Many people mistakenly believe that Muslim women are supposed to cover their entire bodies and adopt modesty whereas men can do what they please and the rules of dress and behavior do not apply to them. This is not the case, as the Quran explicitly orders both men and women to adopt correct dress and behavior. In the Quran, Allah tells men to adopt hijab before the women:
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. (The Quran, Chapter 33 Verse 59)
Muslim women wear the ‘hijab’ or head-cover because they have been told to do so in the Quran. It is a symbol of their faith and integrity, and not a sign of male oppression. In fact, it can be argued (and many feminist writers will agree) that it is the Western/non-Muslim need for women to maintain their beauty and youth gives rise to the sexist objectification of women, oppressing them and limiting their potential as women.
Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. (The Quran Chapter 24 Verse 30).
And in the following verse:
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 veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons…(The Quran Chapter 24 Verse31).
The extent of the body that needs to be covered for men and women is obviously different. For men, the minimum requirement is to be covered from navel to knees. For women, the covered area should be the entire body except for the face, hands and feet, except in the presence of their husband or males they cannot be married to (for example, their son, nephew, brother, father, father-in-law and uncle).
Apart from the above, the clothes of both men and women should follow these guidelines:
They should be loose and not reveal the figure
They should not be transparent
Clothes should not be such that they attract the opposite sex
Clothes should not resemble that of the opposite sex and
They should not resemble the clothes that are symbolic of another religion
Hijab, contrary to popular belief, is not restricted to dress. In fact, the word ‘hijab’ denotes a barrier or partition. This means that through the correct dress, behavior, language, values, integrity, truthfulness and attitude, both men and women are able to shield themselves from the wrath of Allah and expect mercy from Him on the day of judgment. Therefore hijab needs to be observed with regard to the eyes, tongue, mind and limbs- creating a framework within which the whole person lives his or her life in a manner that pleases Allah.
Narrative of a Hijabi Researcher
At the beginning of this research I felt somewhat like an imposter, someone who had gained access to valuable information posing as a person I was not. This was because although I identified as a Muslim woman, I was not a practicing Muslim except on special or festive occasions. When I interviewed participants, I wore the hijab, a head covering worn by Muslim women throughout the world because I believed it to be appropriate given that I was interviewing Muslim women who expected to meet a Muslim researcher. As I began interviewing, I started reading literature from both commentaries on the Quran and from the Quran itself, supporting the adoption of the hijab for women. By wearing hijab I also began to experience firsthand the freedom from fashion and from having to maintain a certain (Western) image that I was used to. Like many Muslims who refer to themselves as “moderate Muslims”, I tried to achieve a balance between Muslim and Western practices. I had held some deep-seated stereotypical beliefs about Muslim women who wore the hijab or jilbab (long outer garment that covers the entire body); I had subconsciously decided that such women led subjugated lives, hidden from public view and who would not really have anything to do with sport or exercise. This opinion was of course a stereotypical one, a product of the hegemonic power of Western mass media, one which is only occasionally challenged, or at least occasionally reportedly challenged in the public sphere. As the interviews progressed I realized how unsubjugated and unoppressed by men the women I talked to, were. Many had made a conscious decision to wear hijab after a significant event in their lives (such as making Hajj), or after coming across the Quranic verses which instruct women to do so. Most of the women were active within their local Muslim communities. They had adopted the hijab as a means of maintaining their presence as Muslim women, but taking away that aspect of themselves from public view which they believed would objectify them or put them on display in public, which is forbidden in Islam.