On whether the hijab is mandatory

I’ve been avoiding this post. I’ve successfully avoided writing it for four years. As most of you know I’m conscious of the context to which I contribute exegesis (or anything), and whether or not hijab is mandatory is a question that is irrelevant in a context where women are harassed for wearing the hijab—and for not wearing it. Because of this context I have, reluctantly, written more posts here about hijab than I ever cared to write, and all about men minding their own business.

There is one verse that is used by male scholars to “encourage” women to cover their hair. Humorously (or not) enough, this verse does not explicitly make this command; it reads, instead,

And say
to the believing women
that they should lower their gaze and guard
their modesty; that they should not
display their beauty and
ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof;
that they should draw their veils
over their bosoms
(Qur’an 24:31)

In case you’re wondering how “bosoms” is understood as “hair” when they are pretty clearly distinct body parts (insert joke about judicial male “expertise” knowing nothing about female anatomy here) let’s look at the word “veil.” The verse already hints that a veil existed; it doesn’t command, for example to veil as though the action is revolutionary or unpracticed, but to draw their veils, as though the women already owned fabric they understood could be used as a veil. And that’s exactly correct. The area where male scholarship is wrong, however, is in arguing that the veil was already used to cover the hair, and that 24:31 merely commands the inclusion of the bosom with the hair, thus advising that both the hair and bosom are covered.

But there are problems with this—mainly that the assumption that the sole purpose of the veil was exclusively to cover the hair in pre-Islamic Arabia is an incorrect one.

As Lee Ann explains,

“The cloth was more utilitarian in purpose than just as a piece of clothing. It served to protect against weather, to carry babies, to haul such things as wood. It was tied around the waist and used like a tool belt of sorts, to stick things in it, etc. The “hijab” [before the Revelation] was never exclusive to be used as a head covering because it would have to be removed from the head in order to use it for those other purposes. The ayat in the Quran is basically telling women to use that piece of cloth, that they already have and are using (to make it easier on them, no need to get a special “hijab” so to speak) and use it to cover your chest/breast.”

If the line of argument for scholars is that hijab is commanded in the Qur’an because the cloth to which the Qur’an refers in advising women to cover their bosoms is the same cloth women used to exclusively cover their hair (which is the male scholarly line of argument) then it is an inadequate one. And it’s inadequate for the simple reason that hair-covering was not the exclusive purpose of this fabric. Would it have made sense to interpret that women should cover their bosoms and with the same fabric we use to hold tools? If our logical standards are that all previous purposes of the cloth have now become mandatory with the inclusion of covering the bosom, then it does. Otherwise, there is no reason for scholars to focus solely on the cloth’s purpose to cover hair as an extension of the command to conceal the bosom.

The command to conceal the bosom was given because non-Muslim men would harass Muslim women due to prejudice (you know, all too familiar) while knowing full well these women were Muslim, but since all Arab women exposed their chests, when confronted the men claim that they did not recognize that the woman was Muslim and couldn’t tell, and therefore had not been harassing her for her religion. The verse was revealed to blast away this poor excuse. Muslim women were defined clearly from non-Muslim women, so that, in Lee Ann’s words “those men had no excuse other than they were assholes.”

This is why the verse cites the reason “so that they will not be harassed” in advising the hijab—it’s not meant to be interpreted as the responsibility to avoid harassment is placed on the woman: it’s meant to be interpreted so that the excuse given by men (“I did not recognize her as Muslim and therefore was not committing the 7-century version of a hate crime.”) is rendered illegitimate.

26 thoughts on “On whether the hijab is mandatory

  1. Boo. I hate it when people use this verse to be like, “See? Allah says to cover so you don’t get harassed.” Actually, it says so that you’re recognized as a *free Muslim woman* and not attacked/harassed/abused/etc … and the hijab wasn’t permitted for slave women. I like how many Muslims just ignore that part or choose to remain ignorant of the history of the hijab and think it’s all about covering, modesty, decency, being a good Muslim, and such shit.

    ALSO! What does “guard their modesty” mean? How do we do that, other than covering our bosoms and lowering our gazes? (Or is that all?) And what does “cover your bosoms” mean? Does it have to be with a hijab/veil/etc., or does wearing a plain shirt count, too? And what constitutes as “beauty” and “ornaments” so that we don’t “display” them? Is grooming ourselves “displaying beauty”? Are earrings, nose-rings/studs, kohl, rings, a nice pair of shirt/jeans, etc. ornaments?

