Artwork by Israa Tariq
The Personal Meanings of the Hijab
By Israa Tariq
The hijab has always been a topic of controversy amongst different societies and groups, not only because of its symbolic meanings but also because of its mistaken cultural symbolism. The hijab originates from Islam, and over time, cultures with Islamic backgrounds have contributed to the current misunderstood status of the hijab. It is just as confusing to someone considering starting to wear the hijab as a convert to Islam as it is to someone born and raised in an Islamic culture and society. I was born in Islamabad, Pakistan and grew up in Saudi Arabia for thirteen years until my family and I moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After four years there, we moved once again, this time to Dubai, UAE. Each of these cities added something to my knowledge of the hijab because of several possible references associated with it that I picked up along the way. In order to understand the hijab, one needs to start with what it is, before looking at the different views of it and then forming our own opinions on what it means to us.
What is the hijab and why do Muslim women wear it?
The hijab can be broadly defined as “a head covering worn in public by some Muslim women” (Esposito, 2010). However, this is a very general definition. The “head covering” is actually specifically known as the khimar, according to the verse 24:30-31 in the Quran: “Tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their khimār over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands. (24:30–31) These verses refer not to ḥijāb but to khimār (head cover)” (“Muslim Journeys”, 2014). Another narrower definition of the hijab is provided by The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World:
“Ḥijāb is derived from the root ḥ-j-b; its verbal form ḥajaba translates as “to veil, to seclude, to screen, to conceal, to form a separation, to mask.” Ḥijāb translates as “cover, wrap, curtain, veil, screen, partition. The connection among clothing, modesty, and morality in Islam can be found in the Qurʿānic imagery of creation. Here clothing acquires meaning beyond the familiar: “We have sent down to you clothing in order to cover the private parts of your body and serve as protection and decoration; and the best of all garments is the garment of piety” (7:26).
In another context—“[women] are a garment to you and you are a garment to them” (2:187)—the interdependence and complementarity of the sexes is expressed. By using the imagery of clothing, Islamic creation focuses on gender relations rather than on irreversible sin and conceptually links clothing with morality, privacy, sexuality, and modesty.” (Guindi & Zuhur, 2014)
The hijab is about modesty, in terms of more than just its physical aspects; it refers to the woman’s modesty in her character, the way she acts, talks, and carries herself. It is not only about the head-covering, as stated by an Islamic scholar, Farhat Hashmi,
The Islamic code of dress is to hide your beauty, however you choose to do it. It is, however, clearly stated [in the Quran] that there should be a head covering that also covers the upper part of one’s body. It can be a scarf, a chador, a burqa. (Esposito, 2010)
As Hashmi’s comment shows, the hijab is more than just covering the head; it is also about dressing respectably, covering the body in loose clothing, and hiding one’s beauty.
Many Muslim women wear the hijab because it is compulsory in Islam. As stated on the website Islamic Center (found at IslamicCentre.org, n.d), in the Holy Quran, “the rules regarding the hijab have been mentioned in surah Al Noor (24) in verse 30 and 31, as well as in surah Ahzab (33), verse 59.” In these verses, while outlining the rules for the covering of the body of a Muslim woman, the Quran has not included the face and hands from the wrists downwards. The Quran States:
And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charm (in public), except what may (ordinarily) appear thereof, and they should draw their head coverings over their bosoms and not display (more of) their charm to anybody but their husbands or their fathers – Al Noor (24 – 30).
However, oftentimes this is not the case. Despite the fact that the hijab is compulsory, many women do not wear it and may still be “good,” practicing Muslims, in terms of praying, fasting, and being moral. The opposite can also be true; many women who wear the hijab might not behave the way “good” Muslims should. The hijab is more than clothing; it is a way of life, and in order for the hijab to be implemented in one’s life properly, it needs to be understood, and this understanding stems from what the hijab means to the person wearing it. The meanings of a hijab are interpreted over time, so that today it is either worn for the fact that the Quran tells Muslim women to wear it, or because Muslim women know that they should wear it but they should go and seek further meanings of the hijab to further their understanding of it before committing to it. Unfortunately, another reason it is worn is because some women’s husbands, fathers, or other males in their lives force them to wear it as a means of oppression.
