Last week, the Washington Post published an article by Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa, in which they asked women not to wear headscarves in the name of interfaith solidarity. Their reason being that because the term hijab, commonly used to refer to the headscarf, does not appear in the Qur’an. Therefore, the argument goes, wearing of headscarves by Muslim women is in fact not part of Islam, but rather a cultural accretion and byproduct of ultra conservative innovation pioneered by the likes of the Saudi government and the Islamic State.
Before highlighting the major academic flaws in the article, I must express my disappointment that such a piece was published by two women who claim to champion women’s choice. The majority of Muslim women choose to wear a head-covering as a spiritual act, and it is high time that they receive the support to freely wear what they want without judgment or reprisal.
The Linguistic Red Herring
Muslim women who wear hijab out of devotion to God do so based on the following sources in the Qur’an:
“And tell the believing women to lower [some/part of] their gaze and guard their private parts and to not expose their beauty except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their khumur over their juyūb and not expose their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, […]” Q 24.31
The above verse from the Qur’an obliges women to cover themselves by wearing what is commonly known in our times as ‘hijab.’ 
However, as many have pointed out, this verse doesn’t actually mention the word ‘hijab’, nor does it refer to covering one’s hair per se. This is where those who rely on their readers’ ignorance toss out red herrings such as “‘hijab’ doesn’t mean head covering,” “the Qur’an doesn’t mandate hijab,” “hijab means a barrier, not a head covering,” and so on.
Truth be told, there is no explicit reference for head-covering in the Qur’an via the word ‘hijab,’ and yet “mainstream Muslims” believe hijab to be a part of the Islamic faith. That is because the verse above clearly and thoroughly commands Muslim women to cover their bodies, including their head/hair, neck and chest. They do not, however, hold hijab to be a “sixth pillar of Islam,” as the authors claimed in the Washington Post piece, but an obligation on Muslim women as an act of obedience to God.
This verse addresses the “believing women” and not just the wives of the Prophet [pbuh]. Hence, whatever command follows is an obligation on any woman who claims to believe in God and adheres to Islam as her faith.
Believing women are then commanded to lower their gaze and guard their private parts, just as the believing men are commanded in a previous verse of the same chapter. Next, the believing women are asked to conceal their beauty. The Arabic word used for beauty is “zīnah.”
“wa-la yubdīna zīnata-hunna”
yubdīna—let them not show
This is a general command is specified by the next phrase, “illa ma ẓahara min-hā,” meaning except that which is a necessity to uncover, or obviously apparent.
The next part of the verse outlines the specifics of what needs to be covered by believing women:
“wal yudribna bi khumuri-hinna ‘alā juyūbi-hinna”
Draw/strike their khumur over their juyūb.
The Qur’anic term for head-covering (what is referred to as hijab in contemporary times) is khimār. Khumur is the plural of khimār. Khimār derives from the triliteral root Kha-Ma-Ra, which literally means something that covers.
On an interesting linguistic side note, alcohol is called “khamr” in Arabic because it ‘covers’ a person’s mind, concealing their ability to think.
Linguistically, khimār was – and still is – a cloth that drapes over the top of the head and hangs downwards. Juyūb, the next term used in the same line, is the plural of jayb, which is the opening/slit in a dress that allows the head to fit through.
It is essential to note here that the women in pre-Islamic times were accustomed to covering their hair based on their religions and cultures. However, their neck and chest, and in some cultures their ears, used to be exposed.
That is why qualified male and female interpreters of the Qur’an—those well educated in the Arabic language and the other necessary texts required to understand the Qur’an —have unanimously agreed for centuries that this verse of the Qur’an commanded Muslim women to drape their head coverings over the front openings of their shirts, modernly known as hijab.
Juyūbi-hinna—the front opening of their shirts (i.e. their chest)
With such clear step by step commands, it is impossible to claim that the head-covering is a nothing more than a cultural practice imposed by men to control women.
Later in the article Ms. Nomani and Ms. Arafa acknowledge the use of the term “khimar” in the Qur’an, however, they twist the historical facts. Referring to the verse (24:31) they state:
“In old Arabic poetry, the khemar was a fancy silk scarf worn by affluent women. It was fixed on the middle of the head and thrown over their back, as a means of seducing men and flaunting their wealth. This verse was revealed at a time, too, when women faced harassment when they used open-air toilets. The verse also instructs how to wear an existing traditional garment. It doesn’t impose a new one.”
Their claim that affluent women wore khimar to seduce men is not only historically baseless, it is also a serious accusation to respectable women of that time. Moreover, they themselves mention that, “The verse also instructs how to wear an existing traditional garment. It doesn’t impose a new one.”
