Robin Yassin-Kassab

hijab/ niqab/ blab

with 17 comments

My position on the hijab, or head covering, for what it’s worth, is that it is unnecessary. Surat Nur of the Quran, verse 31, says: “…tell the believing women….not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their headcoverings over their bosoms.” Given that the Arab women and men of the prophet’s time all wore a head covering (as men in the Gulf still do – it’s an obvious clothing choice for desert dwellers), but the women often left their breasts bare, it seems obvious here that the injunction is not to cover hair, which was covered anyway by prevailing social custom, but to cover breasts. The more general directive is for both men (who are addressed in the previous verse) and women to dress modestly according to the standards of their time and place.

Many Muslims would point to the ahadith, the records of the prophet’s words and actions, instead of to the Quran for guidance on this point. The problem with the ahadith is that they are sometimes contradictory. Sunni and Shia Muslims claim different ahadith collections as authoritative. Although an elaborate medieval science was developed to establish the reliability of ahadith, its methods do not meet the rigorous standards of modern textual criticism, and we cannot be nearly as certain of the origin of ahadith as we can of the Quran. In any case, I’m the kind of Muslim who thinks we can appreciate the spiritual and social treasures of Islam without imitating the social habits of the first Muslims. The prophet never claimed to be anything more than a man. He and his companions were the products of a particular cultural context. When we learn from their example, we need to do so with our historical senses switched on, looking for general principles which we can apply to our own context rather than for abstract and timeless rules.

So the hijab is primarily a cultural issue. There are always ‘decency-boundary’ differences between and within cultures (for instance, it’s acceptable for women to go topless in a Paris park on a warm summer’s day, but not in Britain), and these are differences that a tolerant society should accommodate. It’s certainly not the business of the state to worry about what a woman wears, and in this respect I think the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran (which insist on hijab for women) and the governments of France, Tunisia and Turkey (which forbid the hijab in schools or government offices) are equally wrong.

I still have my personal dislike of the hijab, however. What I dislike about it is the way it seems to symbolise the weight of honour and tradition, and this falling on the woman’s head, not the man’s. I remember seeing a couple in Pakistan, the wife in full chador stepping a few paces behind her husband, who wore baggy jeans, T-shirt, and back-to-front baseball cap. Dress differences point to double standards for the sexes in a range of situations. According to Islam, casual sex is equally wrong for both sexes, yet a blind eye is often turned to the sexual activity of promiscuous males, if they are not actively encouraged and admired, but a woman behaving in the same way will immediately be written off as a whore, a disgrace to herself and her family. And once you start focussing on pieces of cloth instead of on moral principles, where do you stop? I knew a Syrian doctor in Saudi Arabia whose wife actually wore a niqab to cover her face and a full length black abaya. She and her husband were walking one afternoon in a conservative town south of Riyadh when a mutawa (religious policeman) approached her with his stick raised, ready to strike. The husband stopped him, and asked what he thought he was doing. The mutawa explained that he wished to discipline this loose whore for wearing her abaya on her shoulders, showing her shape, rather than hanging it tentlike from her head. Which begs the question, was the niqab-clad Syrian betraying Islam while the mutawa, about to beat a strange woman in the street, was upholding the faith?

Some of the same Muslim men who expect their sisters to wear hijab think nothing of sexually harrassing women on the street. The principle behind the hijab has been jetisoned, but the piece of cloth remains. The sad fact is, despite all the Muslim talk about Western decadence, there is more harrassment of women on the streets of Arab cities than on the streets of London. (We have to admit here that Hindus and Mediterranean Christians can be as bad. Again, it’s a question of culture, not religion).

