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The Essay: Jilbab and Niqab

 

Thursday, 13 March 2008

 

I knew the issue had to come up eventually...I don't like writing too many lecture-like and serious posts here (Allah knows I get enough of this during the day!), but I felt I had to do this sometime. I also apologize for the lengthiness, but complex issues require proper explanation.

As you've probably realised, I don't wear jilbab/abaya or niqab. I wear 'Western' (shock, horror!) loose fitting, modest clothing with a scarf to cover my hair. My personal boundaries are such: I wear jeans, but only boot-cut or wide leg, and if I am wearing trousers, then I'll wear a long top over them, which comes at least to wear the trouser begins to flare or loosen. I wear ankle-length skirts, with shorter tops, though still past the waist. I don't yank my hijab over my chest all the time, as I usually wear loose tops anyway. This is what I am comfortable with, and this is what I believe satisfies Islam's requirements for dress.

Yet as with all things, there are those for whom I'm just 'not good enough'. They try to tell me that I should be covered in a black abaya, with a large khimar over my chest at all times. Some will even specify that the head covering must come all the way down to the elbows too (not bothering to actually tell me where they got this interpretation from). Others yet will try to convince me that covering my face is compulsory (click here to see why it is not so).

I don't believe that jilbab is fard (and neither do many scholars, see one example here). Many people will often quote verse 33:59 from the Quran which mentions jilbab to try to argue that it is compulsory. This is a huge misunderstanding. The only reason jilbab is mentioned, is because that was what women wore at that place, and at that time. We couldn't very well ask them to make their shalwaar kameez a little longer and looser now could we? The Quran needs to be read in context. You cannot just push a verse or two and think that is the whole story.

Furthermore, we should also be aware of the tafseer of many scholars regarding where the ayah says '..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...'. 'That they should be known' was actually meant to distinguish free women from slave women at the time, who were being molested in the streets. So it is as clear as day that the ayah is not actually saying that we should all wear jilbab, rather it is a particular command at a particular time, and does not mean that jilbab is fard for all women.

Another frequently quoted ayah is 24:31 'draw their veils over their bosoms'. Again, this needs to be seen in context. Many women at the time used to walk around in clothing which was split at the front, and so exposed the chest. They would also wear scarves loosely on their heads, which didn't cover properly. So the ayah is asking them to used their head coverings 'khimars' to cover their exposed chests. We can see that this is a very particular command. It does not mean that women at all times, and all places must wear their head scarves down over their chests. If the clothing is loose enough to cover the chest by itself, then that is sufficient. If not, then by all means draw your scarf over your chest. Simple.

As long as your clothing fits the requirements, i.e. covers everything except for face, hands (and some say feet), is loose so as not to show the figure, is not transparent, and is not worn out of arrogance, or is overly flashy, anything goes - be it tudung, shalwar kameez or jeans. There are no limitations on colour either. Women at the time of the Prophet (s) used to wear greens, reds and yellows, and he allowed that. So much for those who tell me that black is the only 'halal colour'!

So why don't I wear abaya, seeing at is satisfies the requirements, as do other forms of dress? The short answer: I don't want to! But I know this warrants a longer explanation. Firstly, I don't want to dress like a foreigner in Britain. I don't want to look too out of place, but still want to be identified as a Muslim (hence the headscarf). Jilbab is particular to one culture (i.e. Arab), but covering our hair is mandated by our religion. We should not make ourselves unnecessarily different from the community we live in, and Islam does not impose one country's dress over another.

I also do not wear jilbab because in my field, it looks very unprofessional and out of place. It's also a health hazard, and simply not appropriate for running around in. (And yes, I have tried it!)

As for the niqab, I would simply never cover my face. My face is my identity. It is the window to my emotions, feelings and opinions. If I covered my face, I would lose my identity in the public sphere, and I wouldn't be able to do the job that I want to do. I didn't work hard for years to throw it all away. Niqab is not fard for Muslim women. It was only so for the Mothers of the Believers. The Prophet (s) never ordered other women to cover their faces, and there are many hadith that show women with uncovered faces in the presence of the Prophet (s). Many people will say that we should emulate the Prophet's wives, that they were the best women. There is no doubt that they were women of superior character, but that does not mean we follow them in every literal action. If that were so, we should be sleeping on straw mats in mud brick houses.

Why do many Muslims today focus so much on superficial actions, and forget about the spirit of Islam? Islam is not wrap yourself up head to toe in black sheets. Islam is respect yourself, and those around you, be gentle to them, guide them with your good actions.

Hence another reason I don't wear niqab is that it is a barrier between me and the rest of society. I've heard those that claim otherwise, and frankly I'm not convinced. At a recent talk I went to, the non-Muslim members of the audience were asked to say what they thought of veiled women. The responses were, as expected, negative: unapproachable, closed-off, isolated, aggressive. This is not the kind of image I want to be giving people of Islam. I enjoy smiling at people I see, saying hello. How can I do this if I wear niqab? Facial expressions are essential to good communication, to having a meaningful interaction with another person. Again I lose out on this if my face is covered. I don't have the chance to let them get to know Muslims, especially women, who are so frequently surrounded my misconceptions.

Thirdly, whilst this might seem silly at first, niqab is a security threat. You could be anyone under there! Remember the incident of the Imam of the Red Mosque in Pakistan escaping under a burkha? Read about it here. As one friend told me 'I can't recognise my own mother in a group of women in niqab'. So how do we deal with situations where you need to prove your identity, such as universities, banks and airports? Obviously this cannot be done when your face is hidden. Niqab is not friendly, it's not approachable, and it's a risk. I don't want to be part of it.

And finally, though I know this is not a primary purpose of wearing hijab, I think it's quite important, and often neglected. By wearing stylish, modest Western clothing, I am helping to make modesty appeal to non-Muslims. So whilst most of them would not want to wear jilbab, they appreciate that you can look good whilst covering up, hopefully changing the attitude that the only way to look good is to show skin.

So in conclusion, I feel that often more harm than good will arise from wearing jilbab and niqab, but this all depends on the environment you are living in. Will I wear jilbab in the UK? No. Will I wear it in Saudi? Absolutely.

I look forward to reading your responses.

Posted by Hayah

 

http://hijabstyle.blogspot.com/2008/03/essay-jilbab-and-niqab.html

 

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