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All schools of Islamic law require that Muslim women wear observe the hijab. Conceptually, the hijab is a set of requirements according to which both women and men must cover certain parts of their body (the Arabic word hijab literally refers to the concept of 'veiling'). While the requirements for men are similar to common expectations of public decency in the modern world, those for women extend to cover the entirety of the body except for their face and hands, with legal schools differing on the requirements for women to cover their feet, face, and wrists. Colloquially, the word "hijab" refers to the headgear employed by Muslim women to cover their hair and neck. There are many cultural variations on the hijab garment, many of which provide different degrees of coverage, including famously the burqa, niqab, and dupata.
While the Quran contains general guidelines on why and how the hijab should be observed, the hadith literature is more particular in its discussion of what the circumstances behind the revelation of the hijab requirements were and what precisely it entails. The reasoning and requirements found in the Quran and hadith differ, with the account in the hadith suggesting the hijab is intended to protect the anonymity of women, particularly Muhammad's wives who were being targeted and harassed by his close companion Umar (also the second of the rightly-guided caliphs), and the account in the Quran suggesting that the hijab is intended to hide women's beauty so as to prevent molestation.
Classically, both of these accounts have been embraced and attempts have been made to reconcile them. But in recent times, both accounts have proven problematic. The Quranic account has been objected to because it suggests that women somehow share responsibility for their harassment on the basis of their attire and the hadith account has proven difficult both because it paints Umar, a highly-revered religious figure and friend of Muhammad's, as an unsavory character and because it suggests that Muhammad was not alone responsible for the formulation of the Sharia, which is supposed to be divinely-revealed and unchanging.
In the Quran
The Qur'an generally advances the view that an unveiled woman is to some extent deliberately exposing herself to the increased possibility of harassment or assault. Consequently, the idea that the criminal's culpability in some way reduced as a result of this "encouragement" is widespread among Islamic scholars and societies.
This reasoning differ significantly from the story found in the hadith regarding the reason for the revelation of the hijab requirements, where ideas of modesty and protection against assault are absent. Critics have suggested that if the story found in the hadith regarding the revelation of the hijab verses is reliable, then the reasoning of modesty given in the verses was most likely a latter rationalization of the practice on Muhammad's part rather than the original motivation.
Yusuf Ali: And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.
Pickthal: 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 bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands' fathers, or their sons or their husbands' sons, or their brothers or their brothers' sons or sisters' sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigour, or children who know naught of women's nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed.
Quran 33:59 states that the purpose of the hijab is to distinguish free Muslim women (presumably from non-Muslim or slave women, who do not have to observe the hijab) in order to prevent them from being molested/harassed.
Yusuf Ali: O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Pickthal: O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful.
Revelation of the hijab verses
Umar bin Al-Khattab's spies on Sauda
According to hadiths found in Sahih al-Bukhari, the most authoritative hadith collection, the series of events leading up to the revelation of the requirements of the hijab was as follows. First, Umar repeatedly asked Muhammad that Allah should reveal verses of the Qur'an pertaining to the veiling of women. Next, when no such revelation was forthcoming from Muhammad, Umar went out one night and stalked one of Muhammad's wives when she went out to relieve herself. Identifying the wife as Sauda bint Zam'a, he called out to her by name, noting that he had succeeded in recognizing her in her compromised circumstance. After this, Sauda presumably returned home embarrassed by the incident and reported what occurred to Muhammad, finally resulting in the revelation of the verses pertaining to the hijab.
Allah agrees with Umar
Following the incident with Sauda and a number of other incidents where Umar had directly preceded revelation in his recommendations to Muhammad, Muhammad proclaimed that Allah had come, on multiple occasions, to agree with Umar.