But having expressed my personal feelings, I must now dispel some non-Muslim stereotypes of the hijab, starting with the idea that all muhajiba women are oppressed, voiceless souls who are forced to wear the hijab. I’m sure there must be women who are ordered to wear the hijab, and many more who are not aware of the possibility of not wearing it – in the same way that English women wouldn’t consider going to work in only their underwear. But the usual situation in many countries is that individuals have made a (sometimes brave) personal decision to wear the hijab. My sisters, for instance, outraged my upwardly mobile father when they decided to put it on. My father had spent his life becoming bourgeois and couldn’t understand why his daughters would want to make themselves look ‘common.’ I admit to being disturbed when my wife, four years into our marriage, decided to wear hijab. And nothing infuriates me more than English people asking how I’d feel if my wife took it off, as if I’m the tyrant who told her to put it on in the first place.

The argument has been made that the revival of hijab has empowered a class of women to work who in previous generations would not have left their houses. At the same time, it has become less urgent for the bourgeoisie of an Arab world still riddled by class sentiment to show their distance from their poorer sisters.

In a world of globalised identities the return to hijab is predominantly political. It declares the wearer is Muslim and proud of it. When people have recently lost their organic connection to their village or neighbourhood, when hostile and artificial states ineptly claim their loyalty instead, and when they see Muslims being attacked whenever they switch on the TV, the declaration becomes more urgent.

As for the niqab, or face covering, it gives me the creeps. And if it gives me the creeps, it must absolutely terrify a lot of white Britons. In this respect, I agree with Jack Straw: the niqab keeps communities separated. It is both a symbol of alienation and an alienating device. It definitely alienates me. But then, I feel alienated from just about everyone for the first days of a visit to Britain, because nobody will establish eye contact. White men with military haircuts and tatoos give me the creeps. And don’t get me started on the types of people who I just don’t like the look of.

Outside the Gulf and Afghanistan, niqab-wearers are a tiny minority of Muslims. Yet some young British Muslims whose mothers wore a loose dupatta are taking to the niqab. I think this phenomenon is similar to that of Blacks who should know better following Louis Farrakhan or the five percenters, not because they really believe that the white man is the devil, but because they’ve found a sexy way to assert themselves and to reject the establishment. White youths used to stick safety pins through their noses back in the days when it was still possible to shock with body decoration.

While Jack Straw of course has the right to express his dislike of the niqab, I must say the timing looks suspicious. Britain is deeply implicated in a series of wars against Muslim countries: Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq, wars fought not for freedom and democracy but for capital and imperial control. In order to justify this latest bout of Western violence it has been necessary to exploit the September 11th attacks, to convince Western people that Muslims didn’t attack America because of American bases in the Gulf, or support for Israel, but because Muslims hate ‘our values’ and ‘our freedom.’

The first wave of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia developed in concert with the European land grab in the Middle East known as the Crusades. The traditional European anti-black racisms were constructed as a necessary accompaniment to the rise of European Empires in Africa and Asia. When Hitler’s plan to colonise Europe itself was defeated, racism was given a bad name for half a century. But now, Islamophobia is day by day becoming more accepted throughout Europe. It looks legitimate because Islamophobes have convinced themselves they’re battling for liberal values. The Nazis also thought they were fighting to keep Europe’s soul pure of Gypsy and Jewish contamination.

The attacks on Muslims come every single day. From Foreign Secretary Straw who helped destroy Iraq, from ‘liberal’ novelists, from the Pope, from Italian journalists, from Danish cartoonists and Dutch populists, from French philosophers and American tele-evangelists. Some criticisms are reasoned and seek dialogue, many others demonise, generalise, simplify, reduce. Most attackers are blind to the shortcomings and crimes of Christian or secular Western society, even as it drenches the Muslims in Depleted Uranium. An increasing number of Islamophobes have the wild glint of certainty in their eyes. Suggest that the Zionist lobby has undue influence on American foreign policy and you are ostracised. Blab about the Muslim invasion of Europe and you are taken increasingly seriously. I, for one, am very scared. The creeps I get from the niqab are nothing in comparison.

