So different hijab: veil in Islam and veil outside of Islam

Why women cover their heads not only in Islam and how the hijab is associated with emancipation

So different hijab: veil in Islam and veil outside of Islam
Photo: Oleg Tikhonov

The issue of the hijab has never been as hotly debated as it has been in the last 200 years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, religion began to actively return to the public space, and the issue of women's veils again turned out to be relevant and political. Unlike our predecessors, for many ethical Muslims, the veil is no longer the clothing of a mother and grandmother. This is clothing that implies observance and adherence to religion. We offer to look at the phenomenon of hijab from different angles. We will show that the veil is not exclusively part of Islamic culture, but was widespread before Islam as well. Besides, we will explain how the hijab has established itself as a part of Islam and how the hijab is related to a woman's freedom and high status.

Veil in the culture of peoples

The entire palette of clothing associated with traditional Cairo and Baghdad today, from hijab, niqab, parandja and open dresses, existed among the Arabs before Islam. On the other hand, this is not a purely Arab tradition. For example, similar traditions existed in ancient Greece (Aphrodite's Tortoise, The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece), in Byzantium (Gabriel Radle, The Veiling of Women in Byzantium) or in Judea. Jewish believers still cover their hair, but they do so with a hat or wig (although there are some who wear veils).

The Covered Dancer, Alexandria, III—II century BC Photo:

The veil in Ancient Persian, Assyrian, and Mesopotamian cultures was an indicator of a woman's high status. The wearing of a veil by slaves and prostitutes was a criminal offense. Later, as we will show later, this understanding passed to Islam.

Besides, covering the head was a necessary element of worship. In pagan culture, head was covered by the priestesses of the goddess Vesta. The New Testament strictly states that a woman should cover her head in the temple: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head — it is the same as having her head shaved” (1 Corinthians 11:5). Understanding the veil as part of a cult also entered Islam, where covering certain parts of the body is a condition for the validity of prayer.

For thousands of years, the veil has been an integral part of both Middle Eastern, European, or even Indian cultures. The West's rejection of closed clothing was exacerbated by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack and the war in Afghanistan, when the Afghan burqa, which covers the entire body down to the eyes, became associated with the enslavement and humiliation of women in the East. All this was combined with the need to justify the beginning of the counter-terrorist war and became a turning point in Modern History. The image of the East also changed: if in the colonial period the East was more associated with hedonism, pleasure and mysterious wisdom, now it has become associated, on the contrary, with hypocrisy, ignorance and fanaticism.

Similar to other practices, such as the Hajj pilgrimage, the “forbidden months” and circumcision, covering women existed in Arab society before Islam. From the Muslim point of view, before the prophet Muhammad, other prophets came to the Arabs (as well as to other peoples) and probably established these practices. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that Islam “obliged” women to wear the veil, it only legitimised the customs that already existed in society.

Clothing of Arab women before Islam. Photo:

Hijab in Islam

Interesting is the story of the sending “the ayat about the hijab”, which is given in Bukhari's Sahih, the second most important book in Islam after the Koran. According to it, the intention to introduce the hijab as a religious duty was set by Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second righteous caliph. Besides, this tradition uses the word “hijab” itself in the form of the imperative verb “uhjub”.

“As for Umar, he often said to the Prophet (peace and prayers of Allah be upon him): “Cover (uhjub) your wives”, but the Messenger of Allaah (peace and prayers of Allah be upon him) did not do this. One evening, the wife of the Prophet (peace and prayers of Allah be upon him), Sawda bint Zamʿa, who was a tall woman, came out of the house, and 'Umar said to her, “We have recognised you, o Sauda!” (He did this), wishing that the revelation about the need to wear veil would be send down, and that the Allaah would indeed send down the ayah. (Sahih al-Bukhari, 146)".

The word “hijab” is translated from Arabic as “barrier” or “veil”. In the Quran itself, the word “hijab” is not used in the sense we are interested in. Instead, two other words that are related in meaning are used — “himar” and “jilbab”.

“And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision. And to cover with a veil (humur, pl of 'himar') the neckline (an-Nur, 31).”

Himar, if you refer to Arabic dictionaries, translates as “a piece of cloth covering the head”. This word comes from the verb “hamara”, meaning “hide, cover”. In one of the hadiths, it is reported that the women of the city of Medina, when they heard this verse, covered their hair with cloths.

"...O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments” (jalabib, pl from “jilbab”; al-Ahzab, 59).

Jilbab is a word meaning loose long clothing. Therefore, it is assumed that Muslim clothing should not only cover the entire body, but also not be tight and hide the silhouette.

