Wearing the Divinely Mandated hijab, 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 publicly exposes a woman’s body and intimate
requirements where nudity somehow symbolizes the expression of a woman’s
freedom and where the most lustful desires of men are fulfilled unchecked – it
is little wonder such an introspection leads many Muslim women to the decision
to wear hijab
However, generalizations about Islam 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 stigmatized.
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 hijab, but also fail to acknowledge their courage and the resulting
identity hijab lends to them.
Amongst such misconceptions is also the belief that any Muslim woman who wears
hijab is forced to do so. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the
final determination to wear hijab 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 hijab is a
very personal and independent decision, coming from appreciating the wisdom
underlying Allah’s command and a sincere wish to please Him.
"I believe hijab is pleasing to Allah, 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 hijab is a gift from Allah. It gives me the opportunity to become
closer to Allah. Also quite importantly, (it provides me) the chance to stand
and be recognized as a Muslim," Fariha Khan, 18, of Rockville, Maryland,
However, with this recognition comes tremendous responsibility as highly visible
representatives of Islam and Muslims. Anywhere covered sisters go, Muslims and
non-Muslims alike recognize them as followers of Islam. In a land where
misinformation about Islam and Muslims abounds, Muslim sisters have the
opportunity to portray Islam in its true light.
But the greatest responsibility related to hijab is the understanding that there
is more to hijab than just the scarf; the internalized modesty really matters.
This internal moral system gives meaning to the external scarf. This can be
perceived from the overall demeanor of any Muslim woman – how she acts,
dresses, speaks, and so on. Only when the internalized modesty manifests itself
through the external hijab can sisters represent Muslims according to the
beautiful example set by the Prophet, upon whom be peace, and followed by his
"Hijab 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 hijab, and feels she is
still in the process of learning internal hijab. "My biggest realization
was that hijab was not just about wearing a scarf on my head, but more of a
(veil) on my heart," said Baig. "Hijab 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 hijab signifies it and reminds me of it. Hijab 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 (Allah), and because I want
to. Period," said Imaan, a convert to Islam, currently studying in
Yet, the general society, to some extent defines the image of hijab. "The
surrounding context can make it oppressive," explained Kahf. "For
example, in social contexts where observing hijab includes (the practice) of
separating women from the resources of society including education, mosques,
sources of religious and spiritual guidance, economic livelihood, etc., … (hijab)
develops oppressive qualities. Or when hijab is literally imposed through
punitive sanctions rather than encouraged benignly, this distorts the underlying
beauty of hijab and turns it into something ugly.
"I believe hijab is pleasing to Allah, 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
"(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 sexualized nakedness on women, wearing hijab has been a
liberating experience. To us hijab 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," Kahf concluded.
For many women hijab 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 realized whether others may think of me as beautiful is not
what matters. How beautiful I think of myself and knowing that Allah finds me
beautiful makes me feel beautiful," said Baig softly, her eyes glowing.
Furthermore, modest clothing and hijab are precautions to avoid any social
violations. Contrary to popular belief, this is not limited to women only.
Preceding the verse in the Qur’an about women lowering their gaze comes the
"Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer
for them. Lo! Allah is Aware of what they do."
In addition, on the authority of Sahl ibn Sa’d, may Allah be pleased with him,
the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, "Whoever 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." (Bukhari).
Hijab is not worn for men, to keep their illicit desires in check. Rather,
Muslim women wear it for God and their own selves. Islam 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, Islam 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.
Islam 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 Jabir ibn Abdullah, 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." (Muslim) In another tradition, the
Prophet, on whom be peace, chided Ali for looking again at a woman – he said,
the second glance is from Shaitan.
The concept of modesty and hijab in Islam is holistic, and encompasses both men
and women. The ultimate goal is to maintain societal stability and to please
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 instructions. 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 Islam: full
of humility, piety, and of course, modesty!