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Author: James A. Wren
Editors: Peg A. Lamphier and Rosanne Welch
Date: 2017
Women in American History: A Social, Political, and Cultural Encyclopedia and Document Collection
Publisher: ABC-Clio
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 4)

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One of the most noticeable and misunderstood badges of Muslim womanhood, the hijab in general has come to refer to all Islamic modest dressing for women. It signifies the head scarf, in particular the covering that many Muslim women use to hide their hair, neck, and often bosom. In Arabic, the word hijab derives from hajaba, meaning “to conceal or hide from view.” For some, hijab means pairing a head scarf with Western-style clothes. For others it means wearing loose robes as well. Still others add a niqāb, or face veil, to their ensembles.

Veiling did not originate with the advent of Islam. Statuettes of veiled priestesses precede all three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), dating to as early as 2500 BCE. And just as certain, veiling was all but commonplace among the elite women in ancient Mesopotamia as well as in the Byzantine, Greek, and Persian Empires. Between 550 and 323 BCE prior to Christianity, respectable women in Hellenistic Greek society were expected to seclude themselves by wearing clothing that would conceal them from the eyes of others.

Veiling gradually spread to upper-class Arab women, and eventually it became widespread among Muslim women in cities throughout the Middle East. It quickly spread among urban populations, becoming more pervasive under Ottoman rule as a mark of rank and exclusive lifestyle. Women in rural areas, however, were much slower to adopt the practice, if only because the garments interfered with their work in the fields.

The term hijab is never used in the Qur’an to describe an article of clothing. Insofar as the Qur’an admonishes Muslim women to dress modestly by covering their breasts and genitals, nowhere does it require them to cover their faces or bodies with the full-body burqa or chador. Historically, the Arabic hijab, meaning “a screen or curtain,” appears in the Qur’an in reference to nothing more than a partition. Some Muslims believe that hijab for women should be compulsory. However, a majority of Muslim scholars and jurists, past and present, have determined the minimum requirements for Muslim women’s dress, namely that clothing must cover the entire body, with the exception of the face and the hands, and that modest attire ought not be form-fitting, sheer, or so eye-catching as to attract either undue attention or reveal the shape of the body.

The mid-1970s marked a period in which college-aged Muslim men and women began a movement meant to reunite and rededicate themselves to the Page 306  |  Top of ArticleIslamic faith. This movement was named the Sahwah (Awakening) and sparked a period of heightened religiosity that spread across the East and was evident in every aspect of life through the ways in which they chose to dress themselves. The uniform adopted by the young female pioneers of this movement, the al-Islāmī (Islamic dress), consisted of both al-jilbāb (an unfitted long-sleeved, ankle-length gown in austere solid colors and thick opaque fabric) and al-khimār, a head cover much like the traditional wimple used by Catholic nuns.

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the hijab generated much controversy and stereotyping, even as the discussion and discourse on the Islamic world intensified. As a result many nations attempted to restrict the veil, but by and large such changes only led to renewed rebellion. In response, those women wearing the hijab grew to even greater numbers.

Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab argue that it allows them to retain their modesty, morals, and freedom of choice and that they choose to veil themselves because it liberates even as it allows them to avoid harassment. Some Muslim and non-Muslim women alike oppose wearing the hijab, noting as they do so that it calls into question issues of gender equality insofar as it works to silence and repress women both physically and metaphorically.

Currently, under U.S. law an employer can ask that an employee’s attire not pose a danger. Furthermore, an employee can be asked to adjust her hijab so that any loose ends are tucked in, and an employer can require that any such veiling be neat and clean and in a color that does not clash with company uniforms. A number of cases have established a precedent guaranteeing an employee’s legal right to reasonable accommodation in matters of faith.

James A. Wren

Further Reading

Ahmed, Leila. 2011. The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America: A Quiet Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

El Guindi, Fadwa. 1999. Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance. Oxford, UK: Berg.

Elver, Hilal. 2012. The Headscarf Controversy: Secularism and Freedom of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX7268100945