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Understanding the Origins of the Islamic Hijab

The word Hijab typically conjures up images of women in headscarves or long, flowing dresses  covering the entire body and maybe the face.

This is not entirely inaccurate, as in Arabic Hijab literally means a cover or screen. However, in Islam it is something far greater as Qur’an describes in chapter 24, verses 30- 31:

“Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And God is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to [blood relatives and certain others] ...”

Note that men and women are not barred from interacting with one other. Instead, they are instructed to “lower their gaze” when interacting and avoid having impure thoughts or focusing on each other’s physical appearance. This helps to ensure that women and men treat each other with proper dignity and respect and do not objectify one another based on physical appearance.

“Guarding modesty” tells men and women to refrain from seeking to attract attention in regards to their looks. This places the responsibility on both men and women to interact with the opposite sex in a responsible manner. Each should not seek to attract the other’s attention with what they wear, and also should refrain from focusing on the other’s physical attributes regardless of the other’s appearance or clothing.

One might ask why both sexes are told to lower their gaze while only women are specifically told “ ... not to display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof ...” This is due to physical and biological distinctions between the sexes and how they are attracted to one another.

This is evident even in today’s society, where shameful sex-related industries cater overwhelmingly to men as opposed to women.

However, this does not mean that Islam commands women to wear burqas and abayas that cover everything including their faces, as the same verse gives an exception to ‘what ordinarily appears’.

As such, the vast majority of Islamic scholars, or ulema conclude that women are required to cover their entire bodies and hair with loose-fitting clothing except their face and hands. Men also have to cover their own bodies in front of women, specifically areas such as their bare chest, back and private parts.

Men and women both do not have to cover in front of those from their same sex or children who have not reached the age of puberty.

They also are exempted from covering in front of their immediate family, blood relatives (not cousins), parents-in-law, children-in-law and step children.

Thus, Hijab refers to a physical dress code for men and women, as well as a code of conduct so that men and women respect one another as human beings and not objects.

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