“Why do Muslim women have to cover their heads?” This question is one that is asked by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For many women, it is the truest test of being a Muslim.

The answer to the question is very simple – Muslim women observe the hijab (covering the head and the body) because Allah has told them to do so.

Allah (SWT) said, “O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies. That is better in order that they may be known (as free respectable women) and not annoyed…” (Holy Qur’an, 33:59)

Other secondary reasons include the requirement for modesty in both men and women. Both will then be evaluated for intelligence and skills instead of looks and sexuality. A Muslim woman who covers her head is making a statement about her identity. Anyone who sees her will know that she is a Muslim and has a good moral character.

The Muslim woman who covers is filled with dignity and self-esteem; she is pleased to be identified as a Muslim woman: as a chaste, modest, pure woman. She does not want her sexuality to enter into interactions with men in the smallest degree.

A Muslim school girl is quoted as saying, “We want to stop men from treating us like sex objects, as they have always done. We want them to ignore our appearance and to be attentive to our personalities and minds. We want them to take us seriously and treat us as equals and not just chase us around for our bodies and physical looks.”

The word “hijab” comes from the Arabic word “hajaba” meaning to hide from view or conceal. In the present time, the context of the hijab is the modest covering of a Muslim woman. The question now is what is the extent of the covering? The Holy Qur’an says: ” Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and protect their private parts. That will make for greater purity for them. Verily, Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And tell the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not to display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof and to draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands…” (Holy Qur’an, 24:30-31)

These verses from the Qur’an contain two main injunctions:
1. A woman should not show her beauty or adornments except what appears by uncontrolled factors such as the wind blowing her clothes.
2. The headcovers should be drawn so as to cover the hair, the neck and the bosom.

Islam has no fixed standard as to the style of dress or type of clothing that Muslims must wear. However, some requirements must be met.

The first of these requirements is the parts of the body which must be covered. Islam has two sources for guidance and rulings: first, the Qur’an, the revealed word of Allah, and secondly, the Hadith or the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who was chosen by Allah to be the role model for mankind.

The following is a Tradition of the Prophet (PBUH): ” ‘Aeshah (may Allah be pleased with her) reported that Asma’a, the daughter of Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him,) came to the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) while wearing thin clothing. He approached her and said: ‘O Asma’a! When a girl reaches the menstrual age, it is not proper that anything should remain exposed except this and this. He pointed to the face and hands.” (Abu Dawood)

The second requirement is the looseness. The clothing must be loose enough so as not to describe the shape of the woman’s body. One desirable way to hide the shape of the body is to wear a cloak over other clothes. However, if the clothing is loose enough, an outer garment is not necessary.

Thickness is the third requirement. The clothing must be thick enough so as not to show the color of the skin it covers or the shape of the body. The Prophet (PBUH) stated that in later generations of his Ummah there would be “women who would be dressed but naked and on top of their heads (what looks like) camel humps. Curse them for they are truly cursed.” (Muslim)

Another requirement is an over-all dignified appearance. The clothing should not attract men’s attention to the woman. It should not be shiny and flashy so that everyone notices the dress and the woman.

In addition, there are other requirements:
1. Women must not dress so as to appear as men. “Ibn Abbas narrated: ‘The Prophet (PBUH) cursed the men who appear like women and the women who appear like men.'” (Bukhari)
2. Women should not dress in a way similar to the unbelievers.
3. The clothing should be modest, not excessively fancy, and also not excessively ragged to gain other’s admiration or sympathy.

Often forgotten is the fact that modern Western dress is a new invention. Looking at the clothing of women as recently as seventy years ago, we see clothing similar to hijab. These active and hard-working women of the West were not inhibited by their clothing which consisted of long, full dresses and various types of head covering.

Muslim women who wear hijab do not find it impractical or interfering with their activities at all levels and walks of life. Hijab is not merely a covering dress but more importantly, it is behavior, manners, speech, and appearance in public. The dress is only one facet of the total being.

The basic requirements of the Muslim woman’s dress apply to the Muslim man’s clothing with the difference being mainly in degree. Modesty requires that the area between the navel and the knee be covered in front of all people except the wife. The clothing of men should not be like the dress of women, nor should it be tight or provocative.

A Muslim should dress to show his identity as a Muslim. Men are not allowed to wear gold or silk. However, both are allowed for women. For both men and women, clothing requirements are not meant to be a restriction but rather a way in which society will function in a proper, Islamic manner.