Is it obligatory for Muslim women to wear the headscarf?

Women’s headscarf becomes a prominent topic of discussion by many people throughout the world especially after the coming of the Islamic revival in many of the Muslim countries. After Islamic resurgence, many Muslim women have to or voluntarily put on the headscarf to cover their head. The issue of the headscarf has been debated especially after the raise of the feminist movement which believe that their rights have been discriminated by man’s interpretation of religious text and laws.
In 2003, Jacques Chirac, the French President gets an open letter saying that “the Islamic veil sends us all-Muslim and non- Muslim-back to a discrimination against women that is intolerable.” They really think that headscarf is a sign of suffering, make the life of women difficult and slow down the personal growth and social development of women. (Kavakci, 2004). However, many people nowadays including the non-Muslims see the headscarf as a symbol of liberation and modernization. In Malaysia for example, we can see many people voluntarily wear the headscarf with different fashion and style. Headscarf is not anymore a symbol of backwardness but it is something that many women are proud to wear.

There are many different interpretations and understanding on the Muslim headscarf. Thus, from all these different interpretations and meanings, we can see the outcome on how headscarf has been applied in the life of the Muslim women. If we go back to the traditional ulama’ (scholars) interpretations, we can see whether headscarf is obligatory or not for the Muslim women to wear.
The meanings and interpretations of the headscarf
In Qur’an, the headscarf is called as ‘?ijab’, ‘khimar’ or jilbab and there are many different interpretations of these words because of the different understanding and interpretations of the word itself. The simple meaning of ?ijab, khimar or jilbab in the Qur’an is the headscarf, veil or something that we use to cover our hair. Hence, before we go further to see whether headscarf is obligatory for Muslim women or not, we need to define it first.
The words used in the Qur’an for the headscarf is usually either khimar or jilbab. In Tafsir Ibn Kathir, according to Al-Jawhari, “jilbab is the outer wrapper”. (Abdul-Rahman, 2008, p. 67) In the time of the Prophet, women should draw their jilbab as a sign of modesty and to make them distinct from the slaves and the Jahiliyyah women. Ali bin Abi Talhah reported that Ibn Abbas said that the Muslim women must draw their jilbab from their head over their bodies including their faces and leaving the eyes open. The reason is to make others know that they believing women, they are free and not servants. (Abdul-Rahman, 2008) Hence, do we need to also cover our faceMany scholars say that it is only for the believing women in time of the Prophet as a sign of identification to make others know that they are free women and not slaves. All the Sunni scholars, Maliki, Syafi’e, Hanbali and Hanafi argue that face and hands should be uncovered because they are important in buying and selling, giving and taking. They also have agreed that wearing jilbab or the headscarf is an obligation to the Muslim women.
Islam has a system of ?ijab. What is ?ijab‘?ijab’ technically means covering. Beall define it as “any type of head-covering of Muslim women worn for religious reasons” (Beall, 2008, p. 339). According to Othman, ?ijab means ‘a loose and long type of dress that must be adopted by Muslim women’. (Othman, 2006, p. 340). Some of the scholars define ?ijab as “something that cover everything except face, feet and hands in public”. (Groen, 2010).However, according to Muslim scholars in Islamic jurisprudence, ?ijab is actually more than to cover the hair. For instance in surah Allah says: “when you ask (his wives) for anything from them, ask them from behind the screen (?ijab). It is purer to your hearts and to their hearts”. ?ijab is something that you use to control the interaction between men and women especially when they are not related to.
According to Naik, ?ijab is frequently been discussed in the context of women but actually, ?ijab in Quran was addressed firstly to men and then, to the women. (Naik, 2009) Allah says in the Holy Quran: “Tell the believing men to reduce some of their vision (?ijab) and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what they do”. {An-Nur: 30} From this ayah, some scholars define ?ijab as “a concept relating to the interaction of men and women, not just an item of clothing to cover the head or the body”. (Yaqoob, 2004, p. 4). Man should lower their gazes and if they look at women with bad thought, they should lower their gazes.
Then the next ayah Allah asks women to wear khimar: {And say to the faithful women to lower their gazes, and to guard their private parts, and not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their headcoverings (khimar) to cover their bosoms…. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.} (Surah An-Nur : 31)
In this ayah Allah gives five commandments for us as Muslim women to follow which include wearing the headscarf: to lower their gazes, to guard their private parts, not to display their beauty except what is apparent of it, to extend their headcoverings to cover their bosoms, not to display their beauty except to their husbands or their fathers, not to strike their feet (on the ground) so as to make known what they hide”.
According to Naik, women should cover their whole body except their face and hands. The khimar or the headscarf also should cover their breasts. However, this ayah not only talks about clothing, but it also talks about the moral conducts and attitude of both man and woman. Furthermore according to him, “?ijab of the clothes should be accompanied by ?ijab of the eyes, ?ijab of the heart, ?ijab of thought and ?ijab of intention. It also includes the way a person walks, the way a person talks and the way he behaves”. (Naik, 2009, p. 6). Therefore, ?ijab is not merely a piece of cloth, but it is more to a concept of modesty that must be applied by both man and woman.