A couple of good articles on the niqab furore:



Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 10, 2006 at 12:42 pm

Posted in Islam, Islamophobia, UK

Tagged with , ,

17 Responses

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  1. Bravo Qunfuz, excellent article. I don’t have a strong opinion on the hijab and I don’t really judge the people by wearing it or not. But I am alarmed by how more and more muslims are using it as a tool to express more and more their idendity. It is becoming a barrier or a symbol that is not helping our societies becoming more advanced or modernized.

    Just watch Syrian movies from the 70s and you would think that they were made in France or the US…why did we change direction???


    October 10, 2006 at 8:42 pm

  2. qunfuz

    A brilliant post, both in form and substance, balanced, perceptive articulate and informative.

    I am not a religious person but having lived among Muslims and Christians in the Arab world and the West, I share your sentiments entirely about the hijab. People need to look at such issues from different perspectives and not allow cultural differences and prejudice to contaminate their logic and moral judgment.

    One other point that this perhaps worth mentioning is that some women feel that the hijab/niqab liberates them from having to dress for others and look their best (feminine, attractive, elegant..etc) every moment of the day.

    Philip I

    October 10, 2006 at 8:48 pm

  3. That is a brilliant article.

    Being a moderate muslim who lives currently in the west, I am very scared as well. I don’t see the need for hijab or niqab and I don’t believe in them. Even so, last week I was not allowed to see a house I wanted to buy because I have a muslim name.

    Things are changing so quickly; and the way ahead is getting more and more difficult.


    October 17, 2006 at 9:09 pm

  4. Michel kilo is Finally Free

    Thanks everyone for your support and your help in trying to release him.
    This is a great day for Syria. Congratulations for everyone who is happy for the news.


    October 19, 2006 at 9:30 pm

  5. Very interesting and informative article Mr Qunfuz..I’ll be bookmarking your blog and visiting again.


    October 22, 2006 at 11:49 pm

  6. Qunfuz,

    For some reason I am unable to leave a comment on your most recent post from November 3rd, so I am leaving it here.

    That was a great book review. I makes not want to read. It is not that I want to read bland, uncritical writing but Mr. Moss seems to carry way too much (mental)baggage for a travel writer. I should read Thesiger. For a more recent impression of Syria, I liked Paul Theroux’s Pillars of Hercules. It is a tour of the countries lining the Mediterranean.

    Abu Kareem

    November 4, 2006 at 7:51 pm

  7. Im sorry to strongly disagree with your article. The women from the preislamic time covered their head/hair already and when the ayat surat al ahzab was revealed, it was ment to cover fully. People tempt to make Islam easy for themselfs to not have to follow the rules or the sunnah they take out what they dislike which is harram. Insha’Allah Allah t’ala guide us all


    November 11, 2006 at 11:48 pm

  8. Thank you for this. I am considering converting to Islam but have real objections to adopting certain cultural traditions rather than the beautiful principles on which Qu’ranic teaching seems to be based. The spirit of the law is what interests me.

    As far as hijab is concerned, I think that to dress modestly is an historically contingent exercise, since the definition of modesty (and types of clothing worn) varies from place to place- as you noted, topless sunbathing is de rigeur in France and not in Britain. Similarly, modesty of dress should be the corollary of purity of manners not the be all and end all it is made out by many Muslims I know. If Islam is a universal religion it must be because its principles can be applied to all human societies – not that all human societies ought to ressemble Arabia in every last detail.

    Consider This

    February 11, 2007 at 6:55 pm

  9. Have been reading a few of your posts, as well as this excellent one. We badly need more intelligent and reasonable people/men like you in the world, and certainly more women who are true to themselves and their gender – more women who understand that they have the power to dilute male hegemony.

    I agree with the points you make about, (to paraphrase greatly!) one size not fitting all. Clothing and other such ‘outer signals’ should not prejudice us in our interactions and judgements about someone we don’t ‘know’ unless we take the time to get to know them.

    And unfortunately, the so-called technically-advanced world, has overlooked its work-force, its human resources – the mark of a megalomaniac testosterone-driven monopoly. It’s a global phenomenon, I think.

    Where’s Bodicea when you need her?

