بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Recently, and I am a twenty-one-year-old Muslim woman: I have been noticing that men – some men, but a number that feels noticeable to me – have been looking at me, in a certain way, when I am out in public. Not just ‘curiosity’, I don’t think, these particular stares.
I understand and appreciate why some women – my aunt, and one of my friends, for example – prefer to additionally cover their faces when in the general presence of men, in public. By nature: Allah has equipped womenkind with physical beauty.
I, at the moment: cover my hair, as well as my body, when outside of the home, and/or in the presence of men who are not my father, brother, direct uncles, and so on.
From my understanding: for a woman, this is a part of consolidating, and expressing, our Īmān, our faith. Modesty, like other fundamental Islamic principles, including purity, is important for us, both on the inward, and on the outward: i.e. behavioural, physical, levels.
Covering, generally, helps with being aware of, and more cognisant of, Allah, our Lord, when we are outside.
In the Qur’an, we are told, in Surah Nūr, Ayah 31, to: firstly, ‘lower our gazes’. This command is given to men too: to be watchful over ourselves, to not stare with desire at people with whom we are not married.
We women are also told to: ‘display of our adornment only that which is apparent’. So, it’s generally accepted that: we should only show our face and hands, except when we are in the exclusive presence of, for example, fellow women, and/or of men who are direct family members, and/or young children. We are told to draw our veils over our chests, and to not make clear our other adornments, such as our hair and our corporeal (bodily) shapes.
Many Muslim women wear the ‘hijāb’: the term we tend to use these days in order to describe a head-and-chest covering. Many Muslim women do not wear it: many of them struggle to. But we do not deny that it is something that Allah Himself has prescribed for us, and has instructed us to do, in His Qur’an.
To many a non-Muslim, perhaps: all this might not make that much… ‘sense’. Why would a woman not want to show her beautiful hair, her waistline, her other beautiful features? Why ever not?
The overarching idea is that: people, in general, choose to have so many different forms of ‘sovereigns’ over their lives. Be it: the pursuit of money, and/or of status. Mass social ‘approvals’, ‘sexual validations’. Sometimes: we may feel inclined towards spending much money, and much time, and mental energy, on pandering to, another potential ‘sovereign’, let’s say: that of the ‘Male Gaze’.
Whereas, in Islam: we bear witness that Allah is the One and Only God, the Sovereign over our lives. We believe that this life is a test for us: that we should try to make choices in favour of Allah, and what He commands of us. We believe that good levels of modesty, including on the physical, outward level: brings nothing but goodness.
A primary purpose behind veiling, for the Muslim woman, is: demonstrating and daily fortifying our connections with our Creator. And two particular additional functions of the ‘hijāb’ that are outlined in the Qur’an, are: so that we may be “recognised”, and so that we may not be “annoyed” [Qur’an, (33:59)].
Recognised: I must say, I absolutely love, AlHamduliLlah, being recognised by fellow Muslims. Whether I be: on a family holiday in Spain, or getting some lunch in Cambridge. It feels lovely to recognise, and be recognised by, fellow brothers and sisters. To exchange Salaams (the greetings of Peace); to have that additional kindness, sometimes, displayed to you, that the believers ought to demonstrate towards one another.
I also like being called “sister”. I’m referred to as this fairly often, it seems. By Muslim salespeople and so on. And sometimes Christians, too, it seems: recognise the ‘religion’, AlHamduliLlah, in me.
Being addressed as ‘sister’ by fellow Muslims makes me feel respected, and recognised. I am their sister in Islam; I am not primarily my physical being, though I know that Allah has equipped my physical being with beauty.
Next: the part about not being ‘annoyed’. Some are taken to seeking to ‘disprove’ this principle by talking about how sometimes, women who cover are still harassed by certain men. I know that there are some (sometimes shocking,) exceptions to this general principle, but overall: I sort of know for a fact that the ways in which I feel protected while sitting on the train, or walking outside, even after Maghrib (sunset) time, whilst wearing a headscarf and loose outer garments… that I would feel far less so if I were to wear my general ‘home clothes’ outside.
