Modesty and Identity
Question: The reason why I am writing to you today is that I am and have been struggling with an issue for a long time now and would like to know your perspective on the issue so that it might help me come to a resolution. I have worn a hijab for around 9 years. When I decided to start wearing it, it was because I thought it was something that should be done; so why delay. I did not look into the religious, rational or any other type of debate or arguments for or against it at that time. It was just something accepted that was supposed to be done. A few years ago, I started to read other perspectives on the issue of covering ranging from views that expressed it is not required in Islam at all to views arguing modesty in context to a view arguing complete covering including the face as required. In reading these interpretations and applying them to my own rational understanding, I have tried to put a strong emphasis on Islamic textual interpretation as well as social norms and modernity. I do believe that the Qur’an and Sunnah are primary, but I also believe that the social context and practical life are also important. Also, in the end, regardless of which view might sound “correct”, it will be a personal decision that one must make. More recently, I have been weighing the “costs and benefits” of the head covering. I feel it is a big part of my identity and an example of my faith, and it is mainly for these reasons that I do continue to wear it. On the other hand, I have questioned my feelings toward it both as a part of faith and as part of my identity. This questioning began while I was in Pakistan, so it is not simply a result of living in the US Although it is a strong identifier, good or bad, in the US it is almost equally the case in Pakistan or any other Muslim country (other than those that impose covering on women). There are a number of reasons why I would consider taking off the covering, and this includes reasons of religious interpretation and flexibility, personal ease and comfort in wearing it in various environments, and other reasons which vary in importance. I am afraid that I continue to wear it not so much because of a religious dedication but because I have just become used to it and would feel strange without it. I wouldn't want my reasons for covering to be based on familiarity only. My question to you is: what is your perspective, religious and otherwise, on the head covering? What is your view on the different opinions I have mentioned relating to how the references for modesty for women are interpreted? Does the Qur’an simply state there should be modesty, and therefore, the form that this takes would depend on the social context or is it clearly meant to imply covering the hair at all times? I have not come to a decision on this issue, but I believe that if I did decide to not wear it all the time (as opposed to deciding to not wear it at all - which is not something I am considering at all), I would wear it when the context would require it, i.e. in the masjid or a Muslim gathering to show respect, or in certain areas in say Muslim countries where such a form of modesty is the norm and where in such a context not covering would be unusual. On the other hand, I believe that the modesty shown should be a little beyond the typical definition of modesty in that context, i.e. In America wearing loose clothing that covers the body in a clearly modest fashion, opposed to the normal standards. I hope that I have made my views clear. I do appreciate the scarf and see the value in it, but I also wanted to clarify the concept of modesty in Islam and how this can be interpreted in practical life. Any guidance you can provide would be very helpful.
Answer: My understanding of what constitutes the obligations of modesty of men and women towards each other when they are interacting is that they should abide by the following rules of interaction:
1. Muslim men and women are not to gaze at each other in suggestive ways in mixed gatherings.
2. Muslim men and women must cover their private parts properly.
3. Women, in addition, should cover their bosoms with an extra piece of cloth.
4. Also, in case if they are wearing ornaments or are otherwise have beautified themselves, women should conceal their beautification from non-mahram relatives, except in the case of their faces, hands, and feet. (24:30-31)
Other than that, according to my understanding, their is no obligation for both men and women, except that they should very clearly know that the Almighty has asked us not “to come near obscenity, both hidden and apparent”. (6:151)
Given this understanding, I believe that covering of the head is an additional measure which good Muslim ladies have always adopted but has never been a necessary part of the shari‘ah for them. However, if in a situation where you find yourself getting teased by men or else feel uncomfortable in their presence, the Qur’an has asked you to cover yourself as much as you can to stay away from their evil. “O prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the women of believers, that [in case of danger of being teased] they should lower their outer part of garments on themselves. That is more likely to ensure that they would be recognized and would not be teased” (33:59).
Given the above understanding, I think what you are intending to do in this regard is well within the limits of Islam. May the Almighty enable us all to follow the right path.
(Dr. Khalid Zaheer of Al-Mawrid Institute, Lahore, Pakistan)
Renaissance, a monthly Islamic magazine from Pakistan, November 2006
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