When I first wrote this article in 2006, women around the world were in the middle of a sort of quiet revolution. Western countries had begun to extend their “war on terrorism” to policing how much flesh a woman had to show in order to prove that she was not a terrorist. This policing has been around since the 1950’s but in the mid 2000’s it became a matter of law. Girls were suspended from school over it. Government workers and teachers were fired. Bigoted police and even civilians were emboldened to rip women’s clothes off their bodies. It was bad.
This was also a time when people were being kicked out of school and fired from their jobs for having cornrows, dreadlocks, and sometimes just not straightening their hair.
So many women in various religious and spiritual communities decided enough was enough. Some organised, but even more took it upon themselves to wear their traditional headwraps, scarves, hats, veils, and other head coverings on Fridays even if they weren’t particularly religious. This was a time when you could see a woman in a slinky sun dress wearing a shayla, or someone who would any other day of the week wear a bikini, wear a “burkini” because it’s a Friday.
We all knew what it would mean if men were allowed to successfully police our modesty because we already have the experience of modesty being enforced. We still get blamed for rapes because our ankles were showing or our lipstick was too cute, and men are supposedly uncontrollable beasts if a square centimeter of our skin is visible.
In some places, hijab bans still stand, at least on the books, but it became clear to those attempting to enforce the visible flesh laws that we would find a way to subvert them. These laws were obviously targeting Muslim women, but they could just as easily be used against Jewish women, Amish women, nuns, chemotherapy patients, and Pagans who veil. Yes, there are adherents of various deities who veil because that is the tradition or personal call of their path.
Hijab is the word used to describe the Muslim style of modesty, though it has become a common term for many styles of veiling where at least the head, ears, and neck are covered. It is sometimes used as a term for the veil or scarf itself, though the scarf is actually called a khimar. What hijab is, in practice, depends on one’s marital status, and the requirements of the family, regional culture, or sect.
In most rural areas, for instance, a woman will not be expected to wear physically limiting clothing while she is working. She will likely wear a long wrapper or sleeveless dress, and a scarf. In some remote areas where women have both to work and tend to infants, she may even go topless because she would only be around relatives (mahram), and they don’t see this as particularly remarkable.
On the other hand, a wealthy woman from a good family in a metropolitan area may wear the full niqaab, which cloaks everything from head to toe, and even gloves, whenever she is outdoors or outside her family’s compound. Most modern Muslim women, when not engaged in physical labor, will cover all except their hands and faces. Some will wear skirts to the mid calf or just below the knee. Some wear pants, and some don’t. It depends on the individual, but generally Muslims women tend to dress modestly.
In some west Asian and African countries that have a Muslim majority, or a culturally strong Muslim population, almost all religious women will dress hijab to some degree. Sometimes it works the other way, and Muslim women who may not be all that “orthodox”, who live in areas with a different religious majority, may decide to wear hijab as a matter of cultural identity, and to indicate to other Christian, Jewish, or Hindu women (and men) that they are also at least somewhat religious. Sometimes non religious women will wear hijab, though, because in many situations, it just makes sense.
We know that Muslim women wear hijab, in part, because it is supported, though not actually commanded with the wording such as “thou shalt not bare thy shoulders”, in the Quran and Hadiths. It, most likely, wasn’t a hard and fast commandment, because even in the prophet Muhammad’s time, most women didn’t have the luxury of an isolated, sedentary life. I am sure that he knew the situational nature of modesty, and so things were kept in the context of public display. The idea was that your body’s intimate details were not public domain, and were therefore, not the public’s business.
So what was specific is that only a woman’s hands and face should be visible to men who aren’t close blood relatives. Whether it means the head and arms or just the hands and face has been debated for centuries and probably will be centuries from now.
In Islamic cultures, non Muslim women often dress hijab out of respect for the majority, and sometimes legal restrictions.
So why would a non Muslim woman want to dress hijab if she doesn’t really have to?