The Counter Crusade

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Reflections on the "Hijab"

Bism Allah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim wa bihamdih

In my last post, Muslim Hijab, Christian Hijab, I talked about the function of what we call the hijab or veil that women wear.

As was said before, the women of Arabia and other parts of the world already wore a headcovering to protect them from the desert sun, just as the men wore turbans. This female headcovering was called a khimar (plural khumur). Now, this khimar, or headcovering, was tied behind their necks, leaving the front of the neck and the area underneath exposed, especially where there was an opening of the dress above the chest, called the jayb, plural juyub, which is translated as "bosoms" in most Quranic translations. Thus the Qur'an told the women to tie the headcover in front and let it drape down to conceal the throat and the dress’s opening at the top.[1]


“Say to believing women, that they cast down their eyes and guard their private parts, and reveal not their adornment save such as is outward; and let them drape their headcoverings (khumur) over their bosoms, and not reveal their adornment . . .” (Qur’an 24:31)

Thus the khimar has two functions:

1) as a headcovering, as it was originally intended, and
2) for the purposes of modesty and the woman's dignity- a new purpose introduced by the Qur'an.

The problem as I see it, is that we've changed the name of this headcovering from khimar to hijab, an improper name. The word hijab means a veil, as in, something to veil the women from men, to keep them hidden. By changing the word khimar to the word hijab, we are changing the function of the headcovering from something that preserves a woman's dignity and keeps her appearance modest, to something that hides her, something that says a woman is meant to be hidden away, veiled from society.

It is well known however that during the time of the Prophet, women were not hidden away like they were something that needed to be veiled. They actively participated in society just like men: The Prophet's first wife Khadija was a businesswoman, a merchant, and his wife Aisha was a scholar. Many women of Medina went to pledge their allegiance to the Prophet Muhammad and invite him to their city in the Treaty of Aqabah. Women would go to the Prophet Muhammad's house once a week for lessons in Islam. They would go to war along side the men, tending the wounded, and in some cases fighting alongside them. A reading of my "Warrior Muslimas" posts 1, 2, 3, and 4 should give one example of how the Prophet Muhammad and his companions envisioned the role of women in society, and how they were never meant to be "veiled" and hidden away.

But words have such powerful effects on the minds of men. By constantly using the word hijab, people are subconsciously agreeing that women are to be veiled, or hidden. They lose their importance in society and are eventually hidden away in their husbands' homes. I think this is a very important factor in what is going on with women in Islamic societies these days. The word used in the Qur'an, in the above verse, is khumur, the plural for khimar. As for the word hijab, it is used in an entirely different, and very specific, context.

The Prophet's house was always full of men who came to learn from the Prophet or to learn from him or to pledge allegiance to him. He would also invite men to eat with him, especially poor people who had no food like the ahlul suffa. Since the Prophet's wives would be there, it would have been improper for these men to intrude on the women's privacy, and thus the verse of the hijab was revealed:

O Ye who believe! Enter not the dwellings of the Prophet for a meal without waiting for the proper time, unless permission be granted you. But if ye are invited, enter, and, when your meal is ended, then disperse. Linger not for conversation. Lo! that would cause annoyance to the Prophet, and he would be shy of (asking) you (to go); but Allah is not shy of the truth. And when ye ask anything of (the wives of the Prophet), ask it of them from behind a curtain (hijab). That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts... (Qur'an 33:53)

Thus the hijab was a curtain that separated all the strangers who entered the Prophet's households from the Prophet's wives, to guard the women's' privacy, and that is purer for their hearts.

So what I'm trying to say is, maybe we should stop using the word hijab when we are talking about the woman's headcovering, because the word carries with it certain meanings that are not present in the original word khimar. In the mass psychology of Muslim men, the headcovering has become a symbol of veiling, or hiding, of the women, and that was eventually translated to all aspects of a woman's life, until the Muslim women became veiled completely from the rest of society in certain cases. How different is that from covering one's hair, neck, and chest for the sake of modesty and dignity!

If language did not affect behavior, it could have no meaning. -Kenneth L. Pike

Inshalla from this day forward, I will stop using the word hijab and use the word khimar (pronounced khimaar) instead. And if each one of us starts using the right word and teaches another Muslim to do the same, maybe we can start changing how Muslim men and Muslim women subconsciously view the role of women in society, and instead of seeing them as something that needs to be veiled away and hidden, would start to see them as dignified members who are active in society. Please everyone, try to make the switch.


Words not only affect us temporarily; they change us, they socialize or unsocialize us. -David Riesman



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This post does not really fit in with the general purpose of this blog, but I will sidetrack like that sometimes.
1. SunniPath: Why Hijab?

10 Comments:

  • well, i dont expect people like HijabiApprentice to change their name to KhimariApprentice :P

    By Blogger Silencer, at 3:02 AM, January 26, 2006  

  • asalam alakum brother. Masha'allah, this is very informative. I just began posting my blog, and have been looking at articles such as yours, trying to learn and increase my knowledge in Islam and Allah SWT. Your article would be very good for even a non-muslim to read, learning why a muslim woman covers her body. Insha'allah, Allah SWT will bless you and your family and guide others to Islam through your blog. Asalam alakum.

