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Hijab: Meanings, Disputes & Perspectives

Singapore: When Sarah arrives at the clinic, she removes her veil. “They told me that I can't work here if I wear the Tudung (local Malay term for the hijab) during my job interview”, recalls Sarah, two years ago. While Sarah isn't new, in many professional settings of Singapore, many women are debarred from wearing the headscarf. The hijab debate fumed up again when a woman in a department store was asked to remove hijab to work in the store in recent months. Nearly 15% of the 4 million resident population are calling for the ban to be ended in Singapore. “If Sikhs can wear a turban while working why can't we work with a headscarf? Why this discrimination?” asks Aarzu, a Muslim law student from Singapore. However, this Islamic veil debate isn't new, it pervades everywhere and occupies our societal spaces in polarised forms. The western world view regards it as a sign of oppression while the other perspective sees it as a compulsion, mostly prevalent among Arab countries. Hence, it is important to understand it in these contexts.

But, at first, let us understand its relevance in Islam. The veil concept has been developed to live a modest and decent life. According to the Holy Quran, covering of the body dates back to the time of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: "So, when they tasted of the tree, their nakedness became exposed to them, and they began to stitch over themselves with the leaves of paradise", Holy Quran (7:22). The verse explains that modesty is innate and it concerns both men and women.

Moreover, it is important to understand the meaning of the word hijab that is used frequently. It doesn't mean absolutely, the headscarf covering hair of Muslim women. In the holy book Quran, nowhere the word hijab is used for this purpose. Hijab means curtain, separation, something that hides and protects something. The verse "O you who have believed, do not enter the house of the Prophet except when you are permitted for a meal... And when you ask [his wives] for something, ask them from behind a separation (Hijab)", Holy Quran (33:53). In this verse as we can see the word hijab is used as a curtain, separation and circumstantial requirement to respect the wives of the Prophet. It didn't indicate any style of clothing. It is a symbol separating private and public life of the Prophet. It is to respect and honour the private life of the Prophet.

The other verse that clearly mentions about headscarf says "...And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not to expose their adornment (zinatahuna) except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers (Khumurihina) over their chests (Juyubihina) and not to expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, their brothers' sons”, Holy Quran (24:31). The term Khumurihina (plural of Khimar) in this verse refers to the headscarf. The verse allows women to cover their body and institute a sense of decency, simplicity and modesty in public life. Khimar protects the women from the lustful eyes of men and develops the code of moral and ethical values. It is used to separate the public and private life of women.

However, the modesty in Islam doesn't just concern women, but equally concerns men too. As it is stated in the Holy Quran "Tell the faithful men to cast down their looks". The absolute minimum covering prescribed for men is loose and unrevealing clothing from his navel to his knee. Men shouldn't wear gold jewellery, silk clothing, or adornments that are considered feminine. Here, Islam clearly mentions the code of conduct for both men and women. In social interaction, men and women are equally told to have decency, to protect themselves and stay away from satan and materialism. Hence, the veil concept is more of liberation, decency, mutual respect, and is equally applicable to both men and women. It allows both men and women to transcend materialism and lustfulness.

At this stage, it is imperative to ask why the word hijab is used frequently, not the khimar that is used specifically for headscarf in the Holy Quran. Hijab as a headscarf is human intervention and the result of incorrect translations. Using hijab for headscarf serves the interest of both the worlds. The word hijab meaning 'separation' or 'hide' has many implications. It is used to separate the women from the social interaction and exclude them from the sociopolitical space. It gives the patriarchy the right to issue directives to women, as a compulsion and to control their life. But as mentioned above in the verses of the Holy Quran, there is no reference for women to reduce their sociopolitical space and interaction. The verse referring to Khimar and other verses in the Holy Quran is to recommend the 'attitude' of moral and ethical values in public life for both men and women. Therefore, Khimar in Holy Quran represents the social visibility of women, not the obstruction to it. Hijab, on the other hand, promotes the restriction of women to private space. Thus arises the notion of the headscarf as a symbol of oppression.

This symbolisation of headscarf with the word hijab has resulted in 'Hijabophobia' in western societies. Hijabophobia is a term referring to discrimination against women wearing Islamic veils. With the rise of violence, Jihadist forces and terrorism in the Middle East, the idea of Islamophobia grew. The link of hijab was woven into Islamophobia, making the Islamic veil a symbol of discrimination and subordination. The rise in the social position and visibility of Muslim women along with the influence of Islamophobia has resulted in the questioning of the faith and identity of Muslim women. It creates a difficulty for them to manage their professional and religious identity. Imperative in this context, Islam isn't the only religion where veil concept is practised. As we have seen, veils have existed in forms such as those of Christian nuns, Judaist women, Zoroastrian women and Hindu women. In all these religions, the veil concept prevails. However, the Islamic veil catches the limelight because of the influence of Islamophobia and incorrect usage of the word 'hijab'.

As we have observed above that Khimar (headscarf) is not the pillar of Islam but more of a moral and ethical value. Also, religion is practised more meaningfully when it is without compulsion. Any obligation to wear a headscarf is unacceptable because the Holy Quran says "No compulsion in religion" which forms one of the main principles of Islam. Therefore, in between these extreme worldviews lies the importance of ‘free will and voluntary practice’. Hence, we ought to make Khimar the symbol of expression not of oppression. "I feel a sense of pride and respect when I wear the headscarf," says Rahima, a student and basketball player in America, wearing a headscarf from her teenage. This is the true meaning and purpose of wearing a headscarf as mentioned in Islam, to embrace and accept it with your own will.

The Holy Quran interjections call upon us to behave with decency, simplicity and modesty. It also emphasises to practice the wearing of headscarf willingly by choice. According to the Quran, 'Libas-a-Taqwa' (clothing of righteousness) - that is the best. But, due to human interventions and prejudices, different interpretations are made that are biased and induce a compulsion on women. It creates nuances for women who wear Khimar as an expression of free will and those who don't. Moreover, it is often seen that one community is stigmatized as a result of such orthodoxy. Clearly, we need to emphasize the values of toleration, righteousness and respect in the multi-religious and multi-cultural world. We need to be cautious of different interpretations and meanings attached to religious symbols.


By Aaliya Zaidi

Aaliya is a member at the Symposium Society. She is pursuing her bachelor's in Physics, 3rd year from Hindu College, Delhi University. Aaliya is an optimist and a keen learner. She carries many dreams in her heart. She has an interest in writing cultural, historical and societal pieces. She is a social worker, writer and loves to engage in talks with like-minded people.