The majority of Islamic ladies proudly wear hijabs. What is a hijab? A hijab is a scarf or head covering that covers a female’s hair and often is wrapped around her neck below her chin. The wearing of a hijab as traditional clothing has its roots from the religious text of Islam called the Koran (Qur’an) which instructed that both Muslim men and women dress in modest ways. However, the hijab is worn for other purposes according to the Muslim women with whom I have discussed this traditional dress.
First of all, many Muslim women view the wearing of the hijab as a way to liberate themselves from the norms of the world. It prevents these ladies from feeling the need to be subject to the trendy styles of the fashion industry that tries to dictate what a woman should or should not wear. Many of the current styles do not encourage the modest dress required by Islam.
Secondly, wearing the hijab protects her from the possible inappropriate stares and indecent thoughts and actions toward her by men who are not related to her. Only close male relatives, like her husband, her father, her father-in-law, her sons, her brothers, her uncles, her nephews, and her grandfathers are permitted to see her without her hijab. Even cousins are not permitted this privilege. Some ladies even choose not to be seen without their hijabs in front of non-Muslim women for fear that these women will reveal their identity to strange men.
However, the main and most important reason Muslim women wear hijabs is that it is a special way to demonstrate that they are precious and should receive respect from other people around them. They indicate that it also gives them more self-confidence and helps them to be appreciated for who they are inside rather than for who they are on the outside. People have the opportunity to discover the real beauty of the lady—not the superficial outer beauty that might influence someone’s view of her. The Muslim lady desires to be appreciated and liked for her attitude, her personality, her ideals, her skills, and her knowledge or intelligence.
When I lived in Egypt, many shops were available to purchase beautiful and unique hijabs. The selection of the perfect hijab is done with much care and love. The ladies want their hijabs to represent who they are, but at the same time provide the privacy that is so essential in their lives. Finally, they wear the hijab, not only in submission to God’s order, but also because their inherent moral code is in full harmony with its philosophy.
I had the opportunity to wear a lovely hijab loaned to me by an Egyptian shop owner one Friday in January 2012. My former student and friend Samar Adel invited me to attend the mid-day prayers with her at one of the oldest mosques in the world called Amr Ibn el Aas located in the architecturally historic and incredibly beautiful section of Cairo called Old Cairo. I proudly wore this beautiful scarf and prayed in the mosque with the ladies that day.
The men were praying in another section of the mosque as is required by tradition and Islam to protect the privacy of the ladies while praying. I did not understand the Arabic, of course, but I did feel the presence of God (Allah) that day and joined them in my own personal prayers. It was an enlightening experience, and one I will never ever forget. After that experience, I also began to understand at least a little more how special and important the hijab is to a Muslim woman. Even though I am an American Christian woman and choose not to cover my head with a scarf, I now highly respect these women who choose to demonstrate their strong faith and privacy by wearing their hijabs.
As I was doing some additional research online, I was reminded that women in other religions and in some secular cases have also chosen to cover their hair. Roman Catholic nuns wear habits on their bodies and solid colored veils (usually black and white) to cover their hair. During the Third Century this was done because they considered themselves to be brides of Jesus Christ. In the Fifth Century it became a symbol to indicate repentance.
Later during the Middle Ages, it just became the appropriate fashion for that time period.
Today some nuns have now chosen not to wear veils or habits. Another group of highly religious people in history were the Puritans who settled in the United States in the 1500s. The ladies of this group would part their hair in the middle and fix it in the back so it could not be seen under the hats they chose to wear for modesty. Some of the hats were bonnets that they tied under their chins. A third group of women that belong to the Hassididics faction of Judaism have strict rules about covering their bodies and heads. Also Coptic Christian women and other Christian women often choose to cover their heads with scarves when entering a church to worship as a sign of reverence to God.
Finally, even in some secular societies, some women judges have to cover their heads during judicial sessions as a way to show their dignity and self-respect. Thus, the practice of women wearing some kind of covering on their heads and hair for various reasons has been a part of world history for many years.