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Islam / Popular religion / Muslim dress codes /
Arabic: hijāb

Female Muslim clothing
Muslim dress codes

Young girls wearing hijab. Cairo, Egypt.
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Young girls wearing hijab. Cairo, Egypt. Photo: Ed Yourdon.

Woman in Tangier, Morocco wearing hijab.
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Woman in Tangier, Morocco wearing hijab. Photo: anjci.

Head scarf used by many Muslim women, generally intended to cover the hair. The hijab has in recent decades more and more come to be associated with Islamism, hence it is partly prohibited in some Muslim countries, like Tunisia and Turkey.
While the hijab is gaining ground among Muslims in Europe, Muslim countries have introduced regulations against it. In the 2000's, Morocco removed information from school text books suggesting that the hijab was regulated by the basic Islamic scriptures.
Hijab comes in numerous fashions, several of these having backgrounds with specific countries, regions or ethnic groups. It is assumed that these variations of the hijab are continuations of pre-Islamic customs, but adjusted to the regulations of Islamic theology.
The head scarf is not uniquely Muslim; it is also found in Judeo-Christian traditions. It has been, and is worn by adherents, with nuns as the most distinct example, and it is mentioned in biblical texts, as in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, 11:5, where women are commanded to cover their heads when practicing their religion, or be punished.
It is assumed that suras 33:59 and 24:31 in the Koran orders women to wear the hijab, but these passage are open for other and better interpretations. A slightly clearer command to wear the hijab comes in a passage from the hadiths (Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 8:395), but even this does not conclusively imply a general obligation for a Muslim woman to cover her head; it really only refers to the wives of Muhammad.
From the Koran 33:59, it may appear that a woman not in danger of being annoyed, does not have to veil herself. Moreover, the Arabic word translated into the English "veil" is actually not "hijab" but "jalābīb," a plural form of "jilbab." A jilbab would normally be translated as "woman's dress", a dress that covers most of, or the entire body, and not necessarily the head. Hence it is possible that this aya does not require women to cover their hair or even their faces, but to wear the body garment in such a way that they cover and hide erotic parts of a women's body, such as her breasts.
In the Koran 24:31, often the preferred aya for proving the need to wear the hijab, the word in question here is "zīna," and can be translated with "ornaments" or "jewels" or even "clothes". This is by some Muslim commentators believed to be understood as hair, but seen from the context it appears that a woman's jewellerys or breasts (or nipples) are more correct translations.
The hair theory seems to be rather unlikely, especially because there are far more common words to indicate head or hair. Zina is still sometimes used related with both hair and beard, and one rarely used name for hairdressers or barber is derived from zina, muzayyin. Moreover, towards the end of this aya, it is stated "...that they beat not with their feet that their hidden [zina] may be known". There is no way, that the beating of the feet may let anyone know about anyone's hair.
Judged from the original sources, hijab may be an Islamic obligation upon women, but there is no unambiguous command to wear the hijab, although this claim is often made by Muslims of the modern era.

Hijab's original meaning
While the term "hijab" today is commonly used for the head scarf alone, it originally meant anything that separates two things, anything involving a partition.
In the Koran 33:53 "hijab" is used, but not to denote a head scarf, but rather a curtain behind which Muhammad could hide his wives from other Muslims. The other case of "hijab" being used, is in the Koran 42:50, where it is said that the hijab separates man from God.

It is commonly assumed that the Bukhari verse above refers to Koran 33:53:
Koran sura 33: Confederates
53 (...) And when you ask them for an article, ask them from behind a curtain [hijāb]; that is purer for your hearts and for theirs. It is not right for you to annoy the prophet of God, nor to wed his wives after him ever; verily, that is with God a serious thing.

Koran sura 42: Counsel
50 It is not for any mortal that God should speak to him, except by inspiration, or from behind a veil [hijāb].

Historical dates
2009 October 28: Kuwaiti supreme court decides that women are not required to wear the hijab.

By Tore Kjeilen