Modesty for All: Why We Need a New Conversation About Hijab
It’s not enough to say that Muslim women should cover because Allah commanded it when we’re speaking to teen girls about to embark on the journey of wearing hijab. As parents and elders in the community we must explain the benefits of hijab and the sense of empowerment that comes along with it. As a high school social studies teacher, I have a unique position to be able to ascertain the thoughts and emotions regarding hijab amongst young girls in the community. From those conversations, I’ve learned just how unimaginative and insipid young girls in the community find the discussions of hijab.
After attending/listening to panels or lectures on hijab, it’s easy to understand why many of them feel this way. The reasons given for the merits of wearing hijab tend to be monolithic in nature and oversimplified. While it’s understood that Allah has commanded hijab, we don’t usually go into the benefits and wisdom behind it. Instead, we reduce hijab to sound bites and metaphors of covered lollipops and clam covered pearls. In addition, young girls are told that hijab protects women from the lust and wandering eyes of men who can’t control their sexual desires. This statement, however, creates the impression for them that the burden of making men behave well rest on how they are covered. These answers, in my opinion are harmful and outdated and must be replaced with a more nuanced and worthy discussion of hijab and all of its merits. In addition, it’s a necessity to give teen girls resources to make it easier for them to wear and accept hijab on their own. Young Muslim girls should also be shown either at home or through mentoring programs examples of Muslim women in every facet of the workforce covering beautifully and excelling at their craft. Finally, any conversation on hijab should also include a conversation on male modesty and covering of their aura (part/parts of the body which is illegal to keep naked).
Why is a new dialogue important? After surveying and speaking with a few teen students within my school, I learned of their dissatisfaction with the current discussion concerning hijab. When asked to give their candid thoughts on the topic, many of them expressed that they are sick of hearing the same thing over and over again. “We must cover to help men control themselves. Covering provides a protection from sexual advances and assault. If you wear hijab, it will make you more desirable for marriage from worthy suitors.” According to them, these reasons, validity aside does not encourage or enhance a love of hijab, it creates resentment among some girls.
The first question they ask is why are we constantly reminded that we have to hide our adornments and rarely discuss that men too have an aura that needs to be covered? In addition, they also wonder how the hijab protects from sexual harassment when women who cover, sometimes wearing the burka even, are still victims of assault and inappropriate behavior from the opposite sex. Khadijah Cummings, a 10th grade student at an Islamic High School responded that she feels the discussion of hijab needs to change. According to Khadijah, “People are portraying it like you’re always going to be protected if you wear hijab and that’s not always true.” This statement resonated with me as it shows how only correlating the behavior of men to level of covering is particularly problematic. If Allah forbid a teen views hijab this way and they fall victim to assault, they could end up hating hijab because it failed to provide them with adequate protection. In addition, they may also hate themselves and feel that they weren’t special enough or that they somehow did something to warrant the attack or harassment.
Instead of speaking of hijab in these terms to teen girls, we should approach the topic from a different angle! First let’s start a conversation on hijab by mentioning that modesty is prescribed for all Muslims, men and women. Allah says in the Qur’an , “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms…” (Qur’an 24:30-31). The former of the two verses highlights the importance of Muslim men guarding themselves through lowering of the gaze, while the latter addresses women. From these verses we understand that neither man nor women has a monopoly on being modest and we must all practice this tenet.
Once the foundation is laid, we can further build upon it with hijab being a sense of empowerment for women instead of a hindrance. Wearing hijab and covering up one’s beauty for men and women means that the essence of who you are and your intelligence has the chance to take center stage. When I wear hijab, I am empowered as a Muslim women to not only perform to the best of my abilities in any given task, I also proudly showcase my faith in a positive light for all to see. In addition, being modest is a way to counteract the narrative that women only advance and ascertain higher achievements in their craft based on looks and tight clothing.
