Hijab – By Choice Or By Force?

Hijab – By Choice Or By Force?

Since childhood, I have come across several discussions, which shape two shades of the perspective, choice or force. I have always maintained a slight inclination towards the idea of personal picks over the so-called compelling obligations.

Islam, a religion of harmony and egalitarianism gives a binding purpose behind every duty and instruction. We can talk with valid reasons and facts about women’s rights, men’s rights, state laws, etc. however, there are a few topics that take a lot of heat when discussed. One such topic is the hijab. Is it a choice? Or a forceful compulsion on Muslim women?

The world celebrates Hijab Day on 4th September. Images of women from diverse ethnic backgrounds – Asian, South Asian, Arab, Caucasian, black – all wearing colorful head-scarves are presented on social media. Among them are not only conservatively religious women of the Islamic faith, but also more moderate Muslims and non-Muslim women who have stood up in support for their sisters’ ‘choice’ to wear the hijab.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “choice” means “the act of picking or deciding between two or more possibilities”. The definition itself cries out loud that a person, irrespective of gender is free to adopt things by his or her own choice. By this definition, surely Muslim women must have some – if not many – possibilities presented to them by the state, society and religion; and they exercise their right to make those choices in life.

While talking to a friend Ms. Neha Saleem, I enquired what made her observe the hijab. To this she smiled and replied, “There is no compulsion in religion. One should not force someone to wear the hijab no matter how old they are, though one can suggest it and tell them how it’s a good thing. Ultimately, though, it is a matter for the people and their own personal choices. I wear hijab because I like covering myself and I feel protected.”

I was so pleased with her with her modest and logical reply that I decided to ask more questions. I told her that I was a firm believer of women empowerment and feminism and resolutely believed that women should not be forced to obey the rules and regulation made by men to enhance the patriarchal web. I asked Ms. Saleem, “If you really believe in choice, don’t you support the right of women NOT to wear hijab in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, where it is forced upon them?”

Ms. Saleem’s reply brought a smile to my face and that’s when I felt relieved that our Muslim youth is far more literate and kindhearted than they are judged to be. She said, “No one has a right to force a head-scarf on anyone. Islam was not enforced on the tip of the sword.”

The governments of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran should learn something from the answer of this young girl who is bold enough to say the facts out loud. These Islamic countries have enforced the hijab in their state laws, along with the prescribed punishment upon failure to follow.

Quran on Veil

Allah says in the Quran, “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigor, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed.” (Surah Al-Nur, verse 31, translation by Pickthall).

In a hadith narrated by Aisha Ummul Mu’minin, “The Prophet (PBUH) said, Allah does not accept the prayer of a woman who has reached puberty unless she wears a veil.” (Abu Dawud, book 002, hadith 0641).

History of Hijab

Hijab has been referred to as the veil that covers the head, and is usually worn by Muslim women. It is taken as a symbol of modesty and privacy. The Quran never explicitly used the term hijab in reference to body veiling instead used the words khimār and jilbāb. The word hijab means “a screen or curtain” and is used in the Quran to show the meaning of a screen, partition or curtain. None of these words are used in the Quran in reference to what the Muslims refer to today as a dress code for the Muslim woman. Some meanings for the word include screen, covering, curtain, drapes, or partition. Hijab in the Quran has nothing to do with the Muslim women dress code.

Jews practiced the tradition of wearing a veil (by women) and cover (by men), as apparent from Talmud quotes (Talmud equals the hadiths and sunnah, but neither of which are the words of God himself). The Christians adopted this further. The people belonging to the above-mentioned religions cover their heads in the synagogues, weddings, and religious festivities. The Christians nuns are seen in full veil all the time. In pre-Islamic times in Arab, everyone used to wear a veil only out of tradition. In Saudi Arabia up to this day, men cover their heads with veils. In North African Sahara, the Taureg Tribe has men wearing veils instead of women.

In pre-Islamic times people used to cover themselves more fully in order to protect themselves from the harsh weather conditions, especially in the Arab states with scorching heat.

Covering the heads was neither a religious nor a social obligation.

Mixing religion with tradition is a form of idol-worship, since the followers of traditions are following laws from sources other than God’s scriptures and claim it to be from God. Following innovated laws not stated in the Quran is a clear sign of disregarding God and His message. When tradition supersedes God’s commandment, religion takes a second place.

Society and Hijab

The society cages women in various lengths of cloth in the name of chastity and dignity. In a few Muslim states, hijab is not mandatory by law, but it is the society that conditions the modesty of the women in the name of the hijab. The longer the length of the cloth, the more respect a women earns in the eye of the society no matter how impure she may be at heart.

The cultural concept of hijab or modesty controls the society and freedom of women – this is so badly inculcated in our psyche that there is nothing that can be done to alter it. This cultural concept defines the modesty of women and brings the entire focus to their bodies in exactly the same way as using a woman’s naked body to sell products. The blatant sexualisation of body in both cases causes women to be perceived as nothing more than a source of temptation, pleasure and sin. Owing to such notions, when a girl is little she has to be dressed in a ‘modest’ way, during her adolescence she is forced to wear a dupatta and finally as a grown woman, she knows her position lies behind the hijab.

When a woman uses public transport or moves in congested old bazaars, her choice of clothes goes out the window – jeans are replaced by shalwar kameez and a dupatta or scarf goes over her head to protect herself from harassment. It is correctly said then, “… where religion, state laws and culture dictate women’s clothes and their actions, believing hijab to be a matter of choice is a beautiful illusion created to endure the domination they agonize every day.”


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which she might be associated.

Mizhgan Kirmani

Author: Mizhgan Kirmani

The writer is a graduate in International Relations from University of Karachi and is currently working as a Business Sub-Editor at Qineqt— a financial online media company that prepares analytical news for The Wall Street. She has worked with several NGOs to spread awareness on human rights and has also authored a report titled Balochistan and its Agonies. She is a former Member of Youth Parliament Pakistan and a former research intern at ISPR, GHQ.

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