    By Blogger nurah, at 8:46 AM, January 26, 2006  

  • thank you sis. Although this particular post is aimed at Muslims, most my posts are *supposed* to be for non-Muslims. But i'm not trying to convert anyone. I'm just trying to show that Islam is being attacked not because there is something wrong with it, but because it happens to be the political enemy of the time. I show that this is the case by looking at whatever it is they attack in Islam and showing how there is nothing wrong there, or that it's misunderstood, and then i show how the actual problem exists in other religions, but no one says anything about them, because they dont happen to be the political enemy of the time.

    well that was the original intent of this blog anyway, but i'm not sure how faithfully i've stuck to it. Still, most my readers are Muslim.

    By Blogger Silencer, at 9:36 PM, January 26, 2006  

  • if the purpose of the hijab is to not attract attention to yourself, it would seem that wearing a hijab in western society would in fact be counterproductive. Moreover, any society in which Muslim women are in the minority would actually contradict the purpose of the hijab (call it what you will).

    Further, it seems to me that the principles behind female modesty are sometimes disturbing. The idea that women must alter their behavior to compensate for personal failings of men is not right. Men must bear the burden of their wild hormones.

    Personally, I have no problem respecting a western woman - who is rarely covered. My parents taught me basic respect. If they'd had a daughter, Im sure they would have done the same for her.It seems that if people raise their children to respect each other this isn't an issue.

    Correct me if Im wrong - one of the main ideas behind Ramadan is to thank god for the gifts he has given you, and to exersize self restraint. Men just need to chill.

    And on a last point, I think its wrong to divide the world into two camps, muslim and nonmuslim. If I called you a nonMormon, that would seem rather odd, wouldn't it?

    By Blogger Steve, at 3:38 PM, January 28, 2006  

  • steve- no the purpose of the khimar is not "not to attract attention to oneself" but to not expose certain bodyparts. And it's not only in men, hadith also specifies bodyparts that men must keep covered as well for the exact same reason as the khimar.

    second, you say that men are the ones responsible for their raging hormones. and that's true, that's why Islam first says men must keep their eyes down or away from women (ghadd an- nathar). This is a very very important teaching in Islam, and the hadith describes a man's staring at a woman as an arrow of Satan.

    That's why the Quran FIRST says that men should lower their gaze and protect their modesty, and SECOND that women must lower their gaze and guard their modesty.

    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. (24:30)

    And then, in recognizing the fact that not all men will lower their gaze, and that not all men walking around are Muslims, women are told to guard their modesty.

    And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty;... (until the end of the khimar verse quoted in the post. 24:31)

    and yes fasting is to help men exercise self restraint, that's why the prophet prescribed it for unmarried men with raging hormones, even oustide Ramadan.

    "O young people! Whoever among you can marry, should marry, because it helps him lower his gaze and guard his modesty, and whoever is not able to marry, should fast, as fasting diminishes his sexual power." (Sahih Bukhari 7.4)

    as for the classification issue, i dont see anything wrong with that, especially if they see their religion as the religion of truth and its followers as members of a unified ummah, a community based not on family relations or race or color or class, but on faith.

    By Blogger Silencer, at 4:12 PM, January 28, 2006  

  • Well good luck getting people to use a more correct word...I mean most people can't even manage basic grammar...you are an idealist!

    The whole modesty thing is interesting...Orthodox Jewish women supposedly shave their heads, then they wear wigs, so they won't draw attention to themselves with their shaved heads! I find this humorous...I dress modestly compared to a lot of women, but there are times when dressing "modestly" isn't appropriate, like at the swimming pool. I'm not going to not exercise and die of a heart attack for the sake of modesty. This is where men's self-restraint is supposed to come into play and in my experience many men do not have it, not because it isn't in them, but because they choose not to have it. In our world, whenever something is wrong, it's always women who are blamed, and this is true in each and every culture. That's why I don't have faith that any religion is going to reform the world. Men don't want to give up their power, and whatever their religion says, they will twist it to their advantage.

    where's your Lebanon report?

    By Blogger Elizabeth, at 3:57 AM, January 30, 2006  

  • Interesting post, however today the opposite has happened for the word khimaar.

    Arabs use it meaning covering the face as a niqaab. It seems that both words have switched places with each other.

    Another reason that some (read:wahabis) say that covering the face is fard, quoting the quran, where the word khimar is used and not hijab.

    Words are essential and knowledge of language in particular is essential for anyone trying to understand legal rulings in an islamic and arabic lnguage context.

    By Blogger Shaykhspeara Sha'ira, at 2:04 PM, February 14, 2006  

  • so is that how it is in the UAE? a khimar is what a niqaab is supposed to be?

    i guess that's why some salafi website used the khimar verse to "prove" that faces must be covered. i was wondering where they made that ridiculous jump from head-covering to fave-covering. funny their beloved Albani declared that there is absolutely no proof whatsoever that covering the face is required in islam.

    By Blogger Silencer, at 10:12 PM, February 14, 2006  

  • yes i am several months late but khimariapprentice has a nice ring to it :P.

    By Blogger HijabiApprentice, at 6:01 AM, July 07, 2006  

  • lol!!

    By Blogger Silencer, at 1:13 PM, July 07, 2006  

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