Why and When Do Muslim Girls Wear the Hijab?
The hijab is a veil worn by some Muslim women in Muslim countries where the main religion is Islam, but also in the Muslim diaspora, countries where Muslim people are minority populations. Wearing or not wearing a hijab is part religion, part culture, part political statement, even part fashion, and most of the time it is a personal choice made by a woman based on the intersection of all four.
Wearing a hijab-type veil was once practiced by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim women, but today it is primarily associated with Muslims, and it is one of the most visible signs of a person's being a Muslim.
Types of Hijab
The hijab is only one type of veil used by Muslim women today and in the past. There are many different types of veils, depending on customs, interpretation of the literature, ethnicity, geographic location, and political system. These are the most common types, although the rarest of all is the burqa.
- The hijab is a headscarf that covers the head and upper neck but exposes the face.
- The niqab (reserved mostly in Persian Gulf countries) covers the face and head but exposes the eyes.
- The burqa (mostly in Pashtun Afghanistan), covers the whole body, with crocheted eye openings.
- The chador (mostly in Iran) is a black or dark colored coat, that covers the head and entire body and is held in place with one's hands.
- The shalwar qamis is the traditional outfit of South Asian men and women, regardless of religious affiliation, consisting of a knee-length tunic, and pants
The word hijab is pre-Islamic, from the Arabic root h-j-b, which means to screen, to separate, to hide from sight, to make invisible. In modern Arabic languages, the word refers to a range of women's proper dress, but none of them include a face covering.
Veiling and segregating women is much, much older than the Islamic civilization, which had its start in the 7th century CE. Based on images of women wearing veils, the practice likely dates to around 3,000 BCE. The first surviving written reference to veiling and segregation of women is from the 13th century BCE. Married Assyrian women and concubines accompanying their mistresses in public had to wear veils; slaves and prostitutes were banned from wearing the veil at all. Unmarried girls began wearing veils after they married, the veil becoming a regulated symbol meaning "she is my wife."
Wearing a shawl or veil over one's head was common in Bronze and Iron Age cultures in the Mediterranean—it appears to have been occasionally in use among the peoples of the southern Mediterranean rim from the Greeks and Romans to the Persians. Upper-class women were secluded, wore a shawl that could be drawn over their heads as a hood, and covered their hair in public. Egyptians and Jews around the 3rd century BCE began a similar custom of seclusion and the veil. Married Jewish women were expected to cover their hair, which was considered a sign of beauty and a private asset belonging to the husband and not to be shared in public.
Although the Quran doesn't explicitly say women should be veiled or secluded from participation in public life, oral traditions say that the practice was originally just for the Prophet Muhammad's wives. He asked his wives to wear face veils to set them apart, to indicate their special status, and to provide them with some social and psychological distance from the people who came to visit him at his various homes.
Veiling became a widespread practice in the Islamic Empire about 150 years after Muhammad's death. In wealthy classes, wives, concubines, and slaves were kept indoors in separate quarters away from other householders who might visit. That was only feasible in families who could afford to treat women as property: Most families needed the labor of women as part of the domestic and working duties.
Is there a Law?
In modern societies, being forced to wear a veil is a rare and recent phenomenon. Until 1979, Saudi Arabia was the only Muslim-majority country that required that women be veiled when going out in public—and that law included both native and foreign women regardless of their religion. Today, veiling is legally imposed on women in only four countries: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and the Aceh Province of Indonesia.
In Iran, the hijab was imposed on women after the 1979 Islamic Revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini came into power. Ironically, that happened in part because the Shah of Iran had set rules excluding women who wore veils from getting an education or government jobs. A significant part of the revolt was Iranian women including those who did not wear the veil protesting on the street, demanding their right to wear the chador. But when the Ayatollah came to power those women found that they had not gained a right to choose, but rather were now forced to wear it. Today, women caught unveiled or improperly veiled in Iran are fined or face other penalties.
In Afghanistan, Pashtun ethnic societies have optionally worn a burqa that covers the woman's entire body and head with a crocheted or mesh opening for the eyes. In pre-Islamic times, the burqa was the mode of dress worn by respectable women of any social class. But when the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, its use became widespread and imposed.
Ironically, in countries which are not majority Muslim, making a personal choice to wear the hijab is often difficult or dangerous, because majority populations see the Muslim garb as a threat. Women have been discriminated against, mocked, and attacked in diaspora countries for wearing the hijab perhaps more often then they have for not wearing it in majority Muslim countries.
Who Wears the Veil and At What Age?
The age at which women begin wearing the veil varies with culture. In some societies, wearing a veil is limited to married women; in others, girls begin wearing the veil after puberty, as part of a rite of passage indicating they are now adults. Some start quite young. Some women stop wearing hijab after they reach menopause, while others continue to wear it throughout their lives.
There is a wide variety of veil styles. Some women or their cultures prefer dark colors; others wear a full range of colors, bright, patterned, or embroidered. Some veils are simply sheer scarves tied around the neck and upper shoulders; the other end of the veil spectrum are full-body black and opaque coats, even with gloves to cover the hands and thick socks to cover the ankles.
But in most Muslim countries, women have the legal freedom to choose whether or not to veil, and what fashion of veil they choose to wear. However, in those countries and in the diaspora, there is social pressure within and without the Muslim communities to conform to whatever the norms the specific family or religious group has set in place.
Of course, women do not necessarily remain passively submissive to either governmental legislation or indirect social pressures, whether they are forced to wear or forced to not wear the hijab.
Religious Basis for Veiling
Three main Islamic religious texts discuss veiling: the Quran, completed in the mid-seventh century CE and its commentaries (called tafsir); the hadith, a multivolume collection of brief eyewitness reports of the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers, considered a practical legal system for the community; and Islamic jurisprudence, established to translate the Law of God (Sharia) as it is framed in the Quran.
But in none of these texts can be found specific language saying that women should be veiled and how. In most uses of the word in the Quran, for example, hijab means "separation," similar to the Indo-Persian notion of purdah. The one verse most commonly related to veiling is the "verse of the hijab", 33:53. In this verse, hijab refers to a dividing curtain between men and the wives of the prophet:
And when you ask his wives for any object, ask them from behind a curtain (hijab); that is cleaner for both your hearts and for theirs. (Quran 33:53, as translated by Arthur Arberry, in Sahar Amer)
Why Muslim Women Wear the Veil
- Some women wear a hijab as a cultural practice specific to Muslim religion and a way to reconnect deeply with their cultural and religious women.
- Some African-American Muslims adopt it as a sign of self-affirmation after generations of their ancestors were forced to unveil and be exposed on the auction block as slaves.
- Some simply wish to be identified as Muslims.
- Some say the hijab gives them a sense of freedom, liberation from having to choose clothing or having to deal with a bad hair day.
- Some choose to do it because their family, friends, and community do it, to assert their sense of belonging.
- Some girls adopt it to show that they are adults and will be taken seriously.
Why Muslim Women Do Not Wear the Veil
- Some choose to stop veiling after engaging with the scriptures and recognizing it does not explicitly demand that they wear one.
- Some choose to stop wearing it because the Quran's rule of modesty says "don't draw attention to yourself" and wearing veiling in the diaspora sets you apart.
- Some reason they can be modest without the hijab.
- Some modern Muslim women believe the hijab is a distraction from serious issues like poverty, domestic violence, education, government oppression, and patriarchy.
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