    And my favorite of all: “except what must ordinarily appear thereof”… what does this even mean? Some of our interpreters leave nothing for us to “ordinarily leave thereof”! And, also, in which contexts?

    And and and and lulz “Sahih International’s” translation of the verse is as follows:

    “And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons,….”

    Too much sighs.

    Death to patriarchy and this is why we need (Islamic) feminism.


    1. I’ve been meaning to look into what it “meant” that the hijab isn’t permitted (culturally) for a slave woman. As in, what were the consequences?

      This verse was revealed to a society in which women were bare-chested and thought nothing of it, and so a shirt would suffice. It covers the breasts just as a veil (over bare breasts) would.

      I always interpreted “guard your modesty” as referring to egotism.

      Some of our interpreters leave nothing for us to “ordinarily leave thereof”! And, also, in which contexts?

      Yes I know! =/ This gets its own post.


    2. Khaned

      It’s interesting that Sahih International translation was made by three Muslim women converts (also, they had researched and published in Saudi Arabia).


      1. Whoa. I had no idea Sahih Int’l is done by three converts … distressing, actually, but then again, most converts to Islam at least initially embrace a rather ultra-orthodox, ultra-traditional form of Islam that some of them eventually move away.



  2. I really enjoyed reading this, Nahida. For some reason I’m getting a lot of hijab related posts and articles in my feed and so I’ve been thinking about hijab a lot and this is one of the best posts on hijab.

    Here’s my 2 cents worth of input if it serves any use in the discussion:

    1. I have seen very old pictures of Bedouin women (Jewish, Pagan and Muslim) and there’s one thing common in all – a head covering that’s very, very long. I spent two days with Bedouin several years ago in a small village and these women didn’t cover their faces. What they had was a long flimsy kind of shawl-type fabric that they tied loosely around their heads (like a long dupatta?). This cloth served many purposes: when the women had a headache, they’d tie with tightly around their temples; when one of the children made a mess they’d pull the end from behind and clean it up. This shawl thing was their towel too to quickly dry their hands or mouth; it also served as proper veil for prayers. If they got cold they used it curl up inside. But when they worked around the hut or in the desert it was thrown over their backs. I assume in the 7th century there were no buttons so their tunics had gaping necklines.

    I tried to Google for pictures that are closest to what I noticed and this one seems closest (http://picturahistoria.com/wp-content/uploads-ppichis1/2014/01/Ramallah-woman-in-traditional-Palestinian-attire-ca.-1898%E2%80%931914.jpg).

    So I think it is a possibility that these women did use this piece of cloth over their heads in the 7th Century but it wasn’t to cover their hair (like this one whose headcovering does not cover her hair – http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fb/Bedouin_woman_(1898_-_1914).jpg), just as a useful piece of fabric that they found would stay within reach if tied around the head or the waist too maybe.

    2. One thing that I wanted to point out is that elite and free women (non-Muslim) already covered their breasts as well as sometimes their faces (the elitist). In ancient Judaic times the only women who bared their chests were slaves and prostitutes who “exhibited their goods.” Recall the story of Tamar and Judah – Tamar dresses in the clothes of a prostitute (bare chests and a full face veil – the suit of top-class prostitutes) to seduce Judah. Even in the 19th C women dressed like that (http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/85/af/2c/85af2c1230b9896b490d5e95f9a8003e.jpg). What I’m trying to say is that the injunction to cover your bosom wasn’t now only a Muslim dress. Jewish and Pagan elite women covered their chests too (and the most important women covered their faces, hence Hind’s rebellion in coming to meet the Prophet with a face veil *before* she became Muslim to show him her position in society). I believe that it was al adah al jariyah (the prevailing custom).

    3. Most importantly, by the time this verse was revealed, Medina had a greater majority of Muslims than non-Muslims, and the verse does not indicate the religion of the men who were harassing these women. But by this time, Muslims were the elite and like other upper class women, free Muslim women showed that they were *different* by veiling (what that entailed differs from what you believe it meant). I think if we assume that Muslim women now dressed differently from all non-Muslim women, then we are inadvertently putting the onus of women’s safety on Muslim women while also showing that Muslim men did not have to do anything to appear Muslim. They still dressed like non-Muslim men, particularly now like the Jews in Medina. We are also assuming that it was only non-Muslim men who harassed women, and if veiling is only to indicate to non-Muslim men that one is Muslim then why must a woman veil from her brother-in-law, cousins etc who wouldn’t commit a “hate crime”?



