a (veil) on my
heart," said Baig. "The hijāb is more than an external covering.
That's the easy part of it all. It has a lot (more) to do with modesty and
just the way you present yourself."
"In this life, I couldn't think of anything
better than being a Muslim. Wearing hijāb signifies it and reminds me
of it. The hijāb is important to me and it means everything to me
when I wear it," Khan said.
"Unfortunately, it also has its down side:
you get discriminated against, treated as though you are oppressed. I wear
it for (Allāh), and because I want to. Period," said Imaan, a convert to
Islām, currently studying in Australia.
Yet, the general society, to some extent defines
the image of the hijāb.
"The surrounding context can make it
oppressive," explained Kahf. "For example, in social contexts where
observing hijāb includes (the practice) of separating women from the
resources of society including education, mosques, sources of religious and
spiritual guidance, economic livelihood, etc., (hijāb) develops
oppressive qualities. Or when the hijāb is literally imposed through
punitive sanctions rather than encouraged benignly, this distorts the
underlying beauty of it and turns it into something ugly. I believe
it is pleasing to Allāh, or I wouldn't wear it. I believe there is something
deep down beautiful and dignified about it. It has brought some beautiful
and joyous dimension to my life that always amaze me."
"(At the same time,) the surrounding context
can make it liberating, as we in the United States often experience. For
many of us, in a society which imposes degrees of sexualised nakedness on
women, wearing hijāb has been a liberating experience. To us hijāb
has meant non-conformism to unjust systems of thought. We have
experienced social sanctions for wearing it, and these experiences are
seared in our memories, rather than experiences of being forced to wear it,"
For many women the hijāb is a constant
reminder that unlike other women they should not have to design their lives and
bodies for men.
"Before I started covering, I thought of
myself based on what others thought of me. I see that too often in girls,
their happiness depends on how others view them, especially men. Ever since,
my opinion of myself has changed so much; I have gained (a lot of)
self-respect. I have realised whether others may think of me as beautiful is
not what matters. How beautiful I think of myself and knowing that Allāh
finds me beautiful makes me feel beautiful," said Baig softly, her eyes
Furthermore, modest clothing and hijāb are
precautions to avoid any social violations. Contrary to popular belief, this is
not limited to women only. Preceding the verse in the Qur'ān about women
lowering their gaze comes the following verse:
"Tell believing men to lower their
and guard their modesty. That will be purer for them. Allāh is aware of what they do."
In addition, on the authority of Sahl ibn Sa'ad,
may Allāh be pleased with him, the Prophet, peace be upon him,
can guarantee (the chastity of) what is between his two jaw-bones (the tongue)
and what is between his two legs (the private parts), I guarantee Paradise for
him." [Recorded by Imām al-Bukhārī]
The hijāb is not worn for men, to keep their illicit desires in check. Rather,
Muslim women wear it for Allāh and their own selves. Islām is a religion of
moderation, of balance between extremes. Therefore, it does not expect women
alone to uphold the society's morality and uprightness. Rather, Islām asks men
and women to mutually strive to create a healthy social environment where
children may grow with positive, beautiful, constructive and practical values
and concepts. Men are equally required to be modest and to conduct themselves
responsibly in every sphere of their lives. In fact, in this society, enough
emphasis cannot be placed on the necessity for men to keep their gaze lowered,
as a concerned brother put it:
"Think about it -- what has the potential to
cause more damage a sister otherwise modestly dressed but no scarf, or a brother
who goes about gawking in the streets, (or) on campus? I cannot exactly quantify
it, but guess the latter," he said.
Islām asks men and women to mutually strive to create a healthy social
environment where children may grow with positive, beautiful, constructive, and
practical values and concepts.
According to Jābir ibn Abdullāh, when he asked
the Prophet, peace be upon him, about a man's gaze falling inadvertently on a
strange woman, the Prophet replied, "Turn your eyes away."
[Recorded by Imām Muslim]
tradition, the Prophet, on whom be peace, chided Ali for looking again at a
woman - he said, the second glance is from the Shaytān (the Devil).
The concept of modesty and the hijāb in Islām is holistic, and encompasses both men and women. The ultimate
goal is to maintain societal stability and to please Allāh. Since Muslim women are
more conspicuous because of their appearance, it is easier for people to
associate them with the warped images they see in the print and broadcast media.
Hence, stereotypes are perpetuated and often sisters seem "mysterious" to those
not acquainted with Muslim women who dress according to Divine instruction.
This aura of "mystery" cannot be removed until their lifestyles, beliefs and
thought-systems are genuinely explored. And, frankly, this cannot be achieved
until one is not afraid to respectfully approach Muslim women - or any Muslim
for that matter. So, the next time you see a Muslim, stop and talk to him or her
- you'll feel, God-Willing, as if you're entering a different world, the world
of Islām - full of humility, piety, and of course, modesty!