This is extremely important considering that many Muslim women in the west have to contribute to the financial stability of the family. While we can’t dispute that a household runs more smoothly when one parent is present around the clock, the reality is that few can afford this luxury. Since women are outside of the home and making positive contributions to society, what they choose to wear while donning hijab is a form of dawah. As such, we should take care to be as presentable as possible in our appearance. In addition, the Prophet Muhammad (sallalahu alayhi wa sallam) was once asked, “What if someone likes that his clothing and his shoes are beautiful?” The Prophet Muhammad (sallalahu alayhi wa sallam) responded: “Allah loves to see the affects of His grace upon His servant.” So we know that dressing cleanly, nicely, and in a presentable manner is in congruous with Islam. Of course being modest is not just about appearance but also actions as well. How we conduct ourselves and treat people while presenting ourselves as visibly Muslim also serves as dawah.
Furthermore, when discussing the protection of hijab with our young people, we should communicate to them that Allah is the best of protectors and the hijab was proscribed as a safe guard. Explain that wearing hijab is like wearing sunscreen, it can help protect against skin cancer but there’s still a possibility of developing a carcinogen or being sunburned. Covering your awra could help reduce the level of heckling and more serious behavior from some men who are slightly in control of their faculties. However, there are some men who are born without reason and self-control and no amount of covering could prevent them from acting out their desires. If this should occur, girls should know that it had nothing to do with who they are, what they wore, and everything to do with the fact that the predator and his lack of self control.
In addition, young boys have to be included in discussions of modesty, hijab and what it means to respect Muslim women and women in general! In a survey conducted through the blog Philly Hijabis Killing It, 91% of respondents said that they talked to their girls about hijab and modesty while only 76% said that they had spoken to their sons about modesty. This highlights the fact that we discuss hijab and modestly more with our daughters and young girls rather than our sons. However, modesty has been prescribed to both sexes in Islam so we must have those same conversations with young boys so that they can develop boundaries and proper etiquette when in the presence of other women. In addition, it could be deduced that the reason sexual assault/harassment are continual thorns in the side of the Muslim community rest largely on the fact that we often place blame and burden of responsibility on women. After being harassed or attacked, it’s often whispered or said outright, that the woman brought it on herself because she didn’t cover or wasn’t modest enough. Through education and mentoring, many of the despicable behaviors displayed by young Muslim men in relation to women could be greatly reduced. In order to change this view and help raise more conscious and caring Muslim men, we must start now with this generation of young boys. It’s for this very reason that I applaud and encourage Alif Laam Meem Alpha Lambda Mu (the first American Muslim fraternity) on vocally championing Women’s Rights within and outside of the Muslim Community.
Finally, it’s imperative that the Muslim community provides role models through various outlets to help guide and inspire the youth to embrace their religion and use it to affect positive change in their communities and beyond. According to a survey conducted through phkidaily.com, only 59% of respondents served as a mentor through their mosque. This statistic is most unfortunate considering how important role models are in helping to develop self-esteem and pride among the youth! In addition to role models from within the community, it’s important to provide images via the media that showcase Muslim Women and Men making positive strides in different areas. Classmates Khadijah Cummings and Jenan Ismail, both mentioned that it would be extremely helpful to them if they were shown examples of professional Muslim women wearing hijab in a stylish manner while remaining true to the guidelines of modesty. The vast majority of respondents (81%) to Philly Hijabis Killing It’s survey also believed that young Muslim girls need to see images of Professional Muslim Women wearing hijab in order to help them embrace covering. To provide these examples, showcasing blogs like Phkidaily.com (Philly Hijabis Killing It), MissHijabi.com, Muslimah2Muslimah, Haute Muslimah, Basma.K.Styles, FashioningFaith.com and magazines like Sisters Magazine which showcases creative Muslim women who wear the hijab while remaining within the parameters of modesty, is a necessity.
Wearing hijab and being modest is not something that should be taken lightly, nor is it mutually exclusive to one sex. It’s imperative that we mentor young Muslims within our community on what modesty means for both men and women so that they can develop a balanced and healthy. In addition, not only must we speak of the merits of hijab, we should also focus on the fact that it’s a form of protection commanded by Allah but that HE alone is the ultimate protection. Finally, we must remember that images and examples displayed by society of the ideal woman run counter-productive to the narrative of modesty in Islam. Due to this, we must encourage our young girls to maintain their modesty in spite of what’s popular today through the creation of blogs, websites, and magazines!