From the Handbook of Every Day Islam by Imam Hassan Qazwini
Modesty is incumbent upon both Muslim men and women, but since men and women have been created physically different, the way their modesty is upheld is also different. The Arabic word hijab may be translated as “covering” or “concealing.” Hijab for women covers the entire body save the hands and face. Muslim women don their hijab only in public or before men outside of their immediate family. They do not need to wear it in front of other women, their husbands, and certain relatives such as their children, fathers, brothers, uncles, nephews, fathers-in-law, or sons-in-law.
Women living at the time of Prophet Muhammad wore a specific style of hijab to adhere to the Qur’anic verses and sayings of the Prophet promoting modesty and chastity. Several verses in the Qur’an speak about modest covering for women, such as chapter 24, verse 31:
And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms.
The passages are not unlike those given in the Bible, which expresses many of the same views on morality as the Qur’an. First Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 4 – 6 reads: “Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.”
Muslims and non-Muslims alike recognize that women are symbols of attraction and temptation in society. Whether in liberal societies or conservative ones, women are viewed differently from men. Even in the United States, women are not permitted to go topless as a man might because to do so is considered distracting and immodest. No one says that this infringes upon women’s rights. Muslims believe in increased modesty for women, such that they expand the area that is necessary to be covered; and this also emphasizes upon a woman’s inner beauty over her physical beauty.
I think this appreciation for a woman’s intrinsic worth is an attitude that many feminists would support, but in the United States many seem to equate the wearing of very revealing attire with liberation and a head covering with oppression. Women’s groups in the West Have spoken out loudly and clearly about violations of women’s rights in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, but they fell silent when France forced hundreds of thousands of Muslim girls and women to remove their hijab in schools and public areas. In addition to infringing upon freedom of worship, the policy forced females to choose between their religion and their education. German legislators and courts have wrestled with similar legislation for public school teachers. For decades, Turkey has imposed a ban on the hijab for women who work in the public sector; even those women who observe the hijab outside of their work are discriminated against and highly at risk of losing their jobs. I confess bewilderment as to why women’s groups eagerly defend Muslim women’s rights in Kabul, Riyadh and Tehran, but not in Paris, Berlin and Istanbul?!
Unfortunately, here in the United States, our society tends to deny the silent oppression that is done to women. Our society has become highly sexualized, and women, especially in popular culture, are often regarded as sexual objects. The percentage of women who are harassed in the workplace is staggeringly high. Yet our society overlooks these problems and believes that women in the West are truly liberated. By prescribing the hijab, Islam aims at liberating women from this type of injustice. Islam refuses to allow women to be reduced to an object, and it aims for women to be respected and treated with full dignity. The hijab is a constant reminder that society must direct its attention to women’s intellectual capacities, not their physical bodies.
The beauty of hijab is that it establishes a standard for women independent from the stand of men. If we actually analyze the status of women in many western societies, we realize that they essentially accept men as the standard, and women are constantly compared to men. If men do not cover their hair, women should not; if men wear jeans, so should women; if men spend more time at work and less time at home raising children, then women should do the same; if men join the military, so should women. This is not to say that women should not participate in these activities, but the point is that our society teaches that women should do these things just because men do – in order to compete with them. This essentially makes everything feminine inferior and everything masculine superior. But Islam has created an independent standard for women and this standard is not based on men. It is a standard that has been created by God, and although this standard is different than the standard of men, it is equal.
Islamic scholars disagree somewhat about the specific requirements of hijab. Muslim women wear many varieties of modest clothing, and there is a range in the amount of coverage these clothes provide. In certain very conservative areas, women will wear a hijab that covers the entire body, including the face, but even conservative Saudi Arabia does not require the face veil. In the majority of the Muslim world, it is safe to say that women wear their hijab voluntarily and proudly, declaring not their subjugation to men, but rather their submission to God.