    1. Sorry for the late reply! I’ve been traveling and overall busy with things. On point three, although the verse does not mention it explicitly Lee Ann has read books detailing how Muslim women were harassed by those who later claimed they “didn’t know” they were Muslim… I asked her what books but she couldn’t remember (she reads a lot) so maybe I will ask again and see if I can’t get titles.

      Also, this verse was revealed much earlier… the practice of veiling for nobility wasn’t until Islam expanded into the Byzantine Empire correct?


  3. Thanks Nahida! I know you’ve been so busy (and meeting AMAZING people!!) so no worries.

    According to every tafsir that I’ve read, it is true that the excuse given was that the harassing men “didn’t know” but they said they didn’t know that the women were free, not slaves. The oldest tafsir of Ibn Abbas (Tanwir Al Miqbas) says, “(O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them) to cover their necks and bosoms (when they go abroad). That will be better, that so they may be recognised) as free women (and not annoyed) and not be harmed by the fornicators.” Here the religion of the “fornicators” is not stated. They could well have been Muslim men as well. In fact the asbab al nuzul for this verse indicate the verse was revealed when Umar Ibn Khattab recognized Sawdah in the night when she went to relieve herself and shouted at her “O Sawdah! By Allah, you cannot hide yourself from us, so think of a way by which you should not be recognized on going out.” The tafsir of Jalalyn and Al Wahidi also say the same thing about free women Vs slave women.

    But I personally believe that there are two types of “hijab” instructions in the Quran. The one in 24:31 is an instruction to cover the chest area and not flaunt the “adornments.” This verse, imho, instructs women to appear modestly in front of people they will encounter frequently. Interestingly, uncles, grandfathers, and non-Muslim women are not mentioned in the list of people in front of whom women can show off their adornments. I also find it interesting that the ‘hijab’ of men is a single-liner (“tell them to lower their gaze”), but instructions for the ‘hijab’ of women is seven times longer. Sadly therefore, I see the onus of protection being placed on women.

    The second time ‘hijab’ is mentioned is in verse 33:59 and that’s where I believe it means a face veil. And yes, the face veil was made popular when Islam expanded into the Byzantine Empire but I don’t think it was invented by Islam. The reason why it became so popular has to do with the fact, from my understanding of history, that the invading Arabs accumulated great wealth very fast and through polygamy and concubinage had quite a few women who were now considered part of the nobility so niqaab became more visible.


    1. I don’t necessarily think that the purpose of the hijab is for protection. I’m much more inclined to endorse Nahida’s view in the post, which is that they were addressing the issue of men who were harassing the Muslim women (whether the identifier serves as free/slave is not the issue). When it is the women who are facing this phenomenon and not men, it will only be described for women, and so will inevitably have a longer description than their male counterpart.
      An interesting note, and not sure how 100% true this is, but even the Muslim slaves at the time of the Prophet veiled. It was not until Omar’s khilafa that he ordered Muslim slaves not to veil.
      But purpose of the hijab, all above aside, has been intentionally left vague, whether for adaptability of different purposes throughout time, or for reasons we don’t understand/won’t agree with/etc. And I think that allows to more fluidity in terms of reasonings.


  4. Ibtisam

    I don’t like that the word “hijab” is taken to translate to and mean “head covering”. It’s odd, to me, that we use the word as a replacement for head scarf. E.g. Saying something like, “I found a lovely, purple hijab”, instead of, “I found a lovely, purple head scarf”. Doesn’t hijab actually mean barrier? Am I missing something in the translation?


  5. Assalmu alaikum sister, sorry but I read some other evidence that has proved to my that the Khimar is Fard. And I want to keep an open mind to find out the truth.

    Please remove my comment before this one it would be much appreciated thank you.

    that.’ He said: ‘Do not do that, for Umm 3arik has a lot of guests, and I would not like your aimirr to fall off, or your shins to become uncovered, and the people see something of you that you do not want them to see. Rather go to your cousin (son of your paternal uncle) ‘Abdullih bin ‘Amr bin Umm Mddiim, who is a man of Banu Fihr.’ So I went to him.”This is an abridged form of it. (Sahih)


  6. Mantaqaa

    This is an old post so I’m not sure you’ll see it but as someone who wears hijab and has been harassed by white males in high school who looked forward to being rewarded by Allah since she truly believed head coverings were required does this mean that my effort was for nothing?


