IN DEFENSE OF NON-HIJABI SISTERS
by Samana Siddiqui
It had been ten years since she had set foot in a mosque. Being at university
had broadened her mind in many ways, one of them being her reconnecting
She had begun praying five times a day a month ago, and now felt ready
to pray in public, at the university's Juma prayer.
She paused and stood a few feet away from the women's entrance. Taking
a deep breath, she pulled the silk scarf out of her purse and tied it
carefully on her head. Her ponytail stuck out a bit. She smoothed the
creases on her long-sleeved beige shirt and tugged at the bottom of it
to make it longer over her pants.
The prayer was great. She had never felt this sense of inner peace.
Afterwards, she tried mingling with the sisters, but nobody even looked
her way. A few of them even pretended not to hear her greeting. The only
sister who did talk to her said in a huff: You know your prayer
is not accepted in those pants and that tiny thing you pass for a Hijab.
I suggest you get more Islamic knowledge and dress properly before coming
The words stung her like a million bumble bees. Too numb to respond or
speak, she charged out of the hall. Never again would she associate with
these people, she told herself.
And never again would she return to Juma.
Are you shocked reading about this incident? Don't be. It has been a reality
in almost every Muslim community in North America.
This harsh judgment and intolerance shown towards Muslim women who do
not wear Hijab can lead to at least some Muslim women to become alienated
from the Muslim community, and could lead to a loss of Islamic practice.
While Hijab is an obligation clearly ordained in the Quran and Sunnah,
the above-mentioned method of its enforcement and encouragement is not
Islamic, according to Muslim scholars, researchers and activists. Muslims
have to start seeing the issue from a different perspective, they say.
SOME ARGUMENTS IN SUPPORT OF NON-HIJABI SISTERS
I would say that the overwhelming majority of Muslim women I have
met who don't cover and who believe in God, believe they should cover,
but believe they're not ready yet, says Sharifa Alkhateeb, vice-president
of the North American Council of Muslim Women, in an interview with Sound
This reality indicates there is a seed of faith that needs to be nurtured
and encouraged. As well, it means these women need all the support they
Abdalla Idris Ali is a member of the Islamic Society of North America's
(ISNA) Majlis Shura, which debates Islamic issues and establishes policy
for the organization. He says what also has to be remembered is that many
Muslim women are coming from cultures where the Hijab is not practiced,
for whatever reason. These sisters should not be condemned. Rather, Islamic
concepts like Hijab, should be explained to them.
Another possibility is that Muslim women who do not wear Hijab are coming
from families which are either not practicing Islam, or are downright
hostile to it.
In this situation, it's actually a celebration that a young Muslim
woman wants to pray Juma, says Kathy Bullock, who started wearing
Hijab two weeks after she converted to Islam.
I think that's where the tolerance comes in.
Another reason some Muslim women may find Hijab difficult is because of
the often negative ideas surrounding Hijab. For instance, that wearing
Hijab kills marriage and job prospects. Muslim activists must seek to
dispel such myths.
There needs to be a lot more support for the women who decide to
cover, says Bullock, who completed a PhD. about The Politics of
the Veil from the University of Toronto in January.
Bullock also gives a chilling warning to those who condemn non-Hijabi
Muslim women: We might be wearing Hijab but we might be doing something
incredibly wrong which cancels out the reward [for wearing it].
One of these things she mentions is arrogance.
WHY ARE SOME MUSLIMS SO SENSITIVE ABOUT THE HIJAB?
Some Muslims seek to condemn non-Hijabis out of their understanding of
the Quranic injunction of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil.
Yet, they fail to take the right approach in doing it, in accordance with
the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him),
which was one of kindness, gentleness and patience.
Interestingly, some Muslim men and women who criticize non-Hijabi Muslim
women seem to have different reasons for doing it and varying ways of
approaching a sister who does not wear Hijab.
Unfortunately on the brothers' side there is a push to make Hijab
the marker of Islamic identity, says Bullock. She also emphasizes
the hypocrisy of many Muslim men criticizing Muslim women who do not wear
the Hijab, while they themselves wear tight jeans or pants, or short shorts.
These forms of dress are strictly prohibited for men in Islam. Yet, go
to any Juma or Jamaah prayer, and these forms of unIslamic dress can be
I think some of the men put too much emphasis on the women instead
of looking at their own selves, she says.
