Must the Muslima Wear a Headscarf?

Hijab Identity Politics

Identity politics are dangerous. Unfortunately Muslims have long been swept up into the fray. Sometimes willingly.

In many traditional and conservative societies, women have covered their heads. This is not exclusive to Islam, whatever the Quran says about it.

But a time came also when Muslims were mobilizing on the basis of faith, using it as a rallying cry. It roughly corresponded with an ascendant European colonialism that weakened the political power Muslims once possessed. It revived in the 1970s, with the surge in popularity of political Islamism.

And one symbol of resistance was the woman. The headscarf became a statement.

It is far more than that, of course. It is a symbol of piety, of faith. It is an act of modesty in an immodest world. Perhaps it is an act of acquiescence to culture, or obedience to husband.

In the end it is a piece of cloth, and from an American perspective we believe a woman should be (mostly) free to wear what she wants.

But to be a good Muslima, must the woman wear a scarf?

I will not delve into the perspectives that say yes, or the traditional interpretations that seem to govern much of the Muslim world. They may well be right.

But in a recent article, the Huffington Post highlighted five scholars who say no. I know some of the names. One is famous and generally well celebrated. Another was marginal and called an apostate.

Here are their arguments.

Khaled Abou el-Fadl

El-Fadl mentions that the illa (operative cause) for the injunction to cover was to protect women from harm and to avoid undue attention from mischief mongers.

He also states that the ma’ruf (generally accepted as good) and the munkar (socially recognized as unacceptable) are based on pragmatic and practical experience.

Therefore, he argues that if the headscarf itself causes women to stand out and put them in the way of harm, and if uncovering the head is not considered socially immodest or licentious, then it would be permissible for Muslim women to not wear the headscarf.

One would hope a well functioning society would not harass women who cover their heads. Does his reasoning then suggest that the headscarf is otherwise an obligation? Should the power of decision be yielded to the mischief mongers?

Javed Ahmad Ghamidi

Like El-Fadl, Ghamidi opines there were injunctions exclusive for the wives of the Prophet. He argues that there are only four instructions that pertain to Muslim women.

These include lowering the gaze, wearing modest clothing, covering the bosom with a piece of cloth, and not displaying ornamental embellishments before unrelated men.

No other injunction other than these has been imposed on Muslim women.

This seems straightforward enough. A general command for modesty may require a headscarf in some cultures, but not in others. But who is to decide? The individual woman? Islam teaches that God judges the individual, so she alone bears the consequences. But who protects society?

Abdullah bin Bayyah

Bin Bayyah adopts an approach based on necessity.

He argues that hardships allow for uncovering of body parts and mentioned how the shins of two of the Prophet’s wives, Aishah and Umm Salamah, were uncovered when they were giving water to wounded soldiers on the battlefield. He also mentions the minority position of Ibn Ashur that women may uncover their hair in public.

Bin Bayyah’s student Hamza Yusuf even asserts that:

“The laws are there to serve human beings; we are not there to serve the law. We are there to serve Allah, and that is why whenever the law does not serve you, you are permitted to abandon it, and that is actually following the law. …

The law is for our benefit, not for our harm. Therefore, if the law harms us, we no longer have to abide by it.”

If uncovering hair is admitted to be a minority position, bin Bayyah’s does not seem a very strong argument. A pillar of sharia law is the consensus of community.

His student Yusuf pulls a principle of Jesus, but the Huffington Post excerpt does not go far enough to demonstrate the validity of the principle in Islam. For now it must be enough that some scholars argue so.

Ahmad Ghabel

The late Shia cleric, who had the prominent title of Hojjat el-Islam (authority on Islam), offered ten arguments in support of the viewpoint that covering the head was not obligatory but recommended.

He opined that there was no consensus amongst jurists as to whether hair constituted the awrah (intimate parts) that must be covered.

For the reader desiring demonstrations of validity, the link will offer an academic treatise. But even if something is only recommended, should it not be done? Perhaps it cannot be enforced, but does the woman risk her standing with little recourse?

But as above, the second claim is more powerful. If there is no consensus on what must be covered, then again we come back to modesty, not compulsion.

Nasr Abu Zayd

According to the late Abu Zayd, both the awrah (intimate parts) and the hijab (veil) are subject to socio-cultural norms and therefore are changeable and not fixed. He opined that both are not legislated by Islam but are rather specific to the Arab culture.

Fair enough, but again, on what basis? Not enough here to tell.

For what it is worth, this is the scholar labeled an infidel by an Egyptian court, and forcibly divorced from his wife. I don’t know his story well enough to say which of his opinions most offended the judge.

All religions impose obligations; all societies have their norms. The former is of individual faith; however related, the latter is not wise to transgress.

But some always will, and society needs their creativity. Just not too much of it. It is difficult to know where the line must be drawn.

If this was the only matter, we would probably work it out. Not to justify any particular outcome, but traditional societies seemed to do so, with diverse application.

