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The Islamic obligation for Muslim women to wear the Hijab is agreed upon by all traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Although all of the schools of jurisprudence agree on the need for women to wear the hijab, modern discourse around the reason for this obligation vary a great deal. The verses from the Qur'an which describe this obligation indicate that protecting the modesty of the hijabi women is its main aim, however investigating the revelational circumstances of the verses describing this obligation show that, despite modern discourse the reasoning for this obligation was to keep the shape and features of women mysterious all men.
Qur'an Ayahs Regarding the Hijab
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.Shakir: And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful.
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.Shakir: O Prophet! say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments; this will be more proper, that they may be known, and thus they will not be given trouble; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
The first verse above states that the purpose is to hide women's beauty from men. The second verse makes it clear that it is to distinguish them (presumably from non-Muslim or slave women, who do not have to observe the hijab) in order to prevent them from being molested/harassed.
The view that an unveiled woman is at least deliberately exposing herself to the increased possibility of sexual harassment or assault (thereby diminishing the criminal's culpability in some way) is widespread among Islamic scholars and societies. However, the ahadith for the initial revelation of the hijab appear to present an very different reasoning for the practice, and ideas of modesty and protection against assault seem absent. While 24:31 suggests modesty as a reason for the hijab, this appears to have been a reasoning provided later on and having little or nothing to do with the initial prescription.
Revelation of the Hijab Verses
Umar bin Al-Khattab's Involvement
The sequence of events as laid out in the ahadith are as follows:
- Umar repeatedly asks Muhammad that Allah should reveal verses for the Qur'an pertaining to the veiling of women.
- No such revelation is sent down.
- Umar follows Muhammad's wives one night when they go out to relieve themselves (go to the toilet) and calls out to Muhammad's wife Sauda.
- Sauda goes home in a state of embarrassment and relates to Muhammad what has happened.
- Allah then reveals the hijab verse as Umar had wanted all along.
Allah Agrees 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 Spies Again
Umar was unsatisfied with the first set of verses regarding hijab, and hoped by his second round of spying that verses would be revealed that would make all women, or at least the wives of Muhammad, totally unrecognizable.
Reasoning on the Hijab
A common claim by apologists is that the Hijab protects women against unwanted sexual attention from men. Well known apologist Zakir Naik takes this line of reasoning in his defense of the hijab mandate. Before considering this claim one should examine a few more ahadith:
Evaluating the "Protection" Claim
Given that these verses were revealed after Umar spied on Muhammad's wives while they were going to the toilet, and that Muhammad told women to wear the veil even in the presence of a eunuch, one may conclude that the veil is only intended to prevent men from evaluating the physical attributes of females. Since eunuchs have no sexual desire, the claim that it is to prevent sexual molestation and not just gossip/verbal harassment appears scripturally incorrect.
That women in Islamic societies suffer from endemic harassment seems to further problematize this line of reasoning (e.g. in Egypt where women and young girls are harassed 7 times every 200 meters or in Saudi Arabia where the observance of hijab is strictly enforced but the country still has one of the highest rape scales in the world).
Different Types of Veiling
There are other ahadith that talk of the 'verses of al-hijab' but these are concerning a different type of hijab with a different set of reported revelational circumstances.
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)
I of all the people know best this verse of Al-Hijab. When Allah's Apostle married Zainab bint Jahsh she was with him in the house and he prepared a meal and invited the people (to it). They sat down (after finishing their meal) and started chatting. So the Prophet went out and then returned several times while they were still sitting and talking. So Allah revealed the Verse:'O you who believe! Enter not the Prophet's houses until leave is given to you for a meal, (and then) not (so early as) to wait for its preparation .....ask them from behind a screen.' (33.53) So the screen was set up and the people went away.
In addition to the personal hijab, a 'house hijab' is also required to separate the women of the house from visitors; in the form of a separating, opaque screen. This was also a situational revelation. Muhammad was annoyed that people stayed and chatted with his wives after having dinner at his house, so Allah revealed a verse requiring a separation.
- Hijab - A hub page that leads to other articles related to Hijab
- Does a woman’s clothing seduce rapists? - Bayo Olupohunda, Nigeria Intel, May 23, 2013 (archived), http://www.nigeriaintel.com/2013/05/23/does-a-womans-clothing-seduce-rapists/
- 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/.