However, Alkhateeb thinks most of the men are less vigilant than the women
about Hijab, partly because they figure the women are going to take care
She argues that the majority of the Muslim men who are over concerned
about with the issue of Hijab because they don't trust themselves sexually,
and fear their own reaction to a woman who is not covered Islamically.
For women, weak self-identity and faith could explain the harshness shown
towards non-Hijabi Muslimas.
It is so difficult to maintain the practice of covering, emotionally,
psychologically on the job and in everyday life, you get so much negativity
from other people that the reaction of most of the practicing women and
activists is to develop a cocoon, a protective cocoon, and part of that
protective cocoon is in continually, verbally and in other ways rejecting
what is unlike yourself, explains Alkhateeb.
And that is to shore up your own self-identity. I think that part
of the reason they are so negative is because this is part of shoring
up their own self-identity and because there is a hidden fear that if
they let down their guard that they'll stop covering. And if they allow
any space in their mind to alternative ways of thinking that their thinking
will fall apart. And that means that the underlying precepts and concepts
are not strong.
WHERE DOES HIJAB FIT ON THE ISLAMIC LADDER?
While it is correct to say that Hijab is correct in the teaching
of Islam we tend to forget that there are many other basic issues, why
the over obsession? asks Jamal Badawi, a member of the North American
Part of the reason some Muslims treat non-Hijabis so harshly is because
of their lack of understanding about where the obligation of Hijab ranks
on the Islamic ladder.
A more correct approach would be gradual and would mean implementing more
important aspects of Islam, like Iman (faith), and praying five times
a day before moving on to requirements like Hijab.
We fail to see any Ayah (verse of the Quran) pertaining to Hijab
in the entire Makkan revelation that was given to the Prophet, that's
almost 13 years. The injunctions about more detailed aspects relating
to the righteous Muslim community were revealed during the Medinan period.
Some in the middle, and later part of that period, explains Badawi,
This is a revealing lesson for us because it shows that Allah knew
in advance what injunctions He wanted to reveal, he adds. Yet
He delayed the revelation of those matters until many, many years of preparation
on the level of Iman, submission to Allah, love of Allah and the sincere
desire to voluntarily obey Allah and His Messenger. Once that base was
established it wasn't difficult at all for the believing women to willingly
abide by the injunctions of Allah.
Badawi says this is similar to how the Islamic commandment forbidding
intoxicants was introduced.
The same process of preparation took place to the point that when
the final prohibition of intoxicants was revealed it wasn't difficult
for men to abide by that willingly and immediately. He explains
this was especially difficult for Muslim men, who were the ones reported
more likely to consume alcohol than women at that time.
Some well-intentioned Muslims seem to miss these lessons from the
gradual revelation and become too legalistic to the point of doing more
harm than benefit, notwithstanding their good intentions, adds Badawi.
WRONGLY USING THE
BASEBALL BAT APPROACH TO THE HIJAB
Muslims gain a little bit of knowledge and they want to run around
with a baseball bat and beat people over the head with religion. That's
exactly what [has] made many young people leave the mosque, says
Using the right method to tell Muslim women about Hijab is crucial, just
as it is in advising Muslims to implement any other requirement of the
In the Prophet's whole life he led by encouragement not pressure,
she says. The way he behaved is the opposite of how most Muslims
who are practicing Muslims behave towards each other in terms of giving
advice. His way was not carrying around a religious baseball bat.
The thinker and writer, who has also been an activist for the last 35
years points out the baseball bat methodology is in full swing
when many Muslims encounter non-Hijabis.
Instead of inviting her and embracing her, they're immediately trying
to think about what they can criticize her about, says Alkhateeb.
The Prophet also did not usevigilantes to impose a religious
requirement like Hijab.
When we deal with the Sunnah, we find that he never appointed vigilantes
to go around to reinforce something that believing Muslim women were encouraged
to do, or use any harsh words or actions to arrive at that desired situation
or desired setting, says Badawi. The approach that he followed
which we should follow as our example was not to focus on issues like
Hijab before Iman and psychological and spiritual preparation was in place.