Some highlight the hijab as a symbol of oppression. Others compel it as a means of control. Some thrust it in your face demanding respect. Others find ways to seduce men all the same.

Too much of this issue is wrapped in identity politics. Let’s just leave each other alone.

Mostly. Unfortunately, the headscarf at this time hits at a collective world conscience on how to balance rights with freedoms, the individual with society.

Maybe we can’t just leave each other alone, but we can be charitable. How wonderful if this was our collective identity.

I Love My Hijab


Hijabs, Burkinis, and Assumptions

A woman wears a Burkini in the south of France Credit: PA (via ITV)

A quick word to not judge by appearances, or to make assumptions about religious values.

Our family took a vacation to the Red Sea recently, at a hotel with a healthy mix of European speedos and Egyptian burkinis. It was quite the contrast.

From what we could tell, everyone behaved respectfully and enjoyed themselves.

While nowhere as revealing as a traditional bikini, the burkini is quite shapely. One night at dinner two Egyptians rose to dance to the folk band that came through. One was bareheaded, the other wore a hijab. Both knew well the techniques of belly dancing, and took no mind of the onlookers.

Was one a Christian, the other Muslim? If hijabed, why would she dance so? And while the burkini is an innovative development to help conservative Muslims enjoy the beach, is it conservative enough?

Within this discussion a recent article at CairoScene took my attention. A popular Egyptian comedienne decided to take off her hijab: 

Mostafa stated through her official Facebook page that she had been wearing the hijab since she was in primary school up until high school, and she believes that, in the beginning, it was internalised by her as ‘normal’ because it was just part of the way you’d look in the society and community she grew up in. However, when she really started asking herself if she was wearing it for herself, God, or people, she realised she was doing it out of pure conforming to society – “The concept of God wasn’t there,” she stated.

Mostafa started wearing it in different ways, like the fashionable turban-style hijab that has been more prevalent lately in Egypt and around the world for hijabis. But, that did not go well because she was once again attacked for wearing hijab “the wrong way,” though she asserts is something a lot of girls do in terms of their choice in clothing that is only coupled with a scarf over the head.

Her decision to take off the hijab came to her when she refused contradicting herself. She states that once she takes it off, which is what she is comfortable doing now, perhaps she will become convinced of the concept of the hijab on a personal level, and if that happens, it’ll be the right decision because it’ll come from within.

[Read on to discover the largely negative reactions to her post.]

As you encounter Muslim women in your everyday life, be careful not to make assumptions. Some wear the hijab because of their culture. Some wear it because of their husband or father. Some wear it because of piety. Some wear it as a political statement.

What they actually believe, and their personal character, may bear no relation whatsoever. Or maybe it does.

We were in church the other day and a hijabed lady came in with an uncovered friend. This is unusual in Egypt, but it doesn’t have to be a scandal.

My daughter asked, surprised, “Daddy, is she a Muslim?”

“I don’t know,” I told her. “Some Christians cover their heads in church.”

My daughter protested. It was clearly a Muslim hijab.

“You’ll have to ask her,” I said, smiling wryly.

My daughter didn’t like that answer either. It is sort of an awkward question, both in Egypt and America.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to make assumptions. What we need is conversation. When you next encounter that hijabed woman going about your daily life – yes, it is awkward – do your best to say hi.

Who knows what assumptions will be undone next.



Friday Prayers for Egypt: Books, Hijabs

Flag Cross QuranGod,

Too much should not be made of these markers, but they may reveal a mindset of some. Long on the defensive, Egypt’s non-Islamists feel empowered.

Among the results are a book burning at a school, seized from the Brotherhood. And a call for women to remove their head coverings, at a summer rally in Tahrir.

Give wisdom, God, for both substance and form.

The Azhar as an institution is non-Islamist, but it is also conservative, and pushing back. Subject to attacks in the media, it defends itself and traditional Islamic belief.

Egypt is still in flux, and the push and pull from various visions will take time to settle. In the meanwhile, each advocates its cause.

So how to pray? May all who invoke you in their vision pray from a pure heart. However different, may they seek the good of society. However conflicting, may liberal and conservative virtues all be honored, neither accused nor corrupting into vice.

Let books be written, and critiqued. Let heads be covered, if from faith. Let religion speak, with humility.

Let society find a way to incorporate all, amid respect. Let those who push find freedom, but failure – if they push too far.

Sort them out, God, and define the limits. Help Egypt arrive at the optimal place, with each in a mindset of peace.



Sign of the Times

Exiting our local metro station the other day I saw this sign posted above the entrance:

It translates: The hijab (Islamic head covering) is a religious obligation, just like prayer. Cover yourself before you are held accountable.

That sounds ominous, but it can read that the holding accountable is done by God. Still, in some countries there are groups of religious police. It is interesting to note this sign is posted without any reference to its author. Muslim Brotherhood? Salafi groups? Unknown.

Is it a warning, a reminder, or an encouragement? At the least it is a sign of the times.