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Hijab: Definition and Relation to Islam

Instructor: Amy Kasza
Images of Muslim women wearing a head covering known as a hijab are not unfamiliar to Western eyes. But why do some Muslims wear the hijab, and what does it signify? Learn about the history of the hijab and the surprising parallels within other religions.

In its form most familiar to Westerners, a hijab (pronounced HEE-job) is a head covering worn by women of the Muslim faith as a symbol of modesty and religious devotion. The typical and most familiar hijab is a scarf that covers most if not all of the hair. It also covers the neck and falls below the level of the shoulders to cover the upper chest area. It may also be long enough to drape over the shoulders and upper back and flow down past the elbows. The word hijab derives from the Arabic word 'hajaba,' meaning 'to conceal' or 'hide.'

Two Libyan medical students wearing typical hijabs.
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Customary usage of the hijab varies depending upon the Muslim culture in which it is used. In less strict societies, women and young girls past puberty wear the hijab when in public or when among men who are not directly related to them (father, brothers, nephews being the exception). In this usage, women might remove the hijab when at home among their immediate family. Somewhat more strict Muslim societies prescribe the wearing of the hijab even when among women who are non-Muslim. Wearing of the hijab is a sign of a woman's willing submission to sharia, or Islamic law and custom.

Largely as an outgrowth of the feminist movement in western countries, the hijab has been criticized as a symbol of male oppression against women. Muslim women respond to this notion with the reminder that Islamic law prescribes wearing of the hijab as a demonstration of women's submission to Allah, who is ruler over both men and women, rather than submission to men.

History of the Hijab

The wearing of a veil or scarf on the head and possibly concealing the face is a practice that precedes the emergence of Islam and even Judaism. We have found statues of ancient, pagan religions that required priestesses to wear head coverings similar to what we know today as the hijab. Historians speculate that as Islam emerged and conquered various ancient territories and populations, they adopted the use of the head covering as an appropriate expression of their own modesty and moral values.

As different Muslim societies emerged and developed, the practice of veiling, wearing a head covering that may or may not also conceal the face, came to be seen as a status symbol for upper class women to display their husbands' wealth. As it was impractical for women to wear the hijab while working (most often in the agricultural fields), the image of a woman in a hijab conveyed, without need for explanation, that her husband was so well off that she need not work to help support the family.

Besides the Muslim tradition of the hijab, other religious traditions also incorporate some form of veiling or head covering. Judaism maintains the use of the yarmulke, or skullcap, for men. In some orthodox Jewish communities, married women wear a head covering of a scarf, hat, or wig as a sign of their submission to God. Many Orthodox Christians still adhere to the practice of covering their heads with a scarf or veil when attending church. And the traditional Roman Catholic practice of women wearing a mantilla, or veil, to Mass is still common in some faith communities.

Current Use of the Hijab Within Various Muslim Populations

Depending upon the country and the interpretation of Islamic law that is prevalent in the area, the hijab might be an extremely colorful accessory that is worn along with otherwise Western-style clothing. On the other hand, it might be made of dark or neutral colored cloth and worn along with flowing robes that conceal the rest of the body.

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