Why We Should Show Love to Women in Hijabs
Muslim women, however oppressed, are unique human beings whom God loves. We should show that we love them too.
I have a neighbor who is a Muslim woman. Gradually, I’ve watched her change what she wears from the black garment to a pink scarf and blue jeans. Each time I see her I can’t help but think of the millions of young Muslim women who must fight for their fundamental rights as human beings.
In their homes, they struggle to persuade their husbands or fathers to relax the sharia rules that govern women’s dress and conduct. In the Muslim community, they struggle to legitimize interpretations of Islam that allow them to show just a little bit more beauty. Since they interact with the Muslim community on a daily basis, this is a constant struggle to avoid criticism and persuade the community their dress is not un-Islamic or against sharia.
Does someone else — the heads of families, the Islamic community — impose the hijab on these women? Maybe for many hijabi women it is fair to believe this is true. In some cases, though, the Muslim woman chooses to wear the hijab. But that doesn’t mean they do so with any real freedom. It might be necessary to meet the expectations of a Muslim man she hopes to marry. It might give her legitimacy in her career. In the Islamic community, it is always the path of least resistance. That’s subtle and indirect, but it still amounts to coercion.
What is certain is that even with her body completely covered and only her eyes showing — wearing a real hijab and a niqab, the kerchief-like piece of fabric used to cover the nose and mouth — most women left to their own devices want to be beautiful. Everyone who has a daughter knows this. That’s why toy companies sell little girl make-up kits. Saudi Arabia’s government seems to realize this, so it recently passed a law that states “women with alluring eyes will be forced to wear a full veil.”
So what is a hijab, where does it come from, and what is its purpose? This year a few schools advertised “hijab day,” a day when non-Muslim girls were encouraged to wear scarves on their heads. But a headscarf is not a hijab. The hijab gets its meaning from an entire symbolic system that cannot be captured merely by wearing a head scarf.
The Koran imposes the hijab in the “verse of hijab,” surah 33:53. The idea is that women should stay inside, behind a curtain so they cannot be seen. Surah 33:59 imposes this requirement on all Muslim women, but allows them to go outside of the home provided they are covered by a garment. The exact degree of covering required comes from a hadith: “Ali bin Abi Talhah reported that Ibn Abbas said that Allah commanded the believing women, when they went out of their houses for some need, to cover their faces from above their heads with the Jilbab, leaving only one eye showing.”
The purpose of the hijab is to help men avoid sexual temptation by making every human characteristic of women imperceptible. Over time, the most liberal Islamic legal school, the Hanafi, has allowed women to appear in public with their faces uncovered, but Hanafis stand alone in teaching this.
Knowing this, does having a “hijab day” help or hurt Muslim women? However well intended, I think it actually damages those women. The message sent by putting on headscarves for hijab day is not that Muslim women are unique, valuable human beings deserving respect. Instead it is that imposing hijabs on every woman is acceptable. Making the hijab more popular reinforces a practice that represses Muslim women. It worsens Muslim women’s daily struggles inside and outside the home, and strengthens the position of the dominant men in their lives.
The last battlefield Muslim women face is the loneliness of living day to day among a non-Muslim community that fails to grasp their situation and sometimes saddens them with heavy looks. You can see such women in almost any American town, at Walmart, at the grocery store, or, most often, encased in a hijab, walking alone with a bag of groceries in one hand and a child in the other. Both the left and the right agree the best way to help Muslim women is to empower them. But the first step is to be friendly with them. They may not respond the first time or even the second, but they may eventually open up. And in any case, they deserve our real kindness and compassion, not misguided imitations that diminish their internal struggles and their lived experience.