Umar said, "I agreed with Allah in three things," or said, "My Lord agreed with me in three things. I said, 'O Allah's Apostle! Would that you took the station of Abraham as a place of prayer.' I also said, 'O Allah's Apostle! Good and bad persons visit you! Would that you ordered the Mothers of the believers to cover themselves with veils.' So the Divine Verses of Al-Hijab (i.e. veiling of the women) were revealed. I came to know that the Prophet had blamed some of his wives so I entered upon them and said, 'You should either stop (troubling the Prophet ) or else Allah will give His Apostle better wives than you.' When I came to one of his wives, she said to me, 'O 'Umar! Does Allah's Apostle haven't what he could advise his wives with, that you try to advise them?' " Thereupon Allah revealed:--"It may be, if he divorced you (all) his Lord will give him instead of you, wives better than you Muslims (who submit to Allah).." (66.5)
Umar ups the ante
After Umar's wish of having Muslim women veiled was fulfilled, he set his sights on having the clothing requirements increased to the point of making the women completely unrecognizable. To this end, he again spied on Sauda as she had gone out to relieve herself, this time notifying her that because she was a distinctively "fat huge lady", the newly-obligated veil did not suffice in obscuring her identity. Embarrassed yet again, Sauda returned home to inform Muhammad. Then feasting on a piece of meat and apparently disturbed by the interruption, Muhammad immediately received revelation from God alerting Sauda that Umar's demands would not this time be met. Accordingly, Sauda was informed that she would be allowed to relieve herself outdoors in spite of Umar's harassment.
Reasoning on the hijab
Protection of chastity and against assault
While Islamic legal scholars are assiduous in pointing out that Islamic laws, being direct orders from God, need not provide practical benefit to merit fulfillment, most today hold that the practical reasoning behind the obligation of the hijab is that it protects women from sexual assault by suppressing their attractiveness and serves to help them guard their own chastity. The following hadith account is often referenced in this vein of reasoning.
Traditional counter-perspectives and modern criticisms
While modern scholars have inclined precipitously toward the rationale of chastity and assault protection, most probably due to its appealing to some form of practical reasoning, the traditional understanding and the understanding most straightforwardly found in the Islamic scriptures themselves appears to be that the hjiab serves to obscure the public identity of women to some extent and to prevent men from observing their physique. One criticism that has been presented against the above interpretation of the account regarding the eunuch found in the hadiths is that if Muhammad's concern had been the chastity and protection of the women from assault, then whether or not they wore the hijab in the presence of eunuch should not have made a difference. A eunuch, after all, could not pose any threat to the women's chastity or safety. The reason Muhammad did give in the hadiths is that he did not want the eunuch to observe the women. This, rather than the protection of women as such, appears to better fit both the legal requirements of the hijab and narratives presented in Islamic scriptures.
A more poignant criticism presented by critics, however, has been that if the hijab seeks to protect women from sexual assault, it wholly fails to serve this purpose. Islamic countries where the overwhelming majorities of women observe the hijab have been found to have some of the highest rates of women experiencing all manner of sexual harassment. In Egypt, for instance, women and young girls are harassed 7 times every 200 meters and in Saudi Arabia, where the observance of hijab is strictly enforced throughout the country, women experience one of the highest rates of rape in the world.
Types of veiling
Another type of veiling, also referred to in Arabic as hijab, is that effected through physical barriers. While Islamic legal schools disagree about the requirement and use of physical barriers in addition to hijab as matter of personal clothing, the use of physical barriers is the rule rather than the exception in much of the Islamic world and even make frequent appearance in Western diasporic settings.
In addition to the generic employment of physical barriers wherever both men and women are present, there is the more specific practice of the "household hijab". The idea of separating male and female visitors at one's home is inspired by hadith accounts which describe this practice in Muhammad's household as well as a Quranic allusion thereto. According to the hadiths, the separate revelation regarding the household hijab was also situationally inspired. Here, the story is that Muhammad had visitors and was bothered to find them lingering to chat with his wives after they had dinner.
When Allah's Apostle married Zainab bint Jahsh, he invited the people to a meal. They took the meal and remained sitting and talking. Then the Prophet (showed them) as if he is ready to get up, yet they did not get up. When he noticed that (there was no response to his movement), he got up, and the others too, got up except three persons who kept on sitting. The Prophet came back in order to enter his house, but he went away again. Then they left, whereupon I set out and went to the Prophet to tell him that they had departed, so he came and entered his house. I wanted to enter along with him, but he put a screen between me and him. Then Allah revealed:'O you who believe! Do not enter the houses of the Prophet...' (33.53)
- Why dress codes can’t stop sexual assault - Washington Post
- Egypt’s NCW chief says women harassed 7 times every 200 meters - GhanaMed, September 6, 2012
- Manar Ammar - Sexual harassment awaits Egyptian girls outside schools - Bikya Masr, September 10, 2012
- "The High Rape-Scale in Saudi Arabia", WomanStats Project (blog), January 16, 2013 (archived), http://womanstats.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-high-rape-scale-in-saudi-arabia/.