The meaning of hijab for me
The hijab is something that cannot be defined once and for all; rather, it is subject to constant change and can only be fully understood in a specific context. That is why every woman has her own meanings of the hijab. Analyses of different “visual, political, and literary representations of the veil demonstrate that its symbolic significance is being constantly defined and redefined, often to the point of ambiguity” (Shirazi, 2001). Shirazi’s comment shows that each representation of the veil is different according to the context it is placed in. My own interpretation of what the hijab meant formed over time, and is still being molded and refined. This interpretation comes from my experiences, knowledge, and, more importantly, the cultures I have lived in and seen. Giving the hijab meaning is extremely important, because on its own, without being understood, it is simply a piece of cloth. But with the right understanding of its power and significance, it can become a way of life. As stated in Shirazi (2001, p. 8),
Once the veil is assigned a certain meaning, the veil itself acquires the power to dictate certain outcomes – the garment becomes a force in and of itself, and this force must be deferred to by many people. When the semantics of the veil are defined, they set a dynamics of the veil in motion that dictates context.
In order to define the veil for myself, I had to experience a lot of cultural and religious differences. Both of my parents are Muslims, and it was never contested that Islam was of the utmost importance in our lives. From the time of our childhood, my sister and I were taught to pray, fast, and read the Quran. We have completed the Umrah, the pilgrimage to Mecca, many times. Despite this, the hijab was never said to be compulsory, and although we wore it whilst praying, no one in my family wore it initially and I never thought of it either.
Meanings of the hijab according to the different cultures in the countries I have lived in
Pakistan (birthplace and summer vacations every year)
I was born in Islamabad, Pakistan, my mother’s home city. Although we have never lived in Pakistan, we have visited it almost every year of our lives thus far. My father is from a different city in Pakistan: Multan. Pakistan is a Muslim country, but like many Muslim countries, it doesn’t explicitly follow the laws of Islam. Some Pakistanis are religious in their practices; others are religious in name only, and others are indifferent. According to these three categories, my immediate and extended family, which consists of over thirty-five to forty people on my mother’s side, and about thirty people on my father’s side, would be considered quite religious.
We are all regularly practicing Muslims; we would never intentionally miss a prayer, a fast, or a chance to give to charity. Despite this, no one in this large family wore the hijab besides my maternal grandmother, who only wore it late in her life. At one point, however, my six female cousins, who ranged from nine to fifteen and lived in Islamabad, began to wear the hijab full-time. When my sister and I went to visit, we found this extremely odd because once when we asked them why they wore it, they responded by saying that it was because they were forced to by their parents. Perhaps at an age like that, as I was only ten years old, a more reassuring answer would have made me more open to the idea of the hijab, but the answer I received did the opposite. At first, this did not seem to bother them, but now, years later, none of them wear the hijab any more. In fact, they all resent it and resent their parents to some extent too for limiting their experiences of the world as young girls.
In the communities that I have been exposed to during my time in Pakistan, I have rarely met a girl around my age that willingly wears the hijab. It is rare to even find older women doing it, not counting the dupatta, a loose cloth that matches the shalwar kameez and is loosely worn over the head in public places or around some men. In fact, from what I hear through friends and family in and from Pakistan, the concept of the hijab has been made to seem so trivial, as though Islam offers it as a choice. Often times one even hears in Pakistan and Pakistani communities that when a man’s family sends a proposal to a girl, they actually request that she not wear the hijab, because that shows old-fashioned behavior, and is “too religious” in a scoffing way.
Saudi Arabia (Aged three months – 13 years)
I was raised in Saudi Arabia, spending thirteen years of my life in Riyadh, from the age of three months. Saudi Arabia is said to be the birthplace of Islam, with the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, being born there. It is also home to the two holiest Islamic cities, Mecca and Medina. Because of our close proximity to these cities, we would frequently go for Umrah. Living in Riyadh should have provided a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of our exposure to the fact that Islam was the dominant religion there. Sadly, however, this was not the case.