      1. Mantawaa

        If hijab does not mean head covering then it just seems to be an unnecessary hardship similar to how although wudu is mandatory one can choose to use cold water because they believe they get more reward if they struggle for something or warmer water because they believe islam is the religion of ease. I’m essentially saying if head covering are not part of hijab many many women are putting a hardship on themselves they do not need.


        1. If you are referring to the harassment, that is not women placing the hardship on themselves but the men you referred to placing hardship on women. Here, someone is committing a crime against another person. In your example about wudu, *that* is unnecessary hardship. I hope that you can see the difference.

          If you read the earlier part of this thread the relationship between hijab and harassment is discussed. It is clear (though it is also misplaced responsibility) that the hijab is meant to reduce harassment. When its effect is the opposite, it is permissible to remove it. I believe that the women who wear it anyway are the bravest among us, and that their efforts will be rewarded. But it is a burden that you can choose not to bear.


  7. I’ve always desperately wanted to comment on your articles and ask you so many questions, but now that I’ve found the bravery to do so I’ve forgot all my questions :).

    My parents will force me to wear the hijab when I turn fifteen. I’m really afraid of the birthday party. My parties are rare and short, more like a private meal with my siblings and mother and occasionally my father. My birthday is in a few months and I’m incredibly afraid of my father realizing the age I’m turning. As 14 year olds are adults, 15 year olds are grown women. Grown women aren’t shown mercy.

    I know I’m putting a burden on your shoulders, but please, how can I avoid wearing the hijab? Please answer. Would God really help me? I heard you can’t just ask God to help you and not do anything, but I’m really afraid of even showing my dejection to my parents/ And what about my little sisters? If I somehow avoid it, a hundred percent my parents will force my little sisters to wear the hijab early. Please, what should I do?

    I understand that I should ask God, but God doesn’t reply fast.


    1. How would your parents react if you told them this? I’m asking what, specifically, are you afraid of? I think I might need to know more, but I can’t make any promises in terms of advice that works… Honestly, if I were almost 15 and didn’t want to wear it, it’s very likely all I would have done was remove at school/outside to avoid hurting them. And of course, that isn’t an ideal option, or even a solution.

      Have you spoken to your little sisters? Are they opposed to wearing it as well? It might help to have the power of numbers when you’re speaking about this to your parents. Describe what your objections are, and explain that you think it would be most meaningful if you wore the hijab when you’re ready, out of your own free will, than if it were imposed on you. Use the Quran.

      Email me (“contact” tab on this website) if you need to discuss it further.


  8. Salaam Fatal Feminist,
    Hope all is well inshaAllah.

    I’ve tried to get in contact with you thru your contact page email system, but to no avail.

    Is there any way that we can chat thru email..?



      1. Bismillah
        AsSalaamuAlaikum waRahmatullah

        I hope all is well with you and your loved ones inshaAllah.

        Also, thanks for replying back quickly just now.

        So, I’ve just read finished reading your article “On Whether the Hijab is Mandatory” and it seems as though the translation you’ve used to express the meaning of some of the words in the verse are slightly off.

        First, you’re using the English translation of the meaning of the Quran to express your ideas.

        Second, the word “should” isn’t there in the Arabic verse (24:31). Therefore the whole idea of  “encouraging” women to be modest and not show their adornment is strange. Also, the word “should” isn’t in the previous verse (24:31) admonishing men to be modest.

        Third, what one needs to look at are the first two words of 24:31, “and say”. The word “and” is there because Allah already commanded the Prophet (sallaAllahuAlaihiWaSallam) to admonish the men in the previous verse, 24:30, on what men must do to guard themselves. The men were admonished first so that calls for the word “and” to come in when Allah talks about women.

        Fourth, the word “say” in Arabic isn’t a word of encouragement nor is it a word of suggestion. There are other verbs that hold those meanings.
        It’s a command word. A command for the the Prophet (sallaAllahuAlaihiWaSallam) to command the men and women to carry out what the verse says.

        Finally, I would like to know the methodology you use to interpret the meaning of the Quran.

        1) iQuran app for Android. Mohammed Mohsin K. translation.
        2) http://allthearabicyouneverlearnedthefirsttimearound.com/p2/p2-ch2/commands-forms-i-and-ii/


  9. Pingback: Hijab – oceanswereink


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