The issue of hijab, nowadays, has become one of the very much controversial and misunderstood issues in the present world. The issue also has become a challenge to the Muslim women in this contemporary world. Hijab is an Arabic world. It literally means partition or barrier. In Islam, however, it has broader meaning than anyone can think. This is not only covering the body with clothes but also the behaviour, manner and, thus, considered as the principle of modesty. Allah says in the Qur'an: "O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Forgiving and Most Merciful." (Surah al-Ahzab, 33: 59). It is noteworthy to state that the misconceptions about hijab (veil) are not only observed among the non-Muslims but also among the Muslim communities. If one can understand those misconceptions, he/she would be able to abide by this Islamic law and get the maximum benefit of it. Six common misconceptions about hijab are as follows:
Hijab is Only for women: The first and the most substantial misconception of hijab goes to state that this is only for women not for men. However, Allah says in the Qur'an, "Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty... And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty..." (Surah an-Nur, 24:30-31). These two ayats refer to both sexes; men and women. In the ayats, we can see that same terms have been used in the same way for the same purpose. These ayats prove that guarding the modesty is not only for women but also for men. Moreover, men are recommended first then women. It means both of them to have the same role towards promoting modesty in the practical life. However, the appearance and methods can be different in terms of nature and situation.Hijab is only covering of head: Khimar (headscarf) vs Hijab: Another misconception goes to the understanding of hijab as it is covering the head only. We can observe a good number of Muslim women in the west and in the south-east Asian countries that, in the most cases, they wear the only headscarf along with Jeans pant and t-shirts instead of burka or abaya and jilbab. This neither fulfils the demand of hijab nor achieve the purposes of shari'ah (maqasid al-shariah) as the parts of the body can be recognised by others. It may influence others' attraction to them. The headscarf is called in Arabic 'Khimar' (plural is khumur) and has been used in the Qur'an itself. It states, "... and not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their khumur over their bosoms..." (Surah Nur, 24:31). Hijab is to cover the private parts of the body. The intention is to guard him/her self against other's attractions. Therefore, some scholars view that all parts of a woman must be covered with a veil that the people cannot recognise any private part of his/her body.
Hijab refers to covering the whole body only: Another misconception of Hijab goes to understanding it as merely covering the whole body only. It is not really like that. Although wearing a tight shirt and pant cover the body, it does not achieve the objectives of hijab. Because, in this situation, the private parts of the body could be recognised. Moreover, the stylish dress would also not be helpful to achieve the objective of shari'ah. Therefore, a dress should be like that, after wearing, the parts of the body cannot be recognised by anyone. Hijab, thus, goes to anyone's intention as well.
Hijab refers to wearing clothes only: Burka or Abaya: Another misconception of hijab goes to merely wear stylish burka or abaya. It, in contrast to the objective of shari'ah about hijab, attracts people to the person who wears it. Nowadays, wearing burka or abaya has become a trend of stylish girls and women. Therefore, a less beautiful woman, after wearing abaya or burka, can get the attraction of the men. Qur'an commands to ware another wide cloth called jilbab to cover the whole body. It says: "O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons...." (Surah al-Ahzab, 33: 59). Therefore, the niyyat (intention) is very much important in Hijab.
Hijab is a barrier to women's progress: Some people think that hijab is a barrier to women's progress and their development. This is actually propaganda of the secular people to take out women from indoor to outdoor and open their bodies. These people argue that if women do not come out of their houses, how can develop themselves and contribute to the society as well. But this is totally a wrong conception. A hijabi woman can also do her job and contribute a lot to society. Ummul Mu'minin, Aysha (Ra) was one of the best examples to this. She did not uncover herself and appear before any ghayr al-mahrum (those who are permissible for marriage) but contributed a lot to the science of hadith and became a good teacher. It should be remembered that hijab is to protect women from various incidents; not to deprive them of any progress and development.
Hijab is a barrier to national development: It is also argued by the secular people that hijab is a barrier to national development as they consist of fifty per cent of the total population. It is true that half of the population of this world is women, but it does not mean that their hijab system is a barrier to national development. As the women can work and do the permissible business of their own and in a friendly environment. Islam prohibits mixing up men and women in any solitary place as the environment can guide them to do something wrong. If we look at the present situation, we can find a lot of examples of how mixing up the men and women is creating horrible situations that continue to break social peace. What we can do is to ensure a peaceful environment for the women wherein they can perform their jobs to contribute to society, state and the world as well.
It should also be noted that Islam gives a clear idea of dress code depending upon sex; male and female. Men are forbidden from dressing or acting like women, and vice versa, According to a hadith, as narrated by Ibn 'Abbas: "Allah's Apostle cursed those men who are in the similitude (assume the manners) of women and those women who are in the similitude of men." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith no. 773).Finally, an essence of Islam in hijab could be understood from a story that narrated by Ummi Salamah; a wife of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). She said that I was with Rasulullah (pbuh) while Maymunah (Ra) was also with him. Then Ibn Umm Maktum (Ra) came to meet Him (pbuh). This happened when we were ordered to observe the veil. The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) ordered us to observe the veil from him. We asked, 'Oh Rasulullah! is he not blind?' He can neither see us nor recognise us.' Rasulullah (pbuh) replied, 'Are both of you blind?' Do you not see him?' (Sunan Abi Dawud, Hadith no. 4100). May Allah guide us on the right path!
The writer is a scholar in Islamic studies and researcher on Islamic views on contemporary issues.