The hijab has evolved as a symbol of piety, a mark of cultural identity, and a political statement throughout its history. In walking a tightrope between culture and religion, the hijab has proven in salience in both realms, making its mark on culture without sacrificing its commitment as a dynamic living symbology of faith. To understand the hijab in a truly historical sense one has to see it really as a chicken-or-the-egg type of scenario: did the hijab emerge in response to culture or did culture absorb itself into its creed?
Origins of The Hijab
Head coverings were not uncommon in surrounding civilizations and cultures at this time, albeit appropriated for slightly different purposes. In many different societies and civilizations from Ancient Greece to Constantinople, women donned extra cloth.
Appropriating extra cloth was a critical way in which women would distinguish their class role in society and distinguish themselves from poorer and “unchaste” women. The veil as a status symbol was prominent in a wide range of regional societies, from Greece all the way down to the Isma’ili and Qahtan tribes of what is today Yemen. Jewish and Christian women similarly veiled, for both cultural and religious reasons.
In Islam, the commonly regarded verse cited as mandating the hijab, and the first mention of it, lies in Sura’t al-Nur. It is regarded as the “hijab verse,” where God instructed His believers to observe Hijab during the time the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet (609-632 AD):
وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ إِلَّا مَا ظَهَرَ مِنْهَا ۖ وَلْيَضْرِبْنَ بِخُمُرِهِنَّ عَلَىٰ جُيُوبِهِنَّ ۖ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ زِينَتَهُنَّ -24:31
(24:31) And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests…
It is important to note that this observation of modesty actually begins with commanding men to lower their gaze in the previous verse - Tell the believing men to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what they do (24:30) - a precedent set by the Prophet in a Hadith recounting him manually turning his cousin, al Fadl bin Abbas’s head when he was ogling at a woman who had come to them with a question.
Contemporary debates have exchanged different perspectives on exactly how believing women should observe modesty. A looser interpretation sees the notion of drawing a khimar (veil) to conceal one’s bosom or “ornaments,” as an instruction to dress modestly rather than apply the veil in its most literal sense, given that khimar most literally translates to “headscarf.” In most cases, the instruction to draw scarves from the head down to the shoulders, covering the chest remains the most orthodox.
The practice, drawing Muslim women to emulate the wives of the prophet, who were called upon by God to veil as to protect themselves from harm:
يٰۤـاَيُّهَا النَّبِىُّ قُلْ لِّاَزۡوَاجِكَ وَبَنٰتِكَ وَنِسَآءِ الۡمُؤۡمِنِيۡنَ يُدۡنِيۡنَ عَلَيۡهِنَّ مِنۡ جَلَابِيۡبِهِنَّ ؕ ذٰ لِكَ اَدۡنٰٓى اَنۡ يُّعۡرَفۡنَ فَلَا يُؤۡذَيۡنَ ؕ وَكَانَ اللّٰهُ غَفُوۡرًا رَّحِيۡمًا -33:59
(33:59) O Prophet, enjoin your wives and your daughters and the believing women, to draw a part of their outer coverings around them. It is likelier that they will be recognised and not molested. Allah is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.
In inviting all believing women to emulate the wives of the prophet, God’s command of modesty to both men and women had been perfected and practiced through the observation of hijab. The exclusivity of veiling to rich castes of women, too, had been lifted, but veiling still largely remained a practice of the elite. Rural and women of lower castes typically were less inclined to wear the hijab, suggesting that the early practices of hijab in society had retained their former class character, despite the opportunity opening up to all women in the time of the prophet.
Veiling across empires
Morality, piety, and justice were not as central to the Umayyad (661-750 CE) and Abbasid (750-1250 CE) caliphates as they had under early Islamic rule, and no area was more depictive of this than of the status women at this time. Women, who had enjoyed keeping weath, marrying and divorcing from their consent, and conducting their own business and affairs, would become more domesticated in later stages of the Umayyad (750-1200 CE) dynasty. Increasing wealth and domestication were associated more with the practice of veiling oneself in placing a barrier between the woman and the public world.