Islamic scholars have ruled that avrat (the intimate part of the body which must be covered by clothing) include the whole body except face, feet and hands. Some theologians claim that the size of the veil depends on traditions and the “depravity of society”. Considering that vices began to spread in society, some theologians began to consider it desirable or mandatory to cover the face as well. In the Shafi'i law school, however, it was widely believed that the hijab should also be worn by men, especially young and beautiful, so as not to embarrass women.

The hijab itself has only general requirements, but no prescribed form. The hijab doesn't have to be black, similar to what Gulf women wear. This may well be European clothing, but it meets the conditions of covering “avrat”.

The costume of old believers from Nizhny Novgorod Province. Photo:

Ancient texts added that these restrictions only apply to free women and do not apply to slaves. All this was written when slavery was flourishing all over the world. And in Islamic society, the hijab was a tool for defining free women, the subjects of the society. The hijab here served as a tool to protect women from attacks on their modesty by men. In this sense, the Islamic philosophy is simple: a man is a man and a woman is a woman, we will not change their nature. Instead, we will change the environment.

Hijab and objectification

In modern times, the era of slave societies began to fade. In fact, in Islam itself, there is an intention to free slaves: this is prescribed for a large number of offenses (for example, skipping fasting) and is considered a good deed. At the same time, there was only one method of enslavement — military campaign. Slaves themselves can thus be understood as prisoners of war. Economic slavery is prohibited in Sharia law. This is also one of the reasons why usury is prohibited.

An interesting view on the issue of slavery was offered by Jonathan Brown, an Islamic scholar at Georgetown University, in his book 'Slavery in Islam'. Brown says that “slavery” is a word that changes its meaning from society to society. When prohibiting “slavery”, it is necessary to specify what exactly is meant. Slaves in Islamic society were primarily prisoners of war and their descendants, but were also subject to bargaining.

We live in a capitalist society, where beauty and sexuality are given such importance that it has never been in history. Feminist theory has given this phenomenon the definition of “objectification”, when a person and his body is only a tool for satisfying their own needs, without taking into account their personality and feelings. Women are particularly susceptible to objectification.

Photo: Oleg Tikhonov

Criticism of objectification has an important place in the modern left (criticism of capitalism for the reification of the body) and feminist movements. It is amazing how the left-wing and the Islamic agenda overlap in this, while offering very different solutions. After all, for Islamic theologians, the figure of the headscarf means that a woman is not a commodity and part of market relations.

The presence of a headscarf did not prevent a woman from occupying a prominent position in the Islamic environment and did not detract from the importance of women's education. We can find great women in different periods of the history of Islam: from the wives of the prophet Muhammad, who played a significant role in the early stages of the development of the Islamic Caliphate, to Queen Syuyumbike. Finally, I would like to mention Fatima al-Fihri, who built the world's oldest university, the University of al-Qarawiyyin, in Fez, Morocco.

Moreover, in books on Islamic law, the headscarf is considered as a woman's right and privilege. Andalusian theologian Ibn Hazm described the noble girl as “from a noble family, high position, hidden behind a thick veil”.

The headscarf was a tool for building a society that, without changing human nature, would form a culture that is not fixated on sexuality. Unfortunately, this meaning of the veil is not shared by everyone. For many Muslims and non-Muslims, the veil is a symbol of the enslavement of women and their subordinate position. It's just that some are criminally content with this, while others, on the contrary, are hostile to any manifestation of religiosity.

The hijab was also worn by Tatar women two centuries ago. Luxuriously painted veils were especially appreciated. In the collection 'Peoples of Russia' of 1878, published in St. Petersburg, the dress of Tatars was described as follows:

“The heads of the poor are wrapped with patterned towels at the ends, and the rich wear silk ones, in the form of a bandage, with expensive fringes, ornaments and precious stones, or velvet caps, edged with sable. Above all, they are covered with a long veil of tulle… Over the shirt, like men, Tatar women wear two camisoles, of which the lower one, zilyan, is sleeveless, made of silk cloth, trimmed with lace at the edges and with a pocket on the side. The upper camisole is made of brocade, with very long sleeves. Instead of camisole, however, it is now more often simply a robe of brocade, silk or Chinese cloth with long sleeves that shrink to the ends, this robe is thrown over the head and serves, thus, instead of he chador.”

Certainly, the very wearing of hijab does not mean asceticism and high moral qualities, as some believe. Islam regards this as one of the divine covenants. On the other hand, the veil has a special place in the entire Abrahamic tradition — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. This is an integral part of the traditional religions of the Russian Federation.

In secular democracies, religion is not a source of state law. In accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation, everyone has the right to choose a religion or not to choose any. There is also an important clarification: “and act in accordance with them (religious beliefs)". The hijab is a religious prescription, thus a “religious belief”, but not only by it. Hijab is also a part of world culture, its intention to “modesty”, which was manifested in different historical epochs and in different civilisations.

By Karim Gaynullin