The practice of veiling, covering either the entire face and body or only the hair and neck.
Islam—a religion of balance, moderation, and modesty—places a strong emphasis on the maintenance of proper boundaries, whether social or moral. The practice of hijab among Muslim women is grounded in religious doctrine, yet the Qurʾan does not require it. Support for veiling is found in the hadith of Sahih Bukhari: “My Lord agreed with me (Umar) in three things. . . . (2) And as regards the veiling of women, I said ‘O Allah’s Apostle! I wish you ordered your wives to cover themselves from men because good and bad ones talk to them.’ So the verse of the veiling of the women was revealed” (Bukhari, volume 1, book 8, sunnah 395).
Display of the self in public, for men as well as women, is a subject of considerable concern in Islamic teachings and practices. The care, treatment, and presentation of the human body are influenced by Qurʾanic teachings, as well as by hadith, and codified in the shariʿa. In examining Islamic teachings about bodily presentation, the issue of boundaries (hudud,in Arabic) is of primary importance, particularly gender boundaries and spatial boundaries, which usually overlap in daily practice. Islam draws a clear distinction between the public and the private. Men’s and women’s roles in these domains are complementary, not equal. Since Islam views the family as central to and crucial for the survival of society and the continuation of proper human life, boundaries that specify men’s and women’s roles, and boundaries that mark off the private realm of familial space from wider public spaces are elaborated and crucial for the preservation of an Islamic social order. Concerns with literal and figurative boundaries are evident in everyday practices, including dress, bodily ornamentation, architecture, and contact between men and women.
The practice of veiling is a visible recognition of the maintenance of proper boundaries. It is a way of keeping proper distance and ensuring respect and moral behavior between men and women in public space. In private, women do not veil, and in public women may well be wearing attractive clothing and elaborate jewelry under their abayas or chadors. The Qurʾan and hadith stipulate that a woman should not display her personal adornments or physical charms to anyone but her husband (Sura 24:31 and Sura 33:59). There are, however, a wide variety of views on how much of a woman’s body should be covered from public view. Islam is not an ascetic religion preaching the negation of the flesh. The veils and headscarves worn by observant Muslim women in public are often used to aesthetic effect to accentuate the eyes or the curve of the face, emphasizing, though modestly, a woman’s best features. Scarves and veils are often embroidered and edged with subtle lace designs for added aesthetic impact within the bounds of Islamic propriety.
Veiling as a social practice predates Islam. Depending on the wider social and political contexts, hijab ‘s meanings, for Muslims as well as non-Muslims, have changed, sometimes dramatically. In the nineteenth century, upper-class urban women were more likely to veil than were working-class or peasant women. By the 1960s, the reverse was the case. The veil has been a charged political, cultural, and moral issue, as well as a site of misunderstanding and conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, or even between observant and nonobservant Muslims. Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country, has witnessed some of the fiercest debates on the meaning of hijab ; veiling is perceived as a threat to the secular political order established by Atatürk in the 1920s.
In the early twentieth century, many leading Arab women activists and intellectuals displayed their modernity by removing the veil, as did Huda al-Shaʿrawi upon her return to Egypt from a women’s conference inEurope. Yet the veil is also a potent symbol of resistance to the West and its political and economic agenda in the Middle East and North Africa. From the late 1970s until today, many young women throughout the Arab and Islamic world have voluntarily adopted hijab and conservative dress in general in order to make a political as much as a religious statement of identity and ideological commitment. Many women assert that the veil guarantees them freedom, dignity, and greater scope for movement in a world that sexualizes women. According to this argument, the hijab deflects and neutralizes the objectifying male gaze, enabling women to emerge as autonomous subjects in the public realm. In Iran, the hijab became obligatory for all adolescent girls and women shortly after the Islamic revolution (1979). The changing balance of forces between conservatives and reformists in Iran is often read in the degree to which women comply with hijaband how much hair they reveal.
See also clothing; hadith; qurʾan; shaʿrawi, huda al-.
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