And I imagine that some of these strange stares that I’ve found myself receiving, for instance on public transport… That there would perhaps be a lot more of them, if I had not been covered, and that I would therefore be made to feel quite uncomfortable.
There are several other ‘objections’ that some people may put forth against the premise of covering, for a woman. To clarify, firstly: I am trying not to ‘police’ anybody’s Islam, nor claim myself, as a Hijābi, to be, somehow ‘religiously superior’ in any way to fellow Muslim women who do not cover in the same ways. Religion is between you and your Creator; it also has a fundamental ethical dimension to it, and as Muslims we try to love and support others, and think the best of them.
There are certainly some Muslim women who pray, fast, and give charity: they love Allah and His Prophet (S A W), and this religion. They are on their own journeys in life and in faith: just like the rest of us. Perhaps, right now, they only cover their hair and so on in order to pray. These things are between themselves and Allah.
We are not here to somehow ‘look down upon’ any woman who does not cover herself in public, nor ‘force’ her to cover. Although: this sort of attitude of ‘militancy’ is sometimes displayed by certain ‘Liberals’ who insist that Muslim women who cover themselves ‘should’ uncover themselves. Their claims would appear to be that we are: brainwashed, and ‘wrong’. Like we ‘don’t know what’s best for ourselves’, so they must somehow intervene. While: being so fundamentally morally hypocritical. Claiming that those who ‘impose’ the headscarf on us, including the ‘patriarchal institution’ of religion… are infantilising us. That they — those ‘militant’ anti-Hijāb Liberals — somehow ‘know what is best for us’.
They are, at once, people who fundamentally dehumanise us – for example insisting that it’s somehow punishable for a Muslim woman to have her hair and body covered while sitting on the beach. Can’t go to school wearing one. But sometimes they seem to claim to be our ‘saviours’: it’s a whole Netflix trope by now.
Moreover: some may passionately argue that men! Should learn to control themselves, and not stare at, nor approach, women in public.
Allah does instruct men to lower their gazes, in the Qur’an. To control their desires, to not stare lustfully at women.
I also know that men and women have been created differently by God. That men are, naturally, more ‘visual’, more visually and physically inclined, than we women, in general, are. I understand this. This life is a test, for us women, and for men, alike. It can feel like quite a test, for example, for a woman who knows she has beautiful hair… to go ahead and cover it in public. Similarly, it can be quite a test for a man to learn to lower his gaze.
But ultimately: as Muslims, we know that Allah knows His creations best. We do these things for our Lord.
The hijāb, to me, certainly: is something that is important. And, also, in acknowledgement of the facts that this life is a test, and that there ought to be no compulsion in religion…
The value of the hijāb… is contingent on the fact of its being something that is not forcefully imposed on a woman. Not for cultural ‘what-will-others-think’ reasons, and not with attitudes of vilifying women, and blaming them for so many societal ills and so forth.
The Hijāb is something that, generally, as a Muslim woman’s religious journey progresses and she feels Īmān grow in her heart: she tends to love, and organically come to. In obedience to her Lord as the One and Only, the Sovereign over her life.
When it comes to people, these days, sometimes aggressively ‘policing’ women’s Hijābs…
A beautiful example from the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet (S A W):
[According to Sahīh Al-Bukhāri, a verified collection of Prophetic narrations…]
When a beautiful woman had approached the Prophet (S A W) in order to ask him a question, one of his companions had been staring at her.
Muhammad (S A W) simply held the chin of his companion, and turned his face, so that he would stop staring at her. Thus: reminding him of his Purpose here, and reminding him to respect the woman.
Muhammad (S A W) was an easy-going, loving man: a mercy to humanity. And he is the human example whom we follow.
He did not ‘chastise’ her on account of her beauty, and nor did he proceed to ‘police’ how well, or ‘not well’, she had been covering herself.
Instead: he had turned his companion’s face. And proceeded to respond, with respect, to the woman’s religious question.