The Hijab Syndrome

By Zuby Eusofe

I started wearing hijab when I was 27. When I was in my 50s, I stopped.

Some people may think I am going senile for removing my hijab at this age. But I had learnt that hijab is more than just the piece of cloth that covers one’s modesty. To me, hijab is more than just a dress code. Hijab pertains to one’s definition of modesty and one’s perspective of being a righteous Muslim – woman or man. My hijab is about my moral ethics and my conduct, be it alone or around others, Muslim or not.

Before I go on further, let me reiterate that this article is purely within the capacity of my personal observations and limited knowledge about hijab. I value your patience and understanding in reading this.

The late Fatima Mernissi, a renowned Muslim woman scholar and feminist of the 21st century stated: “The most precious gift God gave humans is reason. Its best use is the search for knowledge. To know the human environment, to know the earth and the galaxies, is to know God. Knowledge (science) is the best form of prayer.”

And through reasoning, I have come to my own conclusions about hijab. It is my hope that sharing my perspective will help clear our conscience about hijab, and open the hearts and minds of all women to use reasoning in approaching their faith or religion.

In reframing my understanding of hijab, I first look at its history before the revelation to Prophet Muhammad PBUH.

‘Hijab’ or the veil is a practice that precedes Islam, tracing back to early civilizations. Archeological artifacts of Roman and Greek art such as pottery fragments, paintings or recorded civil laws reflect the practice by both men and women in religious contexts. The tradition of veiling (by women) and head covering (by men) was adopted by the Jews, as way of respecting “the continuing custom for thousands of years” and later, by the Christians. To this day, Jewish and Christian woman cover their heads in many religious occasions and festivities. After the passing of Prophet Muhammad PBUH, the writers of the Hadith adopted and encouraged this ancient tradition of head covering.

Irrespective of religion, Arabs wore hijab, the head cover because of tradition. Tradition too, rather than Islam, directs men in Saudi Arabia to cover their heads. In North Africa, the Tuareg tribe has their Muslim men, not the women, wear hijab. In sum, hijab is a traditional dress that in origin has nothing to do with Islam or any other religion.

Yet today, hijab is largely understood as a head covering that is obligatory upon every Muslim woman.

‘Hijab’ is the term used by many Muslim women to refer to their head cover that may or may not include covering their face except their eyes, and sometimes covering only one eye. ‘Hijab’, an Arabic word, can be translated as ‘veil’ or ‘yashmak’. Other translations include ‘screen’, ‘cover(ing)’, ‘mantle’, ‘curtain’, ‘drapes’, ‘partition’, ‘division’, and ‘divider’None of these ‘hijab’ words are used in the Quran in reference to what the traditional Muslims consider to be the dress code for the Muslim woman.

There are three rules for a woman’s dress code in Islam that are stated in the Quran:

  1. The Best Garment: “O children of Adam, We have bestowed upon you clothing to conceal your private parts and as adornment. But the clothing of righteousness – that is best. That is from the signs of Allah that perhaps they will remember.” (7:26)
  1. Cover Your Bosoms: “…and not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their khumur over their bosoms.” (24:31)

Some traditional scholars quote this to mean hijab, or head cover, by pointing to ‘khumoorehenna’ (from ‘khimar’). The early mufassirun (scholars who were expert transliterators of the Quran) can see that ‘khimar’ in this verse is not interchangeable with ‘hijab’ or head cover. Moreover, those who quote this verse include the addition of ‘(head cover)’ after ‘khumoorehenna’.

However, here, God instructs the women to use their khimar (which can be a dress, coat, shawl, shirt, blouse, tie or scarf) to cover their bosoms, not their heads or hair. If His instruction had been to cover their heads or hair, He would have indicated it clearly.  In short, it is my understanding that God did not order the women to cover their heads or hair.

The word ‘zeenatahunna’ refers to the woman’s beauty that can be exaggerated by bodily movements. God instructs women not to strike their feet to show their ‘zeenatahunna’. It is important to remember that striking the feet while walking does not have an effect on the head, hair or face; they are outside of what God means by the hidden zeena (adornment/beauty).

  1. Lengthen Your Garments: “O Prophet! Say to your wives, your daughters, and the women of the believers that; they should let down upon themselves their garment.” (33:59)

When I reflect on this verse, I understand the great wisdom of the Most Wise, Most Merciful. In this verse, God deliberately said only to lengthen their garments. Out of His mercy, God excluded any specification of how long for us, his believers. God knows that we would be living in different communities and have different cultures and insists that the minor details of this dress code to be left for the people of every community to fashion for themselves.

It becomes clear to me from the above verses that according to the Quran, the dress code for the Muslim woman is modesty. God knows that this modesty would be understood differently in different communities, thus left it open for us to decide for ourselves. What is deemed modest for a Western woman may not be so for a Middle Eastern woman. Likewise, modesty for the Middle Eastern woman may not be accepted by an Asian woman.

The breadth in understanding modesty is well known to God, our Creator who put no hardship on us in this great religion. God left it open for us to decide what modesty would be and no one – scholars or otherwise – has the authority to dictate or restrict it. Modesty is also to carry oneself humbly with others (24:30-1) and one’s behavior and good conduct (4:36).

For example, reflecting on the verses 33:35 and 24:60 shows me that God permits women to relax their dress code in the family setting. God did not provide details of what this relaxation is because every situation is unique. Having said that, I think I have the right to relax in front of my own family.

It is pointless to don the hijab for the sake of God if one continues to judge fellow Muslim sisters for not doing the same. Donning the hijab then does not make one a better Muslim. Serving God – being kind, sincere and good to all of God’s creations is to me, what makes one a better Muslim.