The Hijab – Non Muslim Perspective

By Lindsey Newton

Editor’s Note: All views presented in this article are the writer’s based on her research & interviews.

The search for understanding Muslim religious garb began as a requirement for a university course, but since then has turned into a personal discovery of appreciation and understanding of this practice.

The debate regarding the wearing of religious garb in public, specifically coverings worn by Muslim women has increased over the past few years resulting in a lot of controversy among those who agree with the practice and those who do not. Growing up in Brampton, Ontario I am use to diversity and being in community with people who had differing views and values, but I never took the time to understand these people and their practices. When the opportunity presented its self to further investigate my views on this topic, I thought the best way to break my misconceptions and understand on a personal level would be to conduct interviews with women in the same stage of life as myself, mid twenties working towards graduating university.

Having little knowledge of the hijab, I first had to understand its purpose, history, and religious significance. Little did I know the hijab, which covers a woman’s head, hair, neck and ears, leaving only the face uncovered is not the only religious garb worn by Muslim women. There is also the niqab, the burqa and the chandor which are worn depending on where one is from. The practice of covering oneself was borrowed from the elite women of the Byzantine, Greek and Persian empires where it was a sign of respectability and high status, during the Arab conquests of these empires.[1] Although the veil is not an Islamic creation, it has been embraced and adopted by Islamic countries with new meaning behind its purpose.

I believed, as many others do at the start of my research the hijab and other Islamic coverings were decreed by the Quran. While there are verses which are used to support this belief, the Quran does not specify exactly how much of the body has to be covered. As well the definition of veil during that time meant something different than how it is defined today. Instead of an article of clothing, the veil meant any “partition which separates two things”[2], a curtain, or a divider. Therefore critics and scholars believe “it is an inference on the part of Islamist jurists to say because modesty in the Prophets day meant covering one’s hair that it is immodest for women to leave their hair uncovered today.” [3] Even so, for many those supporting verses are taken to heart and acted on accordingly and as a result women who wear the veil have become “depicted as defenseless, innocent victims of violence” encompassed in “a symbol often perceived as oppressive.” [4] But this is not true!

Unfortunately even though Canada continues to grow as a multicultural society and encourage outward religious identification, people have a hard time accepting and believing the hijab is not a form of oppression. One of the reasons supporting this belief would be that freedom is said to be threatened by this practice, stemming from the assumption veiling has been imposed rather than a personal choice of the women. [5] As a result of this imposition, women are seen to be inferior, unequal and restricted. On the other hand it is argued, that freedom is defended by wearing the veil, as it gives the right to freedom of conscience, expression, and religion. It is also said the values of integration and social cohesion are undermined when one practices covering, as it fosters difference rather than unity and acceptance into a society will be harder to achieve. Women in defense of the veil “claim the same could be said about women who wear revealing clothes,” [6] as their provocative-ness is distracting and inappropriate. In many of the articles observed, women claimed to have found freedom when they started to wear the hijab, freedom from “attention to their physical self,” as their appearance was no longer “subjected to public scrutiny.”[7] One woman made the comment, “women are not going to achieve equality with the right to bare their breasts in public…true equality will be had only when women don’t need to display themselves to get attention and women defend their decision to keep their bodies for themselves.”[8]

Those in favour of wearing the hijab, many of whom are people who wear it themselves, see veiling in its various forms as a powerful symbol of Islamic honour and identity, a true expression of one’s own decision to live the faith. The veil values religion, spirituality and piety and as a result wearing the veil has become a way to assert one’s identity as a Muslim, a way to stand up for this identity which has come under attack these past few years. While the hijab is still seen as a religious garment, women have embraced it like all other pieces of clothes. They talk about what styles and patterns are in, which ways to wear it are best and to share the new ways they have discovered, in which it can be worn wrapped around the head and then draped over the shoulders. The hijab is also seen as an act of resistance to the sexualization of women. As our society becomes more and more polluted with sexually targeted media, being covered has become a way to claim respect through saying the leering of men is not tolerable. For critics against the wearing of the hijab, they see this point depicting women as dangerous for the honour of men, and so the real reason women are veiled is not for the well being of women but the weakness of men, as they are only sexual objects.

The initial research from scholarly articles and journals laid a firm foundation for the start of my paper, but I wanted to connect this locally and determine if the information found matched the opinions of women from my generation. Each woman had her own opinion and beliefs concerning the hijab, which was based on their culture before immigrating and the identity they have created while establishing a home in Canada and adapting to this new way of life.

Wanting to fully understand the meaning of the word hijab, each woman was asked to define it in her own terms. In one way or another each of the women attributed the hijab to mean modesty. Modesty for these women means more than just covering one’s head, it is the idea of wearing looser fitting clothing, which diverts the attention of men. Being properly hijabed for two of the women also meant not showing off the shape of one’s body, requiring the wearing of a larger size of clothing. I was as amazed by the dedication these women displayed when it came to explaining how they went shopping for clothes. The hijab also was said to be “a form of protection.”[9] Both men and women have the responsibility to be modest with instructions, but most of the interviewee’s felt the onus is on women. With that being said, women need to cover everything but their faces and hands, while men need to cover the area from their belly button to their knees. By being modest, it is believed temptation, which was implied as being sexual temptation, can be prevented. Women are able to remove the hijab while in the presence of any male family members that they cannot lawfully marry (father, brothers, nephews, grandfathers, maternal/paternal uncles).

