The Qur’an commands modesty for men and women in terms of physical exposure, personal adornment and behavior with the opposite sex. In ancient Arabia, women would complain to the Prophet that men would sexually harass them. As such, women began wearing coverings to make a statement that they were religious and did not want men sexualizing them. The Qur’an does ask women to cover their chests, however it neither discusses precise bodily exposure nor requires a woman to cover her head or face. The hijab and burqa were never a means of oppression, but rather as a means of protection in ancient Arabia. Today, dressing modestly has been interpreted differently in accordance with cultural practices.
“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. Lo! God is Aware of what they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their chests, and not to reveal their adornment.” (24:31)
“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful” (33:59)
The Prophet’s Saying
“Be chaste yourselves, and women will be chaste as well.” (Prophet Muhammad, pbuh)
Unfortunately, patriarchal clerics force women to cover themselves from head to toe, ignoring the fact that men have the first obligation to modesty. The following verse is misinterpreted to force women to cover: “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful” (33:59).
This verse simply advises women to be modest, but does not offer a specific definition of modesty. Hijab is defined by different cultures: in Afghanistan, women cover from head to toe, but in Turkey, most women do not wear hijab and often opt for wearing jeans and skirts. Women wear the hijab for many reasons including as an act of piety, an assertion of religious identity, an emphasis on personality and intelligence rather than looks, and a greater feeling of safety around men.
Unfortunately, the hijab and burqa have become symbolic of tensions between Muslim populations searching for religious freedom and national inclusion, and Western societies looking to preserve secular liberalism. Countries such as France and Germany have made it increasingly difficult for women to wear religious coverings, which is a direct violation of religious and private freedoms. Despite these issues, many Muslim-majority countries have made efforts to protect women’s freedom of choice. For example, In 2010 Bangladesh’s High Court ruled that the Ministry of Education should ensure that women who are employed in public institutions are not required to wear the veil “against their will.”5 The judges agreed that “it is a personal choice of women to wear the veil or not.” Adding that “forcing a woman to wear the veil against her will” is considered a “flagrant violation” of basic human rights “enshrined in the Constitution.” 6
No Muslim woman should be forced to dress a certain way. The issue of force does not align with Islam, and more so, the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) clearly state, men have the responsibility of modesty, not to governing bodies. Moreover, women have the right to both wear and not wear the hijab, because modesty is a matter of free will and is open to interpretation by the woman.
Dilshad D. Ali, Mona Haydar, Noor Tagouri
Rashid, Qasam. “Muslim men need to understand that the Qur’an says they need to observe hijab first, not women.” The Independent. 29 March 2017. Web.