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HIJAB. 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 burqu`, `abayah, tarhah, bumus, jilbdb, and milayah. Overgarments such as the `abayah of Arabia and the bumus of the Maghrib tend to be very similar for both sexes.

Origins. 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 southwestern Arab region, only two clans (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 Ramses III (loth dynasty).

Long before Islam, veiling and seclusion appear to have existed in the Hellenistic-Byzantine area and among the Sassanians 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 latter 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.

Successive invasions brought into contact the Greek, Persian, and Mesopotamian empires and the Semitic peoples 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 Rebekah lifted up her eyes and when she saw Isaac . . . 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 headdresses . . . and the veils”; and in I Corinthians 11.3-7, “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 shorn or 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, upperclass urban Muslim and Christian women in Egypt wore the habarah, which consisted of a long skirt, a head cover, and a burqu`, 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 itself derives from early Christian and Judaic religious vocabulary.

Hijab is not a recent term, but it was revived in the 1970s. It had been part of the Arabian Arabic vocabulary of early Islam. Darb (adopting) al-hijab was the phrase used in Arabia in discourse about the seclusion of the wives of the Prophet. When the veil became the center of feminist/nationalist discourse in Egypt during British colonial occupation, hijab was the term used. The phrase used for the removal of urban women’s face/ head cover was raf (lifting) al-hijab (not al-habarah).

Qur’anic References. The Qur’an has a number of references to hijab, none of which concern women’s clothing. At the time of its founding, as Islam gradually established itself in the Medina community, “seclusion” for Muhammad’s 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 hijdb. 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 aspect of hijab. For example, al-hijab is mentioned in nongendered contexts separating deity from mortals (42.51), wrongdoers from the righteous (7.46, 41.5), 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 khimdr over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands” (24.3031). 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 khimdr (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” (33.32-33).

In none of these verses is the word hijab used. The three terms khimdr, jilbab, and tabarruj were used to stress the special status of the Prophet’s wives. Altabbaruj (immodest display of a woman’s body combined with flirtatious mannerisms) was used to describe women’s public manners in the pre-Islamic “days of ignorance.” The phrase stands in contrast with altahhajub (modesty in dress and manners), a term that derives from the same root as hijab.

Meaning. Hijab is derived from the root h j -b; its verbal form hajaba translates as “to veil, to seclude, to screen, to conceal, to form a separation, to mask.” Hijab translates 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 eyebrow (protector of the eye) and is also the name used during the caliphate periods for the official who screened applicants who wished audience with the caliph.

Evidence from its usage in the Qur’an and from early Islamic feminist discourse, as well as anthropological analysis, supports the notion of hijdb 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 nonbelievers, or aristocracy and commoners. The phrase min wara’ alhijab (“from behind the hijdb”) emphasizes the element of separation/partition.

The connection among clothing, modesty, and morality in Islam can be found in the Qur’anic 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” (2.18’7), an interdependent 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), therefore, fail to capture these nuances and oversimplify a complex phenomenon. Furthermore, “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 obscures 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 woman. 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. Contemporary Issues. The Qur’anic terms hijdb, khi-mar, 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-za al-Islami (“Islamic dress”).

A muhajjabah (woman wearing hijdb) wore al-jilbab-an unfitted, long-sleeved, ankle-length gown in austere solid colors and thick opaque fabric-and al-khimdr, a head cover resembling a 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 al-khimar 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 munaqqabah (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.

This Islamic dress was introduced by college women in the movement and was not imposed by al-Azhar University, where prescribed Islamic behavior often originates. By dressing this way in public these young women translated 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 vision behind the Islamic dress is rooted in these women’s understanding of early Islam and the Qur’an. Clearly, the movement was not simply about a dress code. It was, like early Islam, against altabarruj and for modesty in behavior, voice, body movement, and choices, now symbolizing a new identity distancing itself from Western values. In the 1980s the movement shifted from establishing an Islamic identity and morality to asserting Islamic nationalism, engaging in participatory politics, and resisting authoritarian regimes and Western dominance. Embedded in today’s hijdb is imagery that combines notions of modesty, morality, identity, and resistance. Fighting it are women (and men) who oppose absence of choice, as in Iran. Resistance through al-hijdb 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.

[See also Dress; Modesty; Seclusion.]


Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, 1992. Good overview of literature on gender in the Middle East from ancient to modern times, hampered somewhat by superficial usage of archaeological findings and anthropological insights (not based on original field research), but a useful resource nonetheless for its extensive historical documentation on gender. The textual survey is framed from the perspective of feminist gender studies (misogyny, patriarchy, androcentrism), but is itself a critique of feminism.

Amin, Qasim. Al-a’mal al-Kamilah li-Qasim Amin. Edited by Muhammad `Imarah. Beirut, 1976. This book divides into two parts, the first being the author’s analysis and commentary on Amin’s reformist thought on women’s issues, with a focus on the hijdb. The second part is a reprinting of Amin’s two original books on women’s issues, Tahrir al-mar’ah (1899) and Al-mar’ah al jadidah (igoo), considered among the first classic Arab feminist works.

El Guindi, Fadwa. “Veiling Infitah with Muslim Ethic: Egypt’s Contemporary Islamic Movement.” Social Problems 28.4 (1981): 465485. The first original field study on the subject using anthropological analysis, which has become a classic reference. There is still very little work on the subject based on systematic field research. Goitein, S. D. A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, vol. 3, The Family. Berkeley, 1978. Good source on Jewish life and detailed aspects of society in medieval Egypt.

Lutfi, Huda. “Al-Sakhawi’s Kitab al-Nisa’.” Muslim World 71.2 (1981): 104-124. Informative discussion of al-Sakhawi’s volume on women and a good source for the social and economic history of fifteenth-century Muslim women.

Mawdudi, Sayyid Abu al-A`la. Purdah and the Status of Woman in Islam. Lahore, 1972. Widely read source on the subject for believers in the Islamic movement, providing a nonorthodox interpretation of the Qur’an on gender issues.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York, 1975. Provides historical information on the classical period of Greece and Mediterranean culture, useful for a comparison with Islamic societies.

Tabari, Azar, and Nahid Yeganeh. In the Shadow of Islam: The Women’s Movement in Iran. London, 1982. Interesting collection of articles divided into analyses of the social origins of various currents among Iranian women and the relevance of Islam to the problem of women’s oppression, and translations of original documents by Islamic Shi’i male ideologues of the Islamic Revolution of Iran. Good source of critical feminist thinking about women’s status under the Iranian Islamic regime.

Zuhur, Sherifa. Revealing Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt. Albany, N.Y., 1992. Field study of Egyptian Muslim women and ideologues in the contemporary Islamic movement, useful more for its original data than its conclusions or conceptualization.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/hijab/

  • writerPosted On: June 10, 2013
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