Some definitions first:
Hijab: Hijab is the women’s clothing that covers every part of her body except the face and hands (the palm till the wrist area). The body parts that are enjoined to be covered, are collectively called the ‘aurah. Most Islamic schools regard the hijab as fulfilling this need, while some go further by requiring the covering of the face as well.
Abaya: Abaya is the generally black-colored clothing that women wear over their inner dressings, that covers much as the hijab does.
Purdah: Purdah is hijab plus the covering of the face and hands too, except the eyes area.
Niqab: Niqab is purdah plus where the eyes are covered too, leaving only small incisions for vision.
When one talks about the hijab, one therefore talks about women’s clothing that covers all her body, except the face and hands. In the current hijab controversy in India, some women in hijab were also seen wearing facemask, apparently due to the Covid19 pandemic. This made them look as though they were in purdah, thereby possibly giving a wrong impression to the meaning of hijab. Hence hijab (religious requirement) + mask (government requirement) = pseudo-purdah.
Today’s societies are multiracial, multireligious and multicultural. Hence with regard to how women should dress in public, the appropriate thing to do is that the society should legislate what minimal bodily areas that need to be covered. This, of course, need to be established for both male and female separately. Surely nakedness is unacceptable in most public areas and therefore the covering of some minimum body-parts is warranted. This minimum could differ from place to place. For example the minimum for office may differ from that for the swimming pool or the beach etc. The minimum coverable area constitutes what the collective society regards as shame areas, which in turn establishes the meaning of modesty in that society. Once this minimum has been decreed by law for all to abide, both men and women should thereafter be given the freedom to choose as to how they wish to dress in public so long the minimum is observed, without going into details as to whether the person is dressed for religious, cultural or racial reasons and so forth.
Now coming back to the hijab controversy, it’s obvious that it is merely about women’s dressing in public. It is weird that we are even discussing hijab as a controversy because undeniably the hijab decently covers all shaming body parts, as established by most societies. Accordingly, the hijab has also become fashionable among both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. If a woman, Muslim or otherwise, decides to wear the hijab or any other similar clothing, then SO BE IT. It is their choice. To take away this freedom, by forcing them to remove the hijab is of utmost injustice inflicted upon them, that violates their rights. If societies today could allow a woman to walk around in public with much of her body parts exposed, or even completely naked in some designated public places, then why should the decent covering of the body be frowned upon, rejected or even made illegal?
In discussing hijab, therefore, one need not go into the debate whether the hijab is a religious injunction or not. This is because clearly there would be differences in opinion and understanding. Similarly, no one may assert that the hijab oppresses the Muslim women, because most Muslim women also reject this statement. The right thing to do, therefore, is to simply give her the FREEDOM OF CHOICE as to how she prefers to dress in public, so long the minimum covering as decreed by law for every citizen, irrespective of one’s religion, race, culture etc., is observed.
If an institution, like an educational institution, decides to enforce some type of uniform or dress-code, then the question that arises is on whose terms and values are these uniforms or dress-codes designed, and what the motives were in designing the uniform as such. Also, since the uniform would be based on some or someone’s values, it is best they define clearly their notion of shame and what constitutes the coverable parts as far as the institution is concerned. If uniform means the color of the cloth then that would be a non issue, however if it means specific cuts that reveal the contours of the body or the clevages, then some problems are bound to arise because that touches upon the notion of shame and coverable body parts.
Accordingly, educational institutions may impose their own institutional dress-codes – hijab, no hijab, or both – and people should respect that. If any educational institution, public or private, imposes a dress code that negates the hijab, then girls who insist on wearing the hijab may opt not to enroll themselves in that institution. However, it would be unjust for an existing educational institution, public or private, to change its policy from earlier allowing the hijab, to now not allowing, simply because the hijab is considered as a religious dressing, for the hijab indeed is a decent dressing by any standards, that neither interferes with the educational process of teaching and learning, nor work efficiency. Accordingly, a hijab-ban indeed snatches away that FREEDOM OF CHOICE that rightfully belongs to women, and hence is a very UNJUST thing to do.
Nonetheless, our advice to Muslim women is, avoid Arabization when it comes to clothings, but rather cherish, be proud of and promote your own national and cultural dresses, within the Islamic principles of modesty.
Ahamed Kameel Mydin Meera
2 March 2022