Let's talk about the hijab

When people hear that I’m Muslim, one of the first things they ask about is the hijab. Why do I not wear one? What exactly is the deal with the hijab, anyway?

Unfortunately, the lack of understanding around the subject of the hijab leads people to make false or stereotyped claims about what Islam requires and stands for. Even the most well-intentioned people tend to have misconceptions, because of the misinformation spread about Islam in the public arena.

I’m here to dispel the claim that the hijab is linked to female oppression. In truth, the Quran doesn’t explicitly require women to wear head coverings. Most women who wear the hijab do so because of their individual interpretations of a specific Quranic verse and their own culturally informed definition of modesty.

You may be surprised to learn that the Quran doesn’t even state that women should wear head coverings. Out of the 6,236 verses of the Quran, only three mention women’s clothing at all. Of the three verses, the one whose meaning is debated when it comes to head coverings is roughly translated as: “Hence, let (women) draw their head coverings over their bosoms.” Some Muslims and Islamic scholars interpret this to mean that Muslim women should wear head coverings, but many others take this verse in the historical context of clothing in pre-Islamic Arabia.

At the time, women already wore headscarves that trailed down their backs and left their bosoms exposed. If the above verse is considered in historical context, many scholars agree that it isn’t urging women who aren’t already wearing headscarves to wear them; it is simply saying that women should use their ornamental headscarves to cover their breasts, for the sake of modesty. The main point here is that women should cover their breasts in public. This isn’t such a foreign or odd notion anymore, is it?

Some people may still object to the idea of guidelines for what a woman should or shouldn’t wear, making the argument that this notion points to a double standard. However, this isn’t actually a double standard, because the Quran also references how men should dress.

Women who wear the hijab do so due to the first interpretation of the verse above. Contrary to the common misconception, the majority of hijabis are not forced into wearing a head covering. They do so voluntarily. There are only two countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia – yes, only two of the 50 Muslim-majority countries – where women are required to wear the hijab. It can be argued that these countries have adopted laws that are actually un-Islamic. I say this because I’ve read the Quran, and forcing anything upon anybody is not permitted. The Quran does not allow forcing people to convert or denouncing other religions, because it says individuals have a right to their beliefs. Using the same rationale, according to Muslim author Sumbul Ali-Karamali, “whether (someone) is modest or not is a matter for their own conscience.”

Cultural definition of modesty

Separate from religious requirement, there is a cultural definition of modesty in many Muslim countries that leans toward men and women covering their head, arms and legs.

Definitions of modesty have varied over time and certainly still do by location. Although there are definitions of modesty even in the United States, they are vastly different from those in other parts of the world. For instance, in the U.S. it is acceptable for men to walk around shirtless and for women to wear crop tops and show their legs. This is why you’ll find some Muslim women here who dress in Western clothing, ranging anywhere from pants to dresses and shorts. Other U.S. Muslim women choose to wear more Eastern-inspired clothing, such as maxi dresses and the hijab.

My mother, who grew up in Canada, remembers her father saying that in the West, where the hijab isn’t the cultural norm, wearing it could actually work counterproductively to the Quran’s intent, because women who wear it might actually call more attention to themselves rather than less.

So it’s important to remember that most women who wear the hijab choose to do so of their own free will. There are a lot of highly educated, financially independent and fiercely feminist Muslim women who choose to cover their hair. This has to do with their interpretation of the Quran and/or their own understanding of modesty. The Quran, as a religious text, and Islam, as a religion, both encourage people to think for themselves and make their own reasonable interpretations of the holy book. We should resist the temptation to perceive them as victims who have been forced to dress a certain way.

Instead, I urge you to think critically when you hear of Islamic ideas that sound unfair. Dig deeper. Ask questions – ideally of a Muslim friend, neighbor or colleague – rather than relying on what you’ve heard through snippets of news and online. Chances are, the truth is very different from what you think it is.

The author, a rising junior at a Peninsula high school, requested that only her initials be used due to the sensitive nature of the topic.

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