As an interviewer I was most surprised by the answers given as to why each participant wears or abstains from wearing the hijab, as I held the opinion that most of these women would have been encouraged and instructed to wear the hijab due to their family’s persuasion. Little did I realize this is not the case, supporting the hijab as not being a form of oppression as many of the women practicing hijab have chosen to do so individually. For one woman in particular she began to wear the hijab with no influence from her family, as her mother did not participate in the practice. Initially it was compulsory to wear the hijab as part of her school uniform. But like many of the girls, the hijab went on before entering school and quickly came off as the day was done and on the way home. After spending time thinking about why the school had made the hijab compulsory, she began to understand why and recognized the value in making it a part of her daily life. Unfortunately this decision was very difficult at first as her parents were opposed to the wearing of the hijab, given her father was quite westernized in his education and career. Overtime both her older sisters as well as her mother have begun to wear the hijab, a reversal in progression.

For many of the women the wearing of the hijab is mandatory, and what one should do if they are going to call themselves Muslim, as it tends to be seen as a manifestation of their religious adherence.  At the same time “there is no compulsion”[10] in Islam and the wearing of the hijab is a choice, those who chose to wear it they need to feel compelled to do so. For one participant this has not occurred and so she elected to abstain from wearing the hijab as she does not want to be one of those people who wear it one day and not the next. She is prepared to wait until she has been enlightened and is ready for the hijab to be a permanent fixture in her life.

It was interesting to discover there is a large number of women who did not wear the veil before coming to Canada, but have now realized the importance of the veil and what it stands for and begun the practice. It has become a way to implement the values of the society and culture left behind to their new found home in Canada. For all of the women interviewed the veil represented a religious symbol. It is a “way to worship God,”[11] be a representative of their faith as “a flag bearer of Islam…” and “be closer to [the] lord.”[12]

Through each interview it became clearer the hijab is not an oppressive symbol. For the women, it was anything else but that; a boost of confidence, something that encouraged the rights of women as well as their respect and a fashion piece. It was pointed out that one could tell how serious someone was about their hijab based on how it was worn. If it was arranged neatly, looked clean and matched their outfit it would be safe to say this person wore the hijab daily. If it was arranged in a sloppy manner and looked uncomfortable then this person was either new to wearing the hijab or only wore it on occasion. What was even more surprising was learning about the availability of videos posted on the website YouTube, detailing how to wear the hijab and the different styles available! The hijab has become something women have fun with and allow to be part of their personality. I found it encouraging hearing how these women were proud of their culture and religion and were not afraid to stand out for something they believed in.

While my initial impression of the hijab was not one of oppression I was not sure of the position women held in personally choosing whether or not to wear the veil. So I opened my mind and allowed myself to be taught through research and personal interviews about the subject. It has become apparent one of the primary reasons there are so many misconceptions about the hijab and other Muslim head coverings would be the ignorance and lack of knowledge regarding the subject. Rather than becoming educated, people have elected to side with the portrayal presented by the media. In every conversation four people are present; you, me, the one I make of you and the one you make of me. People’s opinions and values will always be present. It is those who move past their personal views and biases who will discover the truth about something and in this case will see the person behind the veil. None of the women interviewed denied that in certain areas of the world and in certain cultures women are oppressed and forced to wear the hijab. But they also stressed this is not the case everywhere and this cannot be the main perception of this religious item amongst the general population. For Canada to truly become a multicultural society there needs to be a willingness to teach one another about our cultures as well as an openness to learn from one another. Without a full understanding of the subject matter, misconceptions will prevail which will lead to further misunderstanding and misidentification of items of a religious nature as evidenced by that seen to date with the hijab.

Lindsey Newton is finishing her fourth year at Laurier Brantford in the Concurrent Education program. She is interested in learning about different cultures and broading her horizons. This article was written to reflect her perspective on what she has learned through personal research on Muslim head coverings 


[1] “Hijab” Oxford Dictionary of Islam. John L. Esposito, ed. Oxford University Press Inc. 2003. Oxford Reference Online. Wilfrid Laurier University.  17 December 2010

<http://www.oxfordreference.com.remote.libproxy.wlu.ca/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t125.e839>

[2] “Hijab”  The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Ed. John Bowker. Oxford University Press, 2000. Oxford Reference Online. Wilfrid Laurier University.  17 December 2010

<http://www.oxfordreference.com.remote.libproxy.wlu.ca/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t101.e3107>

[3] Syed Ali, “Why Here? Why Now? Young Muslim Women Wearing the Hijab.” The Muslim World 95(2005): 519.

[4]Juliane Hammer, “Prayer, Hijab and the Intifada: The Influence of the Islamic Movement on Palestine Women.” Islam and Christian- Muslim Relations (2010): 300.

[5] Linda Woodhead, “The Muslim Veil Controversy and European Values.” Swedish Missiological Themes 97 (2009):93.

[6] Jans M. Jans, “Just a Piece of Cloth? The European Debate on ‘the Islamic Headscarf’ as a Case Study and Paradigm for an Emergent Intercultural Ethics.” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 28 (2008):29.

[7] Katherine Bullock, Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil (Herndon, 2002), 184.

[8] Ibid., 184.

[9] Participant Five, “Opinions of Women- the Wearing of the Hijab,” interview by Lindsey Newton, Wilfrid Laurier University, December 12, 2010.

[10] Participant Two, “Opinions of Women- the Wearing of the Hijab,” interview by Lindsey Newton, Wilfrid Laurier University, December 7, 2010.

[11] Participant Four, “Opinions of Women- the Wearing of the Hijab,” interview by Lindsey Newton, Wilfrid Laurier University, December 11, 2010.

[12] Participant Five, “Opinions of Women- the Wearing of the Hijab,” interview by Lindsey Newton, Wilfrid Laurier University, December 12, 2010.

2 thoughts on “The Hijab – Non Muslim Perspective

  • ASA
    Thank You Ali Bhai for submitting another amazing and informative article!

    Real eye-opener to all those hijab critics and all people who have misconceptions about it.

    Thank you again.

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