The practice of hijab among Muslim women is one based on religious doctrine, although the Quran does not mandate it. Instead, it comes from the Hadith of Sahih Bukhari. The Hadith, the “tradition of Mohammed,” reveals the teachings of the Prophet to believers. Bukhari’s version of this text is generally regarded as the standard one, although numerous versions exist. In a very broad sense, the relationship the Hadith has to the Quran resembles the New Testament’s to the Old Testasment in Christian scriptures.
According to the Hadith, “My Lord agreed with me (‘Umar) in three things … (2) And as regards the veiling of women, I said ‘O Allah’s Apostle! I wish you ordered your wives to cover themselves from the men because good and bad ones talk to them.’ So the verse of the veiling of the women was revealed” (Bukhari, v1, bk 8, sunnah 395).
Surah XXXIII, Verse 59 of the Quran is most often cited in support of veiling. It states “O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close around them. That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is ever forgiving, merciful . . . ” (from A. Yusef Ali’s translation of the Quran; other versions translate the original Arabic as “veils” where Ali uses “cloaks”).
The veil is not a uniquely Islamic convention; the practice has a long history in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Catholic nuns engage in the practice, and there are several references to the practice in both the Old and New Testaments (King James Version). Ironically, the representation of veiling in the Bible is much more problematic than those in the Quran or the Hadith, because the Judeo-Christian sources imply that women should be covered because of their inherent inferiority. I Corinthians 11: 3-10 offers one example:
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. Every man praying or prophesying having his head covered, dishonoreth his head. But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn or shaven; but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, for as much as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head because of the angels.
For more information about veiling in the Judeo-Christian Tradition, see “Women in Islam Versus Women in the Judeo-Christian Tradition: The Myth and the Reality” by Dr. Sherif Abdel Azeem.
The Ongoing Debate
Among Muslim women, the debate about hijab takes many forms. Many believe that the veil is a way to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women. Several women have argued that hijab allows them freedom of movement and control of their bodies. Understood in such terms, hijab protects women from the male gaze and allows them to become autonomous subjects. Others have argued that the veil only provides the illusion of protection and serves to absolve men of the responsibility for controlling their behavior. (see Third World and Third World Women, Gender and Nation, Victorian Women Travelers in the 19th Century)
Both positions assert that Islam is not responsible for sexism. In fact, the Quran supports the notion of gender equality. As scholar Fatima Mernissi puts it, “the existing inequality does not rest on an ideological or biological theory of women’s inferiority, but the outcome of specific social institutions designed to restrain her power” (Beyond xvi).
Mernissi views the recent rise of women’s repression in some Muslim countries as a rejection of colonial influence:
The fact that Western colonizers took over the paternalistic defense of the Muslim woman’s lot characterized any changes in her condition as concessions to the colonizer. Since the external aspects of women’s liberation, for example, the neglect of the veil for western dress, were often emulations of Western women, women’s liberation was readily identified as succumbing to foreign influences. (Beyond vii)
Although written in the 1970s, Mernissi’s work sheds light on more recent events such as the reinstitution of mandatory veiling by Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.
Women Writers Interested Islam and Gender
All of the following are the work of thinkers from the Arab community.
- Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1992.
- Badran, Margot and Miriam Cooke, editors. Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing. London: Virago, 1990.
- Engineer, Asghai Ali. The Rights of Women in Islam. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
- Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, editors. Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. Austin: Texas UP, 1977.
- IBRASH. Hijab: The Muslim Woman’s Mode of Dressing According to the Qur’an and Sunnah. Lagos: International Printing Press, 1988.
- Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1975.
- —. The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Trans. Mary Jo Lakeland. Minneapolis,MN: Minnesota UP, 1993.
- —. Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Trans. Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley, 1992.
- —. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1991.
- —. Women’s Rebellion and Islamic Memory. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Books, 1996.
- Nasir, Jamal J. The Status of Women Under Islamic Law and Under Modern Islamic Legislation. London: Graham & Trotman Ltd., 1990.
- Saadawi, Nawal el. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. Trans. Sherif Hetata. Boston: Beacon Press, 1982.
- Sabbagh, Suha, editor. Arab Women: Between Defiance and Restraint. New York: Olive Branch Press, 1996.
- Sabbah, Fatna. Women in the Muslim Unconsciousness. Trans. Mary Jo Lakeland. New York: Pergamon Press, 1984.
- Shaarawi, Huda. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist1879-1924. Trans.& ed. Margot Badran. New York: The Feminist Press, 1987.
- Silverman, Kaja. Threshold of the Visible World. New York: Routledge, 1996.
- Toubia, Nahid. Women of the Arab World–The Coming Challenge: Papers of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association Conference. Trans. Nahedel Gamal. Cairo: AWSA Conference, 1988.
- Tucker, Judith E., editor. Arab Women: Old Boundaries, New Frontiers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993.
- “Veiled Visions/Powerful Presences: Women in Postrevolutionary Iranian Cinema.” In the Eye of the Storm: Women in Postrevolutionary Iran. Ed. Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl. London and New York: I.B.Taurus and Syracuse University Press, 1994. 131-150.
- Zuhur, Sherifa. Revealing, Reveiling: Islamist Gender Ideology in Contemporary Egypt. Albany: SUNY Press, 1992.
Author: Kim Parker, Fall 1996
Last edited: October 2017