    Keep crusading!


    February 15, 2007 at 3:37 am

  10. There is something arousing my curiosity fiercely and urging me to inquire if there are the five Islamic prescribed and Quranic undescribed prayers in your life, and which source you depend on for giving you answers for a lot of Hows and Whys of some Islamic matters, and what the list of what we are commanded to take and deny is, as it is mentioned in the seventh Quranic verse of The Gathering chapter: “.. So take what the Apostle assigns to you, and deny yourselves that which he withholds from you… ”. And I don’t know what the rigorous standards of modern textual criticism are, and I think I would not care if I do know some of the many wisdoms of why God obliged the Arabs of the past to be the most responsible beings of the blessed message of Islam. Anyway, I’m not expressing my response with any of the Ahadith, as I should do in this case.

    About what followed the mentioning of the 31st verse of Surat Nur , I can’t say anything denying that the women were often leaving there breasts bare at the time of this verse’s descending, but I could be doubtful about it, and then about whom this verse is speaking to:

    We all know that Quranic verses are suitable for every era, place and people. So I wonder if this was considered in those exegeses of your post.

    Let’s talk about Diyatha(men being not caring about their women and their honour), it is much more prevalent for the current Arabian societies than it was for the Arabs of the past; it’s obvious on their stories and poems. For instance, the war of Al Fijar, which was broken out between Quraish and Hawazin, before Islam, its main reason was a woman for some men bared her.

    And for the rare tribes which were killing their baby girls, what was urging them to do so is their fear that their girls might be maids in other tribes if they were attacked and beaten by them, and that was scratching their reputation and honour. I want to say by all of that that I don’t think their values would allow the bare breasts to be so common that Quran would have a very special speech for their women about that. I think that verse is speaking to all muslim women of every era and stating and confirming one critical matter that women have to be careful about, as it is with this verse: “Be guardians of your prayers and of the midmost prayer” The Cow-238

    However, when Islam forbids something, it forbids its ways and causes: I can see that taking hijab off is dragging the coverings of the neck, chests, arms and legs. I think I have never seen a woman not wearing hijab and covering her bosom or not showing her beauty by other forbidden ways, have you known anyone? And women are more attractive to men and some men are charmed by certain organs of the woman’s body -like hair, neck, hands, feet..- as it’s known, and anyway, there is a difference between who is trying to avoid being the cause of Fitna and who is really Maftoon.

    ” I’m sure there must be women who are ordered to wear the hijab, and many more who are not aware of the possibility of not wearing it ” : Is that possibility existed by Religion or something else? and how did you know? I can be angry here! I think it’s unfair to say that and ignore the women who want to wear it but they are conquered by their societies. This reminded me of my Tunisian math teacher who taught me when I was in grade 8. I remember when she told us that she left her country only to be able to cover her head. She escaped with her hijab, her own peace!

    What about Media? Affected many societies’ thoughts in the world and forgot to do so with us? When I was younger, I tended to hate hijab as an influence of propagandas and Media messages on my mind -as I think- but at heart, I wasn’t able to believe/confess that it’s the only thing which kept Muslim and Arabian women’s ambitions silent and made the women suffer, so I called for our freedom and thought how I can change something in the future and help the women to take their freedom, and beside the existence of hijab. I grew up and asked myself what a freedom I was dreaming of was and which I finally realized that we already had. Then I just wanted to ask every muslim woman: “anyone suffers from something and can feel the injustice upon herself, just raise your hand” then we can know hijab’s negative effects on us. And who would give us a freedom which is more perfect than the one Islam gives us? I’m sure that Media is poisoning the minds of those few -for me- women you are sure they are not aware of the possibility of not wearing it, whether they can’t bear it as a religious command or they think it’s a barrier to their expectations. Last year I heard about a program on MBC channel and its name was Coeval Saudi Women which is about some successful Saudi women. I was very eager to watch it and just to satisfy my curiosity and know if my suggestion was right or not: those Saudi women are not wearing hijab, or not covering all of their hair. I watched it, and all of those successful expatriate Saudi women were as I thought before. Taking hijab off is pushing some women to success and the world definitely would be welcoming them everywhere, as we all know, but again, it’s Media. And how did you know?

