Hijab and Why I Observe It

Dec 10, 2009

For me, the hijab was a natural progression from childhood to adolescence. I had seen my elder sister and my mother wear hijab when I was still a child, so I always knew I was to follow.


Of course this social conditioning had a part in making me believe this was a normal and necessary part of life, but growing up, as I began to gain a greater understanding of my faith, as well as the male psychology, I was able to appreciate both the more subtle and palpable benefits of my habit.

I’m often asked what it feels like to observe pardah. “Isn’t it difficult?”…“Don’t you feel hot?”, “Can you breathe alright?”

You could be forgiven for thinking that most such questions come from non-Muslim westerners, but in actuality, this question comes just as often from fellow Muslims. Fellow Muslims who either do not practice the same levels of pardah or abstain from it altogether and hence find my choice somewhat difficult to comprehend.

Here in the Indian sub-continent, many women who do wear a head covering (hijab), veil (niqab) or outer clothing garment (julabab, abaya or burqa) may actually confirm to you that they do not observe pardah at all. They may just be wearing the hijab to protect them from the sun. Sometimes it is customary in a family to wear the abaya when leaving the home or when travelling by public tran

sport but okay, and even necessary, to take it off when they have reached their destination. In short, not all women who you may see wearing the hijab, niqab or abaya will be doing it for religious reasons.

That term “pardah” usually implies a level of strictness in adhering to either all or at least one of these attires mentioned above. In addition, it entails a certain level of modesty and reservation in all of a woman’s activities involving non-mehrim men (explaining why it isn’t just a dress code, but a wide lifestyle choice).

For me personally, being someone who has worn a hijab for all her adult life, people asking me why I cover my head or wear an abaya almost seems like asking the obvious. When their often condescending tone irritated me, I almost felt like retorting, “Why do you wear clothes?” But as I grew up and came to terms with the complexities of the world, I began to understand why and how my attire would raise such questions.

A women’s hijab is a sign of her being off limits. Unfortunately, this breed of men is becoming rarer and rarer, but even for the more promiscuous males; the hijab is usually a sign to keep their distance.

But to begin answering these F.A.Q.s, no, it is not so difficult to wear a head covering all the time. And yes, it gets hot sometimes. But you get used to it very quickly, and once you have, it doesn’t bother you. Besides, you’re not supposed to wear it all the time, only in front of non-mehrims. In Islamic fiqh, non-mehrims include all men a woman can marry. Mehrims hence are the relatively few men a woman can never marry; these would include her father, her brother, her father and mother’s brothers, her nephews, her grandchildren, her father-in-law, her son and her son-in-law.

Admittedly, this list of mehrims in front of whom I’m required to wear the hijab is a long one, but the choice to wear the hijab in front of most of the men of the world is more liberating then

it is repressive. Let me assure you before I proceed, that only rarely will Muslim women in the sub-continent forcefully wear the hijab. Despite some amount of latent and other manifest conditioning that may initially shape their habits, as young girls grow older, most of them, will observe the hijab under their own free will.

Negative stereotyping by the media and other social institutions in several countries, means people's perception about the hijab isn’t always a positive one, but in the least, the hijab becomes for many subcontinental women a physical manifestation of one’s faith. One of primary reasons why the practice was introduced in the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)’s time in the first place, was to distinguish the believing women from the non-believing ones.

Secondly, for a modest man, a women’s hijab is a sign of her being off limits. Unfortunately, this breed of men is becoming rarer and rarer, but even for the more promiscuous males; the hijab is usually a sign to keep their distance. I have been involved in situations in the workplace where male colleagues have just exchanged handshakes with several other women in the room, made friendly, sometimes even suggestive small talk with them but in their conversations with me, refrained from shaking hands or getting overtly friendly, let alone think of flirting. This exemplifies another reason why the practice was first introduced: to provide women a safeguard from unwanted attention from other men.

Thirdly, and this is especially true for fashion-indifferent people like myself, it is immensely easy to just put on my abaya and stroll into any social gathering without having to be conscious of whether I’m dressed too formally or informally.

The media and fashion industry combined have created an enormous invisible monster of desires that pressurises women to keep abreast with the all the latest twists and turns of fashion. One season, it is high hem lines that are “in”. Next season, it is back to low.

A fashion trend can be anything a so-called fashion guru whims it to be. The society we have constructed puts pressure on women to keep up with these whims. Everywhere you cast your eyes you will see glamorous women in the media observing the latest fashions. Their ubiquitous presence is designed to make women who refuse to participate feel like outcasts of society.

It is not uncommon to learn of women spending extravagantly on updating their wardrobes with one just arrived trend, and by the time they have barely used up their newly acquired collection, it is already time for a new upgrade to keep up with the latest whim of the so-called guru. So out goes all the expensive clothes of last season, and in come more new clothes of the new, latest fashions, sustaining this viscous consumerism that is rapidly engulfing out society.

I’m not attempting to imply that Muslim women who observe hijab are style-defunct, for style is a much broader term then fashion. But I like to think that to a great extent they are immune to this hidden pressure generated by the fashion industry, that seeks to exploit a woman’s inherent desire to “look good”. The hijab, in essence, keeps a woman’s innate desires “to look good” within bounds, serving as a reminder to the pious Muslim woman that she is indeed a thing of special beauty, but beauty that is best preserved and protected, not showcased to every passerby.