We can see many ayah in the Quran talk about covering ‘aurah for example: O Prophet! Say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the faithful to draw their outer garments (jilbab) close around themselves; that is better that they will be recognized and modest (not annoyed). And God is ever Forgiving, Gentle. (Surah Al-Ahzab : 59)
There are disputations on this ayah because some women believe that this ayah only refers to the Prophet’s wives and the Arabs thus, it does not includes other women. But majority of the scholars agreed that this ayah is also refers to all Muslim women because Islam is universal, and this ‘modesty’ is also universal, it is not only referring to the Arabs and the Prophet’s wives. In addition, modesty not only needs to be implemented by women but it also includes men. The reason is to prevent them from harm and they can easily be recognized as a modest woman. (Naik, 2009)
Islam does not single out women in terms of dressing. It does asking both men and women to dress modestly. The difference is that Quran does not talk about men’s adornments as it does to women. (Barlas, 2002). Asma’ Barlas argues that ‘adornments’ in the ayah does not include hair and face. It is only refers to the bosom and private parts. However, majority of scholars have agreed that the adornment is referring to the whole body, including hair except “what is apparent of it” which refers to the face and hands because there is a hadith of the Prophet saying that to Asma’, Saidina Abu Bakr’s daughter when he sees Asma’ wear thin clothes: “O Asma’! When a girl reaches the menstrual time, it is not proper for her to expose her body except this and this”. He shows at his face and palm. (Abu Daud). (Chaudhry, 1991). According to Al-Qardhawi, the adornment in this ayah is refers to any natural or man-made beautification that is worn by woman to beautify herself such as make-up and tight dress.
Argumentations of women on headscarf
Some of the Muslim women believe that headscarf used to be a man’s way to control women and it also seen as the way women express themselves. Some of them believe that Islam asks them to wear headscarf but they still convinced by the arguments against headscarf and other Islamic practices of their upbringing especially those who coming from the cities. In villages, women are still practicing and interested in wearing headscarf because for some countries, headscarf is only for the villagers or the lower status women, not for the rich women especially those who live in the cities and towns. People in the cities, as being interviewed by Bullock, are really desired to wear headscarf but they afraid that people will question them and the condition will become worst when they cannot even find any job because of the headscarf. They also claim that the reactions of others towards them like they are coming from the outer space and they see headscarf as a block in interactions with people. (Bullock, 2002) However according to Katherine Bullock, in the conclusion of the interview on headscarf, she says that “Religious reasons were a strong motivating factor for the decision to cover, or for the belief that a Muslim woman should be covering”. (Bullock, 2002, p. 50)
Barlas does not agree with the argument that the Qur’an counsels modesty in two ways which is first, by sex segregation and second by veiling women in order to protect them and at the same time to protect the man’s sexual virtue. She argues that, if men and women are segregated, the ayah to cast down gaze would be unnecessary because how they can see each other if they are segregateHence for her, she believes that men and women can work together, but of course with limitation. When they meet each other, they need to lower their gazes and control themselves from fornication or act that will lead them to it and lower the gazes is far more important than wearing the veil. Therefore, this ayah totally contradicts with the rules of sex segregation established by the Muslim conservatives. She also argues that this ayah shows that the real veil is the eyes, not the headscarf. She and many other scholars believe that gaze is the ‘messenger of fornication’. Barlas believes that khimar (headscarf) is only to cover the bosom, not the hair and face. Norani Othman also has the same argument with Barlas that the headscarf is only to cover the breasts and not the hair. She further argue that, “the discriminate of Muslim women through the mechanism of ?ijab, gender segregation and social control is sustained and reinforced in contemporary society because quite often it coincides or intersects with the postcolonial politics of cultural identity”(Othman, 2006, p. 343)
Headscarf is only a culture?
Religion cannot be separated from the culture. We can see the way women wear their headscarf in one country is different with the way women in other country wear it. In the Middle East such as Egypt, their culture of wearing hijab is to cover everything except the eyes and that is their way to wear it and people with no hijab will be questioned. They have no choice except to wear it like that. In Malaysia, people have choice and they can choose whether they want to wear it or not. They can wear everything that they want and nobody cares. Hence in Malaysia, the headscarf is not a big issue because they have the freedom to choose and this is very different with other culture in other Muslim countries. In my opinion, Islam is flexible. In Islamic law and jurisprudence, the law must be made according to the context and situation of the people and the country. In the case of headscarf, Muslims need to understand that the reason of wearing the veil is to protect women from harm. Hence, if we go to the United States or other non-Muslim countries where majority of the people are not Muslims, we are not encouraged to wear the veil (niqab) if it makes us insecure.
Wearing headscarf is actually one of the ways Islam protects women. Islam allows women to go to work, seek knowledge, talk with man, engage in business but Islam asks women to cover their body and hair because of the security of the women and prevent the foolish to harass them. Hair is women’s pride and in Islam, women are protected and looked after. Therefore, we should not go against the command of God because He knows better what the best thing for us. (Abdul Rahman, 2003).
