Does the Quran really mandate the Hijab?


Farzana Hassan

Debates on whether the Quran enjoins the hijab on Muslim women are often bitter and unceasing, as the polemics usually stem from variant interpretations of religious texts that are considered authoritative and indisputable. That’s why I recently set about searching for a religious argument that might clinch the debate—at least for moderate and open-minded Muslims, if not for the unyielding orthodoxy.

While verses of the Quran, as with any other religious text, are subject to interpretation and re-interpretation, I find the following particularly useful as a defence of my own premise-- that indeed there is no requirement in Islam for women to wear the hijab to cover their hair.

The verse is well-known:

33:59 O prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments [Jalabeeb]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.

Now if Allah really wanted women to cover their hair as badly as their Muslim brothers would have them believe, why would He simply not say so in plain and unambiguous words? Why wouldn’t He just clearly state that believing women must cover their hair? The Quran it is claimed is a book of clear guidance. Why then would God deliberately confound Muslims over an issue that is as important to them as the modesty of women?

Not only is there no explicit injunction mandating the hijab in the Quran, there are also moral arguments to be made against its institutionalization. Propriety and decorum in society ought to be the responsibility of both men and women. They must therefore, both ensure decency in public. Societies and cultures often set minimum standards for such decorum for individuals. However, when the state or religious body begins to mandate and institutionalize a particular religious garment for women, it places unnecessary demands on women to conform to a particular religious viewpoint. Individual choices and freedoms hence begin to lose meaning.

Moreover, when women decide to don the hijab, they are in effect admitting to being sexual objects in need of being covered up. Many women say they must do so in order to be respected. But women ought to be respected regardless of whether they wear the hijab or not—be it for their humanity, intellect, individual character or myriad other traits. It is an affront to womankind to suggest otherwise.

Some women wear the hijab as a statement of identity. But there is no need to perpetuate an identity built on false premises. The hijab has become a part of Muslim identity only because Muslim women have been lied to about its religious significance.

I urge my Muslim sisters to look at the issue dispassionately, rather than follow the interpretations of old blindly. They will find that there is little to support the claim that the Quran expressly mandates the hijab. On the other hand, I am not for once denying that it enjoins modesty on both men and women.