From the age of ten or eleven, I was made to wear the abaya, the black cloak, without a choice. At first I would wear it without covering my head, until I had the experience of having a muttawa come up to me in a mall in Riyadh and strictly telling me to cover my hair. The muttawain are a kind of conduct police. They can be defined as “public morality committees, the matawain or the regional Societies for the Preservation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,” and they “ensure strict compliance with religious requirements. Salaried moral police patrol the public domain… and make sure that women are properly covered” (Jandt, 2013). In secondary school in Riyadh, from grade six, boys and girls had separate campuses and girls were made to not only cover their heads, but also their faces whilst entering and exiting the all-girls school. That, paired with the sweltering heat of Saudi Arabia, made me question and resent the concept of being covered up. Once again, almost all of my friends and family only covered themselves with the hijab and abaya because it was the law, and they could not wait to be in their homes or other private places where they could throw both off in an instant. I was, once again, forced to think of how odd the whole situation was.
An experience that hit closer to home was when my mother told my older sister, who was twelve years old and two years my senior, to begin wearing the hijab permanently. I was not told to wear it as I was younger. My mother was, perhaps, under the influence of pressure from her family in Pakistan who were all forcing their daughters to wear it, and she thought that if my sister tried it out, she would begin to like wearing it. The problem with this, and the hijab in general, is that if it is not understood at one’s own pace and there is no time to come to terms with the great commitment associated with it, it will almost never be a gratifying experience, meant to be between the individual and God. The hijab is an extremely personal commitment, between the woman and her religion and it “cannot but help serve as a reminder that our worth lies not in whether a man finds a woman attractive, but rather in what we are doing in order to serve Islam” (McDonough, Hoodfar & Alvi, 2003, p.108). In contrast to this, all around me were young girls being made to wear the hijab. All the while, these girls hated it and could not wait to be out of the sight of their parents to take it off. They would only put it back on when it was time to go home.
Two years later, my sister took the hijab off and absolutely refused to wear it any longer. My mother, who had also tried the hijab but had found it constricting, did not wear it herself anymore either. There I was, once again, puzzled by the hijab, and, without ever experiencing it, beginning to dislike it too.
Malaysia (Aged 13 – 17)
At the age of thirteen, my family told me that we were moving to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. When they explained to me what the country was like, they mentioned that it was a Muslim country and this would make it a more comfortable transition, as it would have some aspects of the home we knew. Personally, I did not think Malaysia resembled a Muslim country at all, besides the occasional mosque here and there and the fact that the elected government was said to follow the ways of Islam. The country does not restrict alcohol consumption or trade, public displays of affection, or revealing clothing. There is also no sound of prayer to be heard in almost the entire city, and Eid is not celebrated with the same significance as Christmas, Chinese New Year, and Diwali. While I had no personal issues with any of these aspects, I resented the fact that I was told that it would be a Muslim country, when it was far from that. In fact, I often found myself feeling isolated from those around me while I chose to remain close to my religion.
My relationship with the hijab has not been restricted to my head covering. In fact, it has influenced many aspects of my dress. Soon after, I was put into a private school with the majority of the students being Chinese-Malaysians, with a few other international students too, and, it came as no surprise, no Pakistanis. There was not even one Arab, or anyone with a Muslim background that I could relate to my old lifestyle in Saudi Arabia. When I received my uniform from this school, I was shocked at the fact that it was a pleated skirt, just reaching above the knees, and a short-sleeved white shirt. I refused to wear it and requested a longer skirt, wrongfully assuming that my request would be understood since it was a Muslim country. I was told that not only could I not have a longer skirt, but also that I could also not wear tights or leggings under my skirt because it would “not look right” with everyone else’s uniform. My father had to be called in to school, and after much arguing, I was allowed to wear tights but had to wear the short-sleeved shirt.