Widespread veiling, in complementing the seclusion of women to their homes, increased as Caliphates became more urbanized, and “the subordination of women,” as the Islamic history scholar Leila Ahmed writes in Woman and Gender in Islam, consolidated itself with the “growth of complex urban societies.” This trend of case and class specific hijab donning would continue through the Umayyad and into the early Abbasid Era. Travelers of then and historians of today would understand and encounter the hijab through noting the different styles adorned by some women during this time. A number of different veiling styles also flourished as a result of this during the early Abbasid Caliphate (750-800 CE) such as a niqab, burqa, or the then-recently popularized isaba, a loose hanging scarf tie together by a rolled band.
All throughout later empires and dynasties, including the Ottoman Era, (1300-1914 CE) veiling continued to provide urban women with the degree of anonymity and privacy that seclusion had given them in past societies. Appearing in the public sphere thoroughly veiled and covered, particularly when encountering men they were not related to, was a sign of humility, a move of social protection, and performance of piety.
For these reasons, veiling remained popular in the Ottoman era until the empire’s decline. But dress codes on modesty remained, even as authorities were dealing with the influence of European attire that was brighter in color and noticeably less modest. Even before Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist-modernist project in 1934 banned the hijab and religious wear outside of places of worship, tantalizing Eurocentric values was a fashion trend among some before it became a policy move.
The ban of the hijab ironically deprived many women of the very garment that had ensured their safety and security in the very public sphere secularization laws had claimed to push them into. Across the Arab and Muslim world in the early 20th century, secularization was both the trend in urban society as well as the law: Iran, too, enforced anti-veiling measures in 1928 under Reza Shah.
In the Arab world at this time, the hijab was not very widespread and even rarer in cosmopolitan areas and university centers. The revival of political-islamic movements in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and later Iran, while allying themselves differently geopolitically, revived a similar practice of associating political power with the adornment of, rather than abandonment of, Islamic dress. Fatima Mernissi, the Islamic Feminist scholar, alledged that modern Islamicization attempts have brought back attitudes of the seclusion of women under the guise of anti-colonialism. In The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, she writes: “How did the tradition succeed in transforming the Muslim woman into that submissive, marginal creature who buries herself and only goes out into the world timidly and huddled in her veils? Why does the Muslim man need such a mutilated companion?”
The result of this shift has different reasons; in Egypt and Palestine, the 1970s and 1980s era revival of the hijab and abaya came counter to the leftist, anti-Muslim Brotherhood currents of the previous governments and societies, whereas in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, codifying Islamic dress and mandatory hijab were measures taken to repudiate, fully, the thoroughly pro-Western, neocolonialist economic and social character of the country pre-1979.
Though Fatima Mernissi argued that the politicization of the hijab enforced an anti-colonial patriarchy, women reclaimed the garment that had been forced off of them because of how Western colonial attitudes were enforced by secularizing regimes. In Turkey, a growing current in the 1980s by veiled women standing by the hijab and modest wear in schools and places of work, in opposition to decades-old secularization measures, accompanied the political current across the Islamic world, influencing changes in policy and in fashion production.
The Personal Is the Political
For many young women, donning the hijab became a way to reclaim their religious and cultural identity, especially in the Western diaspora and amidst a political revival. For the first time in modern history, the situation of the hijab in a new political context worldwide inspired a new generation of young women insistent upon wearing the hijab even as their mothers didn’t, and seeking to reclaim their personal identities challenged by or lost to assimilation.
The hijab also challenged American notions of the significance and symbolism behind the headscarf, products of almost 400 years of recycled Orientalism. As Dr. Randa Kayyali writes in The Arab Americans: “In the United States, many Americans see the veil as a symbol of oppression and degradation forced by Muslim men on women...in contrast, many veiled women report feeling full of dignity and self-esteem and enjoy that their physical, personal self does not enter into social interactions.”
The challenges young Muslim women face in wearing the hijab continue to present themselves, and, in the West, are harder than ever. Yet it is because of their challenges, and commitment to women’s agency, rather than in spite of it, that these young women find their hijab to be a great source of strength, rather than a barrier.
Julia K., is an independent analyst and writer frequently covering history, politics, and economics. She and her work has been featured in TruthOut, Counterpunch, and Mintpressnews as well as international outlets like Al-Akhbar and Al-Mayadeen.