    It’s so sad to know that some muslims have such a point of view of hijab. Anyway, when comparing hijab/niqab with others societies’ matters, ‘why’ women wear hijab/niqab must be considered, even if the entire world hates these pieces of cloth.


    February 21, 2008 at 4:23 pm

  11. mn89 – I fear that you have misunderstood the main thrust of my post, which was to defend women’s right to wear what they like, including the hijab. I oppose regimes like the Saudi Arabian one which force women to wear hijab, and I oppose regimes like the Tunisian or French that force women not to wear the hijab. Far from ignoring the women who want to wear the hijab, as you claim I’m doing, I give here reasons why women choose to wear the hijab, even if I don’t agree with it.

    I have read several different sources which say that some women in pre-Islamic Arabia did not cover their breasts. This is not surprising, and does not necessarily mean that these women, or their menfolk, would have been happy with their women working as maids. The breast issue is one of body-taboos, which differ from culture to culture and from time to time. In parts of Africa and South America some women still do not cover their breasts, which does not mean that these women are sexually loose. The maid issue is an issue of class, something quite different. And even if pre-Islamic Arabian women always covered their breasts, my reading of the verse remains valid: the point is not the headcovering, which was worn anyway, and by men as much as by women, but the covering of breasts. This is what the verse itself says.

    Hijab remains important, in my opinion, as a principle and not as a piece of cloth.

    I must also set you straight on this important point: there are very many women who do not wear hijab but who do dress modestly. To suggest otherwise is to slander these women who have high moral qualities but who are not Muslims. There are also many convinced Muslim women who agree with my point of view and do not wear hijab.

    If you wish to wear hijab I defend your right to do so. If your culture is one in which body taboos include the necessity of a woman covering her hair, I defend your culture’s right to do what it chooses. The purpose of my post was to argue against stereotypes of Muslim women who wear the hijab.

    best wishes


    February 21, 2008 at 8:25 pm

  12. Astaghfirullah…Your article couldn’t be so wrong


    July 1, 2008 at 1:11 am

  13. you took a line from surat al nur however you failed to complete the verse, as so do many.

    many people take the view if you drinnk alcohol dont pray as they dont complete the ayat.

    “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts) and not to show off their adornment except only that which is apparent (like both eyes for necessity to see the way, or outer palms of hands or one eye or dress like veil, gloves, headcover, apron), and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms) and not to reveal their adornment except to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husband’s fathers, or their sons, or their husband’s sons, or their brothers or their brother’s sons, or their sister’s sons, or their (Muslim) women (i.e. their sisters in Islam), or the (female) slaves whom their right hands possess, or old male servants who lack vigour, or small children who have no sense of feminine sex. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And all of you beg Allaah to forgive you all, O believers, that you may be successful

    “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies (i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way). That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And Allaah is Ever Oft‑Forgiving, Most Merciful”

    [al-Ahzaab 33:59]

    It was narrated from Safiyyah bint Shaybah that ‘Aa’ishah (may Allaah be pleased with her) used to say: When these words were revealed – “and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)” – they took their izaars (a kind of garment) and tore them from the edges and covered their faces with them.

    Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 4481. The following version was narrated by Abu Dawood (4102):

    May Allaah have mercy on the Muhaajir women. When Allaah revealed the words “and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)”, they tore the thickest of their aprons (a kind of garment) and covered their faces with them.