Needless to say, this new uniform and lifestyle was a far cry from my abaya, the hijab, and my old lifestyle, and I began to find myself straying from the Islamic modesty I had been taught as I adjusted to a new way of living. I was more outspoken, more casual with what I wore, I could even talk about my religion in a mocking way with my peers when they would poke the common, post 9/11 jokes about Islam, and needless to say, after a while, I stopped wearing the tights in order to conform and be “normal,” without my parents knowing.
Soon, it became apparent that I was becoming a little out of control, and it worried my parents. They began to see what I had acknowledged earlier on, that my fourteen-year old self had been put into a situation beyond my comfort zone; I found no familiarity to grasp on to, and I found it easier to assimilate to the new “culture” I saw, that of having no one culture, one where there was no sign of Islam and all the signs of a world I did not previously know. My parents decided then that it would be wise to move me to an Islamic school.
Here, I was put into a situation that was much closer to Saudi Arabia, but less easy to assimilate to because I had now changed myself almost entirely. The school was full of Arabs, Pakistanis, Africans and other nationalities, but everyone was Muslim. The uniform here was baggy, stifling clothes, the color of brown paper bags and the shape of them too, and the hijab was, once again, compulsory. Once again, I was surrounded by girls that hated the hijab and how “suffocating” it seemed. As soon as we left the school premises, we would take the hijab off, happy to show everyone that we did not wear it out of choice and that we hated it.
It was here that I met some girls that were from different countries, such as Algeria, Canada, America, and Jordan, to name a few. These were the girls that did not take off their hijab outside of school, and chose to wear it instead. What my confused-self finally realized, after a year of knowing them, was that these were young girls who understood Islam so much more than I did, and in that understanding, had found it in them to wear the hijab and continue to live completely normal lives, even adoring the hijab.
I admired their commitment to and love for the hijab, despite my own struggle with it. An account of a Muslim woman living in Canada, named Mihad Fahmy (cited in McDonough, 2003, p. 108) summarizes a recurring theme that occurs in the minds of young women when it comes to starting to wear the hijab that I feel reflects my own struggle at that age: strength.
At a young age, I was unaware of the multiplicity of meanings embodied in the hijab. However, I did understand that modesty in one’s behavior and dress was required of all believers, and I was convinced that part of believing women’s modesty included wearing loose clothing and covering one’s hair. The question in my mind was not whether I would wear the hijab, but rather, when I would muster the strength to do so. This realization brought on a dawning of clarity, when I was sixteen; that I too could keep my hijab on instead of throwing it off at the first opportunity, and I could learn to love it, now that I knew what the hijab was, through my Islamic school education.
UAE (Aged 17 – 20)
At the age of seventeen, my family and I moved once again, this time to Dubai, UAE. I was sad to leave my comfort zone, which my school and friends had become for me, but I was comfortable knowing that the UAE was so much more of a Muslim country than Malaysia was, without being as extreme as Saudi Arabia had been either. While I was right on that issue, I was still extremely surprised to see Dubai in all its confusion of cultures and religions, seeing people from all over the world with different religions, and seeing the impact this had on Muslims. There were some who stuck to their religion, in varying degrees, some taking it very seriously and others forgetting about it altogether as they conformed to their surroundings of no one culture and no one religion, just a world of globalization and capitalism.
Some may say that Dubai falls short because of its lack of culture and religion. I think it is the opposite. Dubai makes up for what it lacks by merging what little it has of different cultures and religions and by making a society where almost everyone can find a niche. I have found that Dubai is the one city which has three worlds in one. There is the option of a religious world, where the people you associate with and the image you project of being a religious individual can be accepted and you can merge in seamlessly. The second option is that of a neutral world, not partial to a culture or religion, not discriminatory, with no specifics. The third is of both: merging your religion with the modern world, being a contemporary Muslim, a contemporary hijabi. This is the one I chose to assimilate into; the one where I could merge the different perspectives I had into one, and live with them all coinciding with one another.