As explained previously, women of the time were already in the practice of wearing a headscarf but it didn’t cover their neck, ears, back or chest. With the revelation of this verse, Muslim women were told to cover what was exposed before. Intrinsically, Ms. Nomani and Ms. Arafa proved that in this verse Muslim women were instructed how to wear an existing garment properly, without imposing a new one.
The head-covering of Muslim women has always been a norm. A simple history check will show that from the time of Prophet Muhammad’s fifth year of migration till our day, Muslim women have covered their head/hair.
From that time onwards, all four surviving schools of jurisprudence, the fifth school of Dhahiri thought, and both Shi’ee and Sunni scholars have unanimously agreed that hijab (referred to as khimar in the Qur’an) is a requirement for Muslim women. This consensus existed from the time of the Prophet and was challenged only in the 19th century, when an Egyptian revisionist, Saad Zaghloul, disputed hijab for the first time in the history of Islam.
Numerous narrations from the time of Prophet Muhammad, show Muslim women, and not just his wives, started covering themselves in response to the revelation of this verse. Aisha , the first and greatest female scholar of Islam, praised the women of Madinah for their obedience saying, “…They took the curtains, tore them and made headcovers of them.”
The women of Ansaar, upon hearing the verses of covering, took their headscarves and pulled them down to their chests, and if they didn’t have scarves, they used the curtains from their homes instead. Those Ansaar women, without being instructed by the men, understood the verse and implemented the instructions immediately. They used their agency of interpretation of divine orders, something that the authors- who claim to value women’s autonomy and self-determination, really ought to recognize. To argue that hijab even during ritual prayer is baseless erases Muslim women’s agency in interpreting texts, as many see hijab and modesty as one of many important aspects of devotion.
A Play on Words
In their effort to disqualify “hijab” as a head-covering, the authors write:
“Hijab” literally means “curtain” in Arabic. It also means “hiding,” ”obstructing” and “isolating” someone or something. It is never used in the Koran to mean headscarf.”
Let’s not be confused with the semantics of the word hijab. It is obvious that the term hijab has become the common term within the Muslims community for a headcovering even if headcovering in classical Arabic is referred to by khimar instead. Times and languages change. Muslim women these days cover their heads with things they call scarves, dupattas, mindeel, sheilas, and even one-pieces ninjas. Whether any of these words appear in the Qur’an is irrelevant. What matters is that Muslim women are commanded to cover, not what words are used to describe the covering.
The authors make yet another effort to misinform their audience by referring to a, “…notion that “woman is awrah,” or forbidden, an idea that leads to the confinement, subordination, silencing and subjugation of women’s voices and presence in public society.”
Awrah doesn’t mean forbidden. Awrah refers to the parts of the body that need to be covered by women and men in front of other women and men who are not mahram, with mahram referring to those people who we are not allowed to marry- ie- blood relations, children, spouse, other women, etc.
In essence, both men and women have awrah in Islam- and Muslims are required to cover their awrah. However, covering the awarh has never led women –in the past or present– to confinement or subjugation. The covering of the awrah and the observing of hijab don’t mean isolation and alienation from society.
Muslim women around the world in their hijab live normal lives, valiantly and vibrantly participating in all public spheres. They have currently, as well as historically, lived and served in their communities, even teaching in the Prophet’s mosque, tutoring and mentoring men.
Call It a Spade, But It’s a Universal One
It cannot be denied that there are predominantly Muslim societies where women are silenced and hindered from public participation, but the cultural beliefs and socially maintained subjugation do not exist because of Islamic rulings.
In the world’s second-most populous country literacy rates of girls are 20% lower than those of boys, and honor killings and dowry deaths cumulatively account for nearly 10,000 deaths per year. Between 2000 and 2010, an estimated 15 million girls were not born, having been deliberately aborted in favor of male children, and yet there is no state sanctioned hijab in historically Hindu and secular India. In Muslim countries, oppressive cultural practices arguably exist alongside hijab, but not because of it.
“Today, in the 21st century, most mosques around the world, including in the United States, deny us, as Muslim women, our Islamic right to pray without a headscarf, discriminating against us by refusing us entry if we don’t cover our hair.”
Islam is a doctrine of faith, rituals with rules and a way of life. Five daily prayers are obligatory in Islam, with rules and conditions. Both men and women are required to cover their awrah to observe the five daily prayers. The Prophet stated:
“The prayer of a woman, who has reached the age of menstruation, is not accepted without a khimar.” (Once again, the term khimar is used for what we now call ‘hijab’)
For a prayer to be legitimate, certain conditions have to be met; these conditions have been detailed out by the scholars of jurisprudence. For instance, a prayer has to be prayed at its prescribed time, and must be offered in a pure place. Similarly, women cannot pray without covering their hair, just like men can’t pray in shorts that stop above their knees. It is not, nor has it ever been, and a woman’s “Islamic right” to pray without a headscarf. It is an Islamic requirement to pray with head covered.
