Hijab is an Arabic word meaning barrier or partition.
In Islam, however, it has a broader meaning. It is the principle of modesty and includes behaviour as well as dress for both males and females.
The most visible form of hijab is the head covering that many Muslim women wear. Hijab however goes beyond the head scarf. In one popular school of Islamic thought, hijab refers to the complete covering of everything except the hands, face and feet in long, loose and non-see-through garments. A woman who wears hijab is called Muhaajaba.
Muslim women are required to observe the hijab in front of any man they could theoretically marry. This means that hijab is not obligatory in front of the father, brothers, grandfathers, uncles or young children.
Hijab does not need to be worn in front of other Muslim women, but there is debate about what can be revealed to non-Muslim women.
Modesty rules are open to a wide range of interpretations. Some Muslim women wear full-body garments that only expose their eyes. Some cover every part of the body except their face and hands. Some believe only their hair or their cleavage is compulsory to hide, and others do not observe any special dress rules.
In the English-speaking world, use of the word hijab has become limited to mean the covering on the head of Muslim woman. However, this is more accurately called a khimaar. The khimaar is a convenient solution comprising usually one, but sometimes two pieces of cloth, enabling Muslim women to cover their hair, ears and neck while outside the home.
Hijab, in the sense of veiling, can also be achieved by hanging a curtain or placing a screen between women and men to allow them to speak to each other without changing dress. This was more common in the early days of Islam, for the wives of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Qur’an makes a few references to Muslim clothing, but prefers to point out more general principles of modest dress.
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.
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 and not display their beauty except to their husbands, [a list of relatives], [household servants], or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.
Both men and women are commanded to lower their gaze and “guard their modesty”.
The most basic interpretation of “guard their modesty” is to cover the private parts, which includes the chest in women (“draw their veils over their bosoms”). However, many scholars interpret this injunction in a more detailed way and use Hadith (recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) to support their views.
Zeenah (ornaments) is another word with numerous meanings. It has been interpreted to mean body parts, beauty, fine clothes or literal ornaments like jewellery. (The same word is used in chapter 7:31 - “O Children of Adam! wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer...”)
The jewellery interpretation is supported by the instruction to women not to stamp their feet to draw attention to themselves. It used to be the practice among Arabian women to wear ankle chains to attract men.
The word translated here as veils is khumur, plural of khimaar. According to scholars, the word khimaar has no other meaning than a type of cloth which covers the head. Muslim scholars point out that men’s turbans are sometimes called khumur as well.
Women during the time of Muhammad did wear the khimaar, but would wear it tied behind so their neck and upper chest were visible. This verse is therefore an order that the khimaar now be drawn over the chest, so that the neck and chest were not bare.
According to most scholars, the khimaar is obligatory for Muslim women.
The phrase “what must ordinarily appear thereof” has been interpreted in many different ways. Among Muslims who take the word zeenah (ornaments) to refer to body parts, a popular interpretation of this phrase is that women should only show the body parts that are necessary for day-to-day tasks. This is usually taken to be the face and the hands.
Some scholars recommend hiding everything but the eyes. The style of burqa worn by Afghan women even hides the eyes. Muslims who oppose full concealment say that if Allah wanted women to hide their entire bodies, there would have been no need to tell male Muslims to lower their gaze.
But “what must ordinarily appear thereof” could be understood as meaning the parts of the body that are shown when wearing normal (modest) dress, with the definition of normal dress deliberately left up to the believers’ particular time and culture. This could explain why the Qur’an is not more specific: if God had wanted to, he could have listed the acceptable body parts in as much detail as the list of exceptions to the rule.
Some scholars interpret “what must ordinarily appear thereof” to mean that if a woman exposes part of her body by accident, she will be forgiven. All agree that women will not be punished for breaking the rules if some emergency forces them to do so.
O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful.
This verse is directed to all Muslim women. An alternative translation is “they should lengthen their garments”.
The word translated here as “outer garments” is jalabib, the plural of jilbab. But it does not necessarily refer to the present day garment known as jilbab. Translators usually represent the word jalabib with general terms like cloaks or outer garments.
The two most common scholarly interpretations of jilbab are a travelling coat or cloak and a sheet-like full body garment similar to the modern jilbab. Some insist that the Qur’anic meaning of jilbab is identical to the present day garment. Others maintain that today’s garment was developed as late as 1970 by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The verse also indicates that the purpose of dressing this way is that women are recognised as Muslims and not harassed. It was not very safe for women to go out during this time when they could be mistaken for prostitutes or assaulted.
The rules are relaxed for elderly women:
Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage—there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not a wanton display of their beauty: but it is best for them to be modest: and Allah is One Who sees and knows all things.
The Qur’an gives these general rules, which may help in understanding how to interpret dress and other rules in modern times.
O ye Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you a cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of righteousness,- that is the best. Such are among the Signs of Allah, that they may receive admonition!
So clothing does not have to be drab: it is all right for both sexes to use clothing to enhance beauty as well as to cover nakedness. The most important thing is to be modest and righteous.