My meaning of the hijab
Through what I had been raised to be, and what I learned to become over time, combined with the different cultural values I had picked up along the way, my meaning of the hijab was formed. To me, the hijab is a symbol of my religion, but more than that, it is a representation of everything I believe in, conveyed through someone just looking at me with my hijab on. It is a representation of modesty and self-control; it demands respect and restraint from others and it is a symbol of my own control too, but my exercising that control in moderation. A quote from an Indian Muslim phrases this belief:
A scarf can mean many things; it can be a signifier of one’s faith, which is helpful if you don’t wish to be chatted up or invited to drink. It can attract negative attention from people who stereotype “visibly” Muslim women as oppressed or terrorists. It can also get positive reactions from the Muslim community. But people expect certain behavior from a woman in a headscarf and I started to wonder whether I was doing it for God or to fulfill the role of the “pious woman.” Anita Nayyar. (as quoted or cited in “Converting to Islam”, 2013)
I do not believe in controlling every aspect of my life at all times, such as following every rule of what is “right” to society down to every detail, because a lot of the time, some of that may be cultural instead of religious. Cultures that have Islam as the dominant religion often confuse the two such that it is difficult to draw the line. The point is to find that line, define it according to what is said explicitly by religion, through the Quran and hadith, a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that, with accounts of his daily practice, constitute the major source of guidance for Muslims apart from the Koran (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d)) and then practice what you believe in from there. It would be extremely difficult for me to go from who I was to becoming the perfect Muslim. I am not perfect, and nor do I aim to be. I started wearing the hijab as a step in my journey towards becoming a good Muslim, and those steps come slowly, which is why the hijab itself is constantly being redefined according to anything new we learn in our attempt to be better, and as our reasons for wearing the hijab evolve too. The hijab is, in a way, my two cents. It is what I can add to my list of what I do right according to Islam, even though I still have a lot else to improve on in the religious sense. It is said in Islam that on the Day of Judgement, there will be weighing scales for each person’s deeds:
Imagine that your deeds are being placed onto the scales. God says “We shall set up scales of justice for the Day of Judgment, so that not a soul will be dealt with unjustly in the least, and if there be (no more than) the weight of a mustard seed, We will bring it (to account): and enough are We to take account [Qur'an 21:47]. (IslamicForum, n.d).
Wearing the hijab is something that I love to do, and can do with ease, and while I strive to improve myself in other aspects of Islam, I hope it contributes to what I collect in the “good” pile on my scale.
Reactions from my family and friends
I received mixed reactions to my starting the hijab, ranging from positive to extremely negative, and to people just not caring at all.
Positive meanings of the hijab for others
When I initially started to wear the hijab, I received mostly positive reactions from those people around me at my Islamic school in Malaysia as many of them understood my reasons and supported my decision. I was commended on being able to commit to something that long term, and because they fully understood what the hijab meant, they were very happy for me.
On the other hand, a few people from my previous school who I was not well-acquainted with asked me what the hijab meant exactly, because they had seen it every now and then, but did not understand what purpose it served. They were from different religions, such as Hinduism and Christianity. Once I explained it, and they heard that I still spoke the same way and had the same personality, they overlooked the fact that I wore the hijab, albeit commenting on how “different” I looked. This demonstrates that although they had initially had different meanings of the hijab from mine, they were not restricted to that one meaning and were open to hearing an explanation.
I also received positive reactions from my family, immediate and extended, as they not only understood what starting the hijab meant, but they also understood that I had started at a later age, after establishing and understanding my own meaning of the hijab.
Negative meanings of the hijab for others
In contrast, when people who had different meanings of the hijab from my own and did not want to allow for my different meaning from me found out that I had started it, they were shocked and skeptical. People who had been my friends for years at my previous school kept putting off meeting me when I would try to make plans, and when we did meet, the friends that I thought loved and understood me, suddenly saw me for my hijab only.
