By Saima Sheikh
The concept of hijab or veil is not new to Islam. Women have used veil to cover their hair since ancient times. Classical Greek and Hellenistic statues sometimes depict Greek women with both their head and face covered by a veil. In Judaism and Christianity, the concept of covering the head was associated with modesty.
Veiling is mentioned in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament mentions what Rebekah did before Isaac in, “When Re-bek’ah raised her eyes, she caught sight of Isaac and she swung herself down from off the camel. Then she said to the servant ‘who is that walking in the field to meet us?’ and the servant said ‘It is my master’ And she proceeded to take a headcloth and to cover herself” (Genesis: 24: 64 and 65).
The New Testament states, “but every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered dishonors her head – it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not be covered, then let her be shorn! But since it is disgraceful for woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered” (1 Corinthians: 11: 5, 6).
Most traditional depictions of Mary, the mother of Jesus show her veiled. Veiling was a common practice with church-going women and a number of very traditional churches retain the custom especially Latin American countries such as Mexico. Catholic nuns still cover their heads.
In Judaism, there are different ways of veiling depending on how strictly a woman adheres to Jewish or Torah laws. Orthodox Jewish women and Hasidic women dress modestly and cover their hair when they go out in the public. According to Jewish law, all married women have to cover their hair either with a ‘tikhel’ (scarf) or a ‘sheytl’ (wig). Some Hasidic women go as far as to cover their wigs with a scarf. They also dress modestly by wearing long skirts and shirts with long sleeves and high necklines. Some European Hasidic women shave their heads day after their wedding and repeat it monthly to ensure that not a single strand of hair is ever visible.
As is evident, veiling is mentioned in both Judaism and Christianity. In Islam, veiling or ‘purdah’ is also associated with modesty. Islam lays great emphasis on moral standards of society and provides guidelines on how men and women should interact with each other. The Holy Quran first addresses men, “Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do” (24:31). Then it addresses the women, “Say to the believing women that they restrain their looks and guard their private parts, and that they display not their beauty or their embellishment except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head coverings over their bosoms….”(24:32).This means that Muslim women dress modestly, cover their heads and wear an outer garment to conceal their beauty from strangers.
The Messiah and Imam of today, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad further expounds on these verses and said in his book, “The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam”, “The Book of God does not aim at keeping women in seclusion like prisoners. This is the concept of those who are not acquainted with the correct pattern of Islamic ways. The purpose of these regulations is to restrain men and women from letting their eyes to rove freely and from displaying their good looks and beauties, for therein lies the good both of men and of women. It should be remembered that to restrain one’s looks and to direct them only towards observing that which is permissible is described in Arabic by the expression ghadd-e-basar… It does not behoove a pious person who desires to keep his heart pure that he should lift his eyes freely in every direction like an animal. It is necessary that such a one should cultivate the habit of ghadd-e-basar in his social life. This is a blessed habit through which his natural impulses would be converted into a high moral quality without interfering with his social needs. This is the quality which is called chastity in Islam.”
His Holiness the Khalifa of Islam, Mirza Masroor Ahmad said in his address at the annual convention of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, UK on October 26, 2014, “Today, I have spoken particularly about Purdah because it is often alleged that Purdah takes away women’s rights. However, we know that this is not the case andthe truth is that Purdah and Hijab actually establish the true dignity, independence and freedom of women. Hijab does not only give women physical security but is also a key means of giving them spiritual security and purity of heart.”
There is a common misconception that Muslim women are forced to observe purdah / hijab. Islam teaches that faith is something personal and that each person is responsible for his or her own decisions. It does not say that a man must force the female members of his family to observe Purdah. If this was truly the case and Muslim men were allowed to force the female members of their family to wear a veil or burqa, then more than half of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today would be wearing a burqa and a veil. It is apparent that women who choose to wear a veil or burqa do so voluntarily.
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