Badawi stresses inviting to Hijab and other Islamic requirements should
be done in a way that would motivate people to respect the moral
values of society rather than simply forcing them to do so. In fact that
goes back to the definition of Islam which is willing trusting and loving
submission to Allah and obedience to His Messenger.
As an example, he cited an incident from the lifetime of the Prophet when
a Bedouin man urinated in the mosque. When other Muslims saw this, they
became very angry and wanted to rebuke him harshly.
The Prophet on the other hand, stopped them and told the man gently what
he was doing was incorrect.
That story is a classic example of the contrast between the attitudes
of some well-intentioned Muslims who want to correct the wrong immediately
and by any means and the approach of the Prophet of kindness, gentleness,
persuasion and wisdom, he explains.
THE WRONG: A RULE OF USUL AL-FIQH
The other aspect which is frequently missed is another rule of ordaining
the good and forbidding the evil which was addressed by many scholars
especially by the famous Shaykh ul Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, says Badawi.
The rule basically is that if in a given situation, attempting or
trying to forbid the wrong may result in greater harm than benefit, then
it is better to tolerate the wrong on a temporary basis.
I think the classic example that Ibn Taymiyyah is referred to is
when the Tatars invaded Muslim lands, explains Badawi. He
was told that some of these soldiers were drinking and that they should
be stopped because this is part of forbidding the wrong yet, he advised
that they should be left alone. His reasoning was that if those soldiers
become sober, they might go on killing more people which is a greater
harm than drinking.
This is not a new rule, he emphasizes. It is a basic
rule in Usul al-Fiqh, the roots of Islamic law, that if some harm is inevitable
then it is better to tolerate the lesser harm in order to prevent great
Badawi demonstrates how this rule could apply to a situation where a Muslim
sister who does not wear Hijab attends Juma prayer.
For example, if that sister is approached in a harsh way she may
not come again which could hurt her and hurt the community at large. But
if she's welcomed first and there's demonstration of brotherhood and friendship,
then in a gentle and wise way that is suitable for her, she can be encouraged,
then of course it would be a far better result than the confrontational,
INVOLVING NON-HIJABI SISTERS IN ACTIVITIES
It's only by mixing in the right company that someone who is contemplating
Hijab will have the strength and courage to make the final act,
This means women offering friendship, as well as involving the sisters
in Islamic activities through organizations like Muslim Students' Associations.
Bullock notes that if a Muslim woman wants to do something for Islam she
should be applauded because she could be out there doing something
Muslim organizations have a duty to say what is right and to invite
in the best of manner women to cover and to support them when they do
so but that doesn't mean individuals should be judgmental when women are
not covering, she adds.
INVOLVEMENT, BUT NOT LEADERSHIP
However, Ali and Badawi draw the line of involvement of non-Hijabi Muslim
women in Muslim organizations at the leadership level.
They both say that any Islamically-oriented organization will select a
person to be their leader who reflects their goals and aspirations. That
means a Muslim woman who does not wear Hijab would not be selected because
she is not fully following the precepts of Islam. Similarly, a Muslim
man who is not fulfilling Islamic obligations like prayer, chaste behavior,
etc. would also not be selected for a leadership position in such a milieu.
Badawi says this is not exclusion. Rather, it is the natural outcome in
any milieu which aims to be Islamically-oriented. Its leadership will
represent the precepts of Islam as much as possible.
I'm against the term exclusion because if we apply the Islamic Shura
(consultative) method then the leadership would emanate from the people,
will be chosen by the people. And if the community or Islamic organization
in a given setting are truly Islamically oriented, one would expect that
the person chosen to be the spokesperson and symbol of that organization
should reflect their conviction and values in the best possible way.
A POSITIVE APPROACH
Badawi gives an example of how he, with my weaknesses approached
an aggressive non-Hijabi sister and the result.
Many years back, during a visit to Australia, one sister, during one of
his lectures, a non-Hijabi Muslim woman asked questions about Hijab, in
a disapproving manner. He talked to her kindly and give information without
Two years later, he returned to Australia, and a sister in full Hijab
approached him, asking if he recognized her. He did not.
I am the one who was arguing with you about Hijab two years ago,
she told him. But it is the approach and information that you gave
me that helped me to study more, to educate myself and to make up my own
decision and I am happy with what I decided.