These friends were from different religions, with two of them being Christians, one being Hindu and two being Atheists, and yet they managed to agree on one thing; the hijab was bad, and I had lost my mind. Since they thought of the hijab as oppressive, backward, extremist and unattractive, they thought that I must have become someone they could no longer associate with or relate to. I was no longer someone with a mind, a voice, a capacity for relating to people different from me, but I was just my hijab. Sadly, they eventually cut all contact with me.
Surprisingly, I also received negative reactions from some of my extended family members who resented the hijab; although they understood the hijab, they did not agree with it. They did not openly tell me it was wrong of me to do it, but I began to be on the receiving end of jokes about being an extremist, and one who would not have their kind of “fun” and around whom others should not have “fun.” Other family members doubted that I would be able to stay committed to it and predicted that it was a phase that I would eventually give up because I did not understand the commitment it took.
Neutral meanings of the hijab for others
There were also people who did not care about my hijab, as my putting it on or taking it off made no difference to them and they were simply not curious enough or affected enough by my religion to try to understand it. For them, it was simply something to be dismissed by the wave of a hand.In some ways, this was probably the best reaction because I was not afflicted with the meanings of hijab by those who took it positively, and the meanings of hijab by those who took it negatively. This way, I could retain my own meaning, and also not have to explain it.
It has now been almost five years since I started wearing the hijab. It took a long time for me to come to terms with it and to understand it fully, but when I eventually did, I found that it was and is the happiest I have ever been and the way in which I feel most comfortable. While my hijab does project a number of images, labels and stereotypes to the rest of the world before I even open my mouth to speak and see the surprised looks on their faces when they realize that I am educated and not oppressed, it also sends out a message about my morals, ethics and modesty, and I am treated differently. This has its advantages and disadvantages, but I find that the communication of my meaning of the hijab to others can resolve the disadvantages. Shirazi (2001, p. 180) summarizes what the hijab signifies in today’s world:
On the one hand, the veil is a simple garment that millions of women deal with in their daily lives as a matter of habit, without a second thought. They are raised to wear it; it is just another article of clothing. On the other hand, the veil is an enormously important symbol, as it carries thousands of years of religious, sexual, social and political significance within its folds. Its original purpose has been blurred to a point at which it has different meanings to different people in different cultures, and even in the same culture. Some people think of the veil as a symbol of oppression, while others consider it as a sign of piety, modesty or purity. It has become so ubiquitous that everyone seems to have formed an opinion about it. The various connotations it arouses, testify to its continuing, perhaps even growing, significance in the modern world.
Shirazi’s words summarize not only the significance and meanings of the hijab in today’s world, but also my experiences and growth with the hijab, all having one thing in common: that of an opinion on the hijab. The hijab is not merely a piece of clothing; it is a way of living. It defines who you are to others and to yourself, and it sets certain boundaries and rules on your lifestyle. It is something that needs to be understood and redefined according to one’s surroundings, because unless it is fully understood, it will almost always seem like a difficult aspect of Islam to accomplish. I have understood what the hijab means to me at this point in my life, through the experiences I have had and the cultures I have seen. However, I am sure that the more I learn and see of the world, the more my hijab will mean to me, in new and different ways.
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Converting to Islam: women on prayer, peace and prejudice. (2013, November 8-14). The Guardian. 189 (22). pp, 30,31.
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"Muslim Journeys | Item #177: 'Hijab' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 09, 2014 http://bridgingcultures.neh.gov/muslimjourneys/items/show/177.
The Face Veil. (n.d). IslamicCentre.org. Retrieved on 21st December, 2013, from http://www.islamiccentre.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=89:is-wearing-the-face-veil-compulsory-&catid=24:womens-section&Itemid=42
Shirazi, F. (2001). The veil unveiled. Florida: University Press of Florida.
Israa Tariq is a 21-year old Pakistani student. She is a senior at the American University of Sharjah and is majoring in English with a concentration in Literature. She aspires to be as awesome as Tolkien someday, but until then, she plans on going to graduate school before going on to do her PhD. She is an avid Arsenal Football Club fan and loves any kind of rock music, namely psychedelic; especially Pink Floyd.