Even with this clear ruling of covering during prayer, the majority of the mosques in the U.S. do not deny women entry if they are not covered. How many times have we, Muslims who attend mosques, seen women in mosques without a headscarf/hijab. Further, how many mosques actually keep a pile of permanent pile of flowery, communal scarves- and even skirts – for Muslim women to wear during prayer because they have not come wearing their own.
Of course there are mosques that are not welcoming to women with or without hijab, but like other cultural practices, these exist despite Islam and not because of it.
Crime, Chastity, and Punishment
“In the name of “interfaith,” these well-intentioned Americans are getting duped by the agenda of Muslims who argue that a woman’s honor lies in her “chastity” and unwittingly pushing a platform to put a hijab on every woman.”
Ms. Nomani and Ms. Arafa imply that hijab is a form of punishment imposed on women for the crime of sexual harassment by men. This is an unjust depiction of hijab by two women who not only chose to remain uncovered, but insist that the head-covering is cultural practice imposed by Arabs of recent times.
Being chaste is honorable, but in Islam chastity is honorable for both men and women. Even in women, neither honor nor identity lie in a woman’s chastity alone. A Muslim woman’s honor, just like a Muslim man’s honor, lies in her submission to her Creator, and in her obedience to God and God Alone.
The truth is that women who wear hijab as an act of obedience find this headscarf a spiritual link to God and an expression of their Muslim identity, not a form of “punishment” for a crime that they are not responsible for to begin with. The only valid point of criticism they make is in the association of a woman’s character to her clothing.
The only legitimate point these authors make is in the context is about hijab-shaming. It is not from the essence of Islam, nor from the character of a Muslim to ridicule or exclude a woman based on the type of hijab she chooses to wear, or even not wear. If and when people do this, whether in their social circles or places of worship, they are not acting in accordance with Islam.
Hijab is Muslim and Muslims are Scary, Boo!
In addition to the historical inaccuracies, misquotes, and intellectual dishonesty, the authors also played with scare mongering words like “political agenda,” “Taliban,” “Saudi government,” and “Islamic State.” By connecting headscarves to patriarchy, terrorism, and international politics, hijab becomes guilty by association.
To be honest, there is a lot more misinformation in the original piece than can be summarized in one reply alone. It is disappointing to see The Washington Post publishing what amounts to a call to destroy attempts of appreciated solidarity by sincere and freedom-loving Americans of various faiths.
There is too much fear, too little understanding, and too many people trying to build walls between communities for their own advantage.
Who Speaks for Muslim Women?
The full title of the Washington Post article ran as “As Muslim women, we actually ask you not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity ” The authors then go on to offer their opinion as “as mainstream Muslim women” without taking into account that mainstream Muslim women never ask the authors to speak on their behalf, or to present their personal opinions about Islam as mainstream.
Islam’s mainstream opinion on hijab is, as mentioned, unanimous agreement across schools of thought with dispute emerging only recently. The Muslim woman’s opinion on hijab as an act of solidarity is something else entirely, and the authors aren’t in any position to make a blanket statement on what the Muslim world thinks about non-Muslim women wearing hijab in support of those who do.
So if Nomani and Arafa don’t speak for Muslim women, who does? Is it Iran, Saudi Arabia, Taliban Afghanistan, or the Islamic State – all of whom are blamed for introducing hijab to Muslim women in a single sentence of the article. When Muslim women wish to formulate thoughts on the role of modesty, hijab, and obedience to Allah in their lives on a daily basis, who are they looking to?
The answer is themselves. Muslim women represent themselves, and if you want to know what one of them thinks, try finding one and asking her, because she speaks for herself. I speak only for myself in this article, from a position shared by women who observe hijab out of devotion, based on the Qur’an. If you would like a different opinion, find a second Muslim woman and ask her too, because Muslim women share the same capacity for unique thought as other humans.
- A religious headscarf that covers a woman’s hair, neck, ears, back and draws down to her chest covering her bosom.
- What People Wore When: A Complete Illustrated History of Costume, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2008. Also, see www.Catholicplanet.com/veil/index.htm
- History of Costume, by Braun and Schneider
- See “The Bible on Women and Their Hair” http://www.therefiner’sfire.org/women’s_hair.htm