As a conclusion, I believe that headscarf is the dress etiquette which value women from the wild gazes of men because it is a protection, security of the dignity of women. However, the issue of headscarf become very controversial because of the misunderstanding of others especially the West (non-Muslims) who do not give the chance to the other people to speak for themselves. They just make an assumption and later, they confused people about it. They claim that headscarf is just a culture and women’s liberation is impossible except after they remove their headscarf. Many of the research show us that headscarf has been accepted by majority of the women as an obligation or a religious duty, and it is neither a tradition nor a social or political significance nor an oppression of man.
In one of the research on the hijab by Ameli and Merali, they report that 81% of the Muslims in the Britain said that hijab is the most important values that they must
– Before 9/11, 60.8% of women who wore some form of Hijab experienced being
talked down to or treated as if stupid. This figure rose to 68.5% after 9/11.
– The majority in all levels of education, except PhD assigned Hijab as one of the most
important religious values and for those with a PhD, the majority still believed it to be
a very important religious value
According to Othman, Muslim women in Malaysia are now debating on the women’s ‘authentic’ Islamic identity which they argue always been related with the act of covering as the sign of faith and good Muslim. This is actually the effect of the Islamic resurgence which makes a ruling to force women to cover their head and thus, it takes away the right of women to choose for themselves. (Othman, 2006). However, some Muslim women say that they are really grateful for the coming of Islamic resurgence because from that resurgence they know more about Islam and get the awareness on what they should do and not to do.
If we think with our rational mind, what harm did the headscarf bringMany of women with headscarf feel they are beautiful, more respected with more pride and have full dignity with headscarf covering their head. I do not see that headscarf is the oppression and pressure from man. However, I can see that uncovering the hair and body as the pressure from men because they like to see it. Obviously I am not going to please men by showing my hair and body to them and I am always feeling protected from men’s impolite stares. I just want to ask the women who really oppose the obligation to wear headscarf, when they pray, why they wear headscarfWhy they cover their hairWe can see women at funerals, many of the women will cover their hair. We can see here a very strong relationship between religion and culture. It is a sign that modesty (by wearing headscarf) is a norm especially for the Muslim women. Some people may say that they want to respect the funeral event and some of them may say that at that time they feel they should wear it to respect the religion.
Headscarf is a sign of obedience to Allah and the manifestation of faith. It is also a Muslim identity. We do not have to say that we are Muslims, people will just know it by our appearance. Headscarf is also a constant reminder to the Muslim women that they are Muslims and therefore, they should conduct themselves properly as a Muslim. One of the Japanese Muslims says that before she reverted to Islam, she always feel embarrass when men stare at her bosom and hip as if they are seeing something that they are not supposed to see. That is why Islam asks us to dress modestly, wear ?ijab and not being naked in the public. This is to protect women from any disturbance and harm. (Khaula Nakata, Ruth Anderson, 1995)
Last but not least, I strongly believe that wearing the headscarf is obligatory for all Muslim women but, this is the matter of choice. Many of the Muslim women do not wear the headscarf because of many different reasons that has been stated above. Wearing the headscarf for me is the sign of obedience to Allah and one of the ways for us to become modest. It depends on each person’s understanding and interpretations of the headscarf. Everybody has their own reasons to wear or not to wear it.

Abdul Rahman, M. S. (2003). Islam: Questions and Answers (Psychological and Social Problems). United Kingdom: MSA Publication Limited.
Abdul-Rahman, M. S. (2008). The Meaning and Explanation of the Glorious Qur’an. London: MSA Publication Limited.
Barlas, A. (2002). Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an. University of Texas Press.
Beall, A. (2008). Hijab, Meaning, Identity, Otherization and Politics: British Muslim Women. Journal of International Women Studies , 340.
Bullock, K. (2002). Rethinking Muslim Women and The Veil. Herndon,USA: The International of Islamic Thought.
Chaudhry, M. S. (1991). Women’s rights in Islam. India: Adam Publishers.
Groen, J. (2010). Women’s warriors for Allah. United States: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Kavakci, M. (2004). Headscarf Heresy. Foreign Policy , 142.
Khaula Nakata, Ruth Anderson. (1995). Hijab(Veil): The view from the Inside. Saudi Arabia: World Assembly of Muslim Youth.
Naik, Z. (2009). Answer to non-Muslims’ common questions about Islam. Pakistan: Islamic Research Foundation.
Othman, N. (2006). Muslim women and the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism/extremism: An overview of Southeast Asian Muslim women’s struggle for human rights and gender equality. Women’s Studies International Forum , 343.
Othman, N. (2006). Othman, N. (2006). Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Fundamentalism/ Extremism: An Overview of Southeast Asian Muslim Women’s Struggle for Human Rights and Gender Equality. Women’s Studies Internationla Forum 29 , 339-353.

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