While Hijab is an obligation clearly ordained in the Quran and Sunnah, it is only one of many Islamic obligations.
Yet, some Muslim organizations have heated debates about it, and sometimes practice unacceptable behavior towards those Muslim women who do not wear Hijab, to the point of excluding them or making them feel uncomfortable.
How can Muslim activists make their organizations and communities places where the teachings of Islam are upheld, but Muslims, men and women, are not excluded? Where Hijab does not become a flash point? Below are some tips.
1. Do not judge
This is key for activists. While some Muslims in a given setting may judge non-Hijabis, activists and key figures in organizations and communities must never fall into this kind of behavior.
Remember that we don't know a person's background: maybe the sister doesn't know Hijab is an obligation; maybe she's from a culture where it is not practiced; maybe she is from a family that has forced her to take it off; or from a non-practicing family, or even a family that is hostile to Islam.
Harshness will lead non-Hijabi women to turn away from other Muslims, and in many cases turn to non-Muslims.
“If they look around and they see Muslim activist women who are very negative and exclusionary and overly critical then they are not going to make them their friend,” says Sharifa Alkhateeb, vice-president of the North American Council of Muslim Women. “If they [activist Muslim women] want to influence the behavior of young women, they have to, before anything else, become their friend.”
Which is the next tip.
2. If you're a Muslim sister, be a friend
“What young Muslim women need more than anything else is friendship,” says Alkhateeb.
She explains that most of the time, they feel alienated and cannot befriend their parents, who may reject their views or cannot relate to them. This leads to young women searching for solace in friends outside the family.
This is why it is crucial that activist Muslim women extend a warm, friendly hand to young Muslim women, whether in organizations or in the Muslim community in general.
Alkhateeb also stresses that being a friend is not just speaking the words of friendship.
“They think it's enough to say I love you, and I care about you,” she says. But real friendship and caring “comes through living with the person, being around the person.“
3. If you're a brother, be polite, treat her with respect
That essentially means practicing a brother's Islamic duty to lower his gaze and guard his modesty. It also means not making the sister feel uncomfortable.
This includes not looking down at her, making rude gestures or comments about her lack of Hijab.
4. Encourage her to participate in Islamic 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,” says Kathy Bullock, who began wearing Hijab two weeks after her conversion to Islam.
This means that the open and welcoming attitude can't be reserved to just a one-shot activity, like a dinner or an orientation session. It means regular contact with other Muslims.
One method is a Halaqa. Most MSAs and Muslim communities offer a variety of these, from mixed brother sister Halaqas, to gender-specific ones.
A sisters only Halaqa can allow for more comfortable and open discussion and relations, and better bonding time, which can strengthen friendship and sisterhood.
5. Have her research the question for a presentation
This was an approach Abdalla Idris Ali, Director of the Center for Islamic Education in Kansas City, Misouri and a former Muslim high school principal, used for a student who did not wear Hijab. He asked her to do a presentation on the topic.
This method could be effective because it provides the basic information, without any judgment or harshness. It is something the individual does on her own.
This method can also be used for other topics, to encourage Muslims-i.e. if a brother has missed Salat ul Juma a few times, a presentation on its importance could serve as a reminder.
6. Protect her from those who will cause her harm
This is tricky but will be necessary. In many Islamic organizations and Muslim communities, you will find those who wish to implement Islam using what Alkhateeb describes as the “baseball bat” approach: with harshness.
This must be resisted. If such a situation arises, fellow brothers and sisters should stand by the non-Hijabi sister. It will not only serve to be a “buffer” for the harsh comments, but it will indicate her importance as part of the Muslim community/organization, and in the long run, will be conducive to giving her advice.
7. Gently and kindly explain to other Muslims not to judge her
Just as it is important for Muslims to remind each other of their obligations to Allah, it is also important that activist Muslims gently explain to others not to use the “baseball bat” approach. Talk to them with proof from the Quran and Sunnah-that Islam calls for inviting people to the good with wisdom; that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was not harsh and intolerant in the face of others' weaknesses. Also stress the gradual approach. Use many examples, as it seems the Muslims who want to use the harsh approach often feel this is the Islamic way.
By providing solid examples from the Sunnah, they may become convinced to change their way.
If this does not work, get a trusted scholar or knowledgeable Muslim or Muslima to address them who both sides listen to and trust.
8. Emphasize building faith first
Islam was sent to the Prophet gradually, and Muslims today must also implement Islam in this manner.
That means that before anyone speaks to a sister about Hijab, more important aspects of the faith have to be emphasized: the basic beliefs, pillars, the importance of praying five times a day, fasting in Ramadan, etc.
This gradual approach builds Iman and conviction, and in fact was the method used by the Prophet.
“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,” says Jamal Badawi, a member of the North American Fiqh Council.
“This is a revealing lesson for us because it shows that Allah (s.w.t.) knew in advance what injunctions He wanted to reveal,” he adds. “Yet He delayed the revelation of those matters until many years or 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.
“This is similar to what happened also with the prohibition of intoxicants where the same process of preparation took place to the point that when the final prohibition of intoxicants was revealed it wasn't difficult either for men to abide by that willingly and immediately.”
9. Don't be apologetic
What should not be forgotten though is that while the approach must be gentle and kind, there must be no apologies for or hiding of Islamic teachings. Once again, wisdom is necessary, but a sister must not be told that not wearing Hijab is acceptable from an Islamic perspective.
“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,” says Bullock.
10. When she takes the step, support her!
”There needs to be a lot more support for the women who decide to cover,” says Bullock.
When a sister does adopt Hijab, she often needs all the help she can get, in the face of angry parents, discriminatory employers and professors or feminist friends or acquaintances.
This is where the friendship and openness come in. We must never think our job is done once someone adopts any Islamic practice they were previously not engaging in. This is a common mistake Muslims also make when dealing with new Muslims.
We often spend a lot of time convincing an individual to accept Islam. But once s/he does, we become cold and distant, with no desire to help these brothers and sisters with the struggles being a new Muslim entail.
The hardest step is often AFTER the fact, not before it. Support, friendship, and most importantly brother and sisterhood is crucial if, in many cases, the practice is to be maintained.