    Shaykh Muhammad al-Ameen al-Shanqeeti (may Allaah have mercy on him) said:

    This hadeeth clearly states that what the Sahaabi women mentioned here understood from this verse – “and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)” – was that they were to cover their faces, and that they tore their garments and covered their faces with them, in obedience to the command of Allaah in the verse where He said “and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)” which meant covering their faces. Thus the fair-minded person will understand that woman’s observing hijab and covering her face in front of men is established in the saheeh Sunnah that explains the Book of Allaah. ‘Aa’ishah (may Allaah be pleased with her) praised those women for hastening to follow the command of Allaah given in His Book. It is known that their understanding of the words “and to draw their veils all over Juyoobihinna (i.e. their bodies, faces, necks and bosoms)” as meaning covering the face came from the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him), because he was there and they asked him about everything that they did not understand about their religion.


    January 4, 2009 at 9:47 am

  14. I don’t think the extra verses add as much as you think. And I really don’t like the habit of adding words in brackets which are not in the Qur’anic verse. If I did that, a lot of people would start shouting about me altering the text of the Qur’an. I think you have a Saudi translation there. Text such as “(i.e. screen themselves completely except the eyes or one eye to see the way)” is not from the Qur’an. but from a Wahhabi’s imagination.


    January 4, 2009 at 1:12 pm

  15. It quite interesting how you talk of “hijab or niqab” as a barrier that separates society is prevents growth of peoples. So much for individualism? Isnt that what modern freedom is all about? Expressing yourself as you wish. Being accused of “creating a barrier in society” just because you choose to wear a veil over your head sort of contradicts how you claim others to be hypocrites. Essentially what you said is hypocritical in itself and contradicts.

    One of the most basic understandings a Muslim has is that we have scholars who teach us Quran. Unless you possess the historical knowledge of Islam that many Muslim scholars do you are not deemed fit to draw any conclusions or interpretations.

    Secondly, you completely take the verse out of context. do you think God is that illogical to tell women to cover their breasts and not their vaginal area? Why didnt God mention that too? Does that mean all a woman has to do is cover their breasts and they are fine?

    Sounds idiotic right? that’s the sort of analogy you are pulling here. God knows that societies are different. He even mentions that in the Quran that He made us all different. He also mentions that the Quran will withstand the test of time. Islam is for every society and every time. It gives practical solutions to societal problems. Hijab has nothing to do with cultural practices. If it were a cultural practice then only a specific nation would practice it. How do you explain converts or people that arent of Arab origin wearing hijab?

    There is a big difference between cultural norms and Islam. Any logical human being is able understand that. Islam is not a culture, it is not a religion. It is a way of life. I wont even begin to explain the difference between culture and religion. Every cultural norm you presented above are contradictory to Islam and the Quran can be used to prove that. The prophet never engaged in such behaviour of ill treating women. Infact if you study islamic history, you will see that Islam gave those women rights that they didnt have prior. They were allowed to own property and ask for a divorce. Islam gave them that right. The prophets wife herself was a business woman.

    Your article is extremely shallow. The message you are implying is it DOES matter what you wear.


    May 6, 2009 at 9:50 pm

  16. ACCPAC – I fear you have misunderstod what I wrote in general. In response to one little point, women in pre-Islamic Arabia covered their vaginal area, but not always their breasts. It is logical therefore to understand the covering verse in Nur to refer to breasts, nt vaginas.

    You say that one of the most basic understandings a Muslim has is that we have scholars who teach us how to interpret the Qur’an. As far as I’m concerned, one of the most basic understandins a Muslim has is that there is no mediation between a believer and his God. Islam was designed to save us from the priest class, but Muslims have built up priests.

    Most of all, APACC, (you sound disturbingly like Aipac), I don’t like your aggressive tone. Please try to understand what I wrote first, then respond – if you must – with Islamic adab. I have after all written a piece here which says although I don’t persnlly like hijab much, women should be free to wear it, or not wear it, and muhajjiba women should not be stereotyped.


    May 8, 2009 at 11:59 am

  17. […] of any context, simply because Muslims are violent. Politicians (like Jack Straw, see my posting Hijab/Niqab/Blab ) and the media bear a lot of responsibility for this. The media talks about ‘Islamic terror,’ […]

    You Muslims! « Qunfuz

    August 7, 2009 at 3:15 pm

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