'What does the word Hijab mean?'
Hijab is the Arabic term used to describe the attire worn by Muslim women. The literal meaning of Hijab is 'covering', but this term also carries a more general connotation of 'modesty'. Hijab as a social practise thus embraces not only clothing but also values and behaviour.
The word Hijab is often mistranslated as the 'veil', which implies covering of the face and this is misleading. Although Hijab can involve the covering of a woman's face, most Muslims do not regard this to be essential.
'I see all types of people wearing head coverings, are they all Hijab?'
No, many women wear belonging to different faiths and cultures choose to wear head coverings. Sikh women, for example, often wear a head covering which resembles a turban or use thin shawls to cover their head; some Christians (Mormons, Nuns, etc) also wear a small triangular piece of material which covers the top of their head; orthodox Jewish women wear wigs or hats; and Muslim women wear scarves that cover their hair and neckline. It is the Muslim woman's head covering that is popularly known as the Hijab.
'Does a Muslim woman have to wear Hijab?'
A central principle of the Holy Qur'an is that 'there is no compulsion in religion', as it is reiterated often in the Qur'an that truth stands out for itself. It is thus up to us as autonomous beings to contemplate and evaluate the merits of these teachings. Hence, although Hijab is certainly an integral part of the overall Islamic dress code, it is not for anyone to force it upon another human being.
'So how should a Muslim woman dress?'
In Islam, the basic rule is that women should cover their body with loose fitting clothes. This is a generic requirement and so the actual style of clothing is adaptable to suit personal preferences, cultural norms and practical requirements. There are therefore different styles of Hijab worn by women throughout the world. Some Muslim women, particularly those in the Arab world, also interpret Hijab to include an outer covering (Burka).
'What do you mean by modesty, in today's terms?'
Hijab also covers modesty in behaviour, so physical contact with members of the opposite sex who are not immediate family, is not allowed. Muslim men and women will therefore generally speaking not shake hands with members of the opposite sex. Social etiquette also discourages being alone in a confined space with a member of the opposite sex unless this is absolutely necessary.
'Why does Islam stipulate a dress code?'
Muslims believe in a benevolent Creator who has provided humanity with guidance on how best to live morally upright lives. Islam is thus a way of life, a way of embracing and celebrating mundane aspects of existence such as eating, dressing, earning, forming relationships, etc. This is not to say that Islam restrains all these areas of life, but it gives guidance for the betterment of society balancing the needs for maintaining individuality and societal well-being. These regulations are equally applicable to men in so much that men are encouraged to wear loose fitting clothes and, also, to be modest.
Islam does not hinder the natural sense of a woman's desire to dress well and take care of her looks. On the contrary, this is recommended. However, it is for her own pleasure, and that of close family members and her own female friends, not for public consumption.
'Doesn't it seem repressive, to be covered up entirely when the equality of the sexes is being promoted more and more, especially in public life?'
Muslim women who make a personal, independent choice to wear the Hijab and who understand what this means actually often describe the Hijab as anything but repressive. These women typically find that it liberates them from the visual clutches of men, and frees them from the demands of dressing to impress others. Instead, they understand the privacy acquired through the Hijab, as a means of keeping what they value namely, their bodies to themselves.
Such women see Hijab as a right, not a burden; a practise that often brings greater equality in the outside world as they are evaluated on the merit of their minds and personality, and not how well they fit into stereotypical images of an attractive woman. Importantly too, Muslim women have experienced that Hijab helps to minimise sexual harassment in the workplace, this being another positive effect of women choosing to wear Hijab.
If Muslim girls in school wear the Hijab, even if it fits in with their uniform, will it not bring about 'segregation' amongst children, as opposed to integration?
No, quite the contrary. If girls are supposed to remove a part of who they are at the school gates, we are as a society demonstrating an intolerance of different faiths and values. Instead, if children of different faiths are educated together, some wearing a turban, others a skullcap, and others still a headscarf, this will hopefully help to promote understanding and break down barriers and prejudice. When children exposed to religious and cultural expression enter the wider world, they will be more informed and have a greater chance of showing respect and understanding towards fellow citizens.
'Why I wear Hijab
Here is a selection of quotes from Muslim women, demonstrating just some of the reasons why they choose to wear Hijab.
'I accept the whole faith, faith in God, and his prophet, and the Qur'an. To me, then the dress requirements are part and parcel of my accepting Islam as my faith and way of life, regardless of changing times and opinions
'I have no difficulty in dressing modestly; the scarf is just a part of the overall dress. Women not so far back in history in this country were content in dressing modestly and it's recent opinion that has made this seem more alien than it really is if one is informed historically and geographically
'When I converted to Islam at the age of 19, I found the idea of Hijab difficult at first. But later, as I began to wear the Hijab, I soon became aware of its benefits most noticeable of all was that men increasingly treated me as an intelligent human being and not simply a piece of flesh