Hijab, the Arabic word for “curtain,” takes its original meaning from the root ح-ج-ب (h-j-b) “to veil, cover, screen, shelter, seclude” (Cowan 184). The first use of the word hijab in the Qur’an is in book 33, “The Joint Forces” (“Al-Ahzab”), verse (ayah) 53, which M.A.S. Abdel Haleem translates to,
When you ask his [the Prophet Muhammad’s] wives for something, do so from behind a screen [hijab]: this is purer both for your hearts and for theirs. (426)
An alternative translation may be read here, alongside the Arabic text.
Understood in this historical, theological context, the form of the hijab, if analyzed as a kind of media, would have been a partition and one message it would have conveyed would be that the women behind it were the wives of the Prophet Muhammad and therefore ineligible for marriage to any other man. These women were not just married to the Prophet Muhammad, they helped establish his connections with politically influential families as Islam took root in the Saudi Arabian peninsula.
From Curtain to Covering
The shift in the meaning of the hijab from “curtain” to the tradition of veiling or its particular form as a style of headscarf, as it is popularly understood today, would most likely not have occurred until after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. A timeline of Islamic history may be viewed here.
Islamic studies scholar Leila Ahmed argues in Women and Gender in Islam that the practice of Muslim women employing the hijab as a means of seclusion was unique to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad during and for a period after his lifetime (55). She writes,
It is not known how the customs spread to the rest of the community. The Muslim conquests of areas in which veiling was commonplace among the upper classes, the influx of wealth, the resultant raised status of Arabs, and Muhammad’s wives being taken as models probably combined to bring about their general adoption. (56)
As Islam spread outward from Saudi Arabia in the time after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, it changed. So, too, did the form and message of the hijab. Although it is unclear exactly when the transition from curtain to covering occurred, one can see the ways in which the tradition of veiling that would come to be known as hijab has manifested throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
MuslimGirl produced “100 Years of Hijab Fashion in One Minute (MENA/Asia)” and “100 Years of Hijab Fashion (Africa Pt. 1),” viewable below. The videos demonstrate the ways in which the hijab has taken on different forms, as well as political and non-religious meanings, from 1910 up until the present.
In different places, at different times, the hijab has taken into its form a multiplicity of meanings.
The hijab can be
- imposed upon a woman’s body by her government or her family,
- practiced by a woman as an expression of religious belief and display of modesty,
- taken off as a political statement against oppressive institutions, or
- worn as a fashion statement.
None of these meanings are exclusive of one another and these examples are not exhaustive.
Further, the materials constituting the hijab or any of its particular forms (such as the abaya, burqa, chador, hijab, or niqab) reflect the localities in which they are both produced and worn. In the United States, one can see the hijab in its multiplicity of forms among groups of refugees, immigrants, and citizens, such that it cannot be used to distinguish one group from the others. As a medium, it cannot convey or confer citizenship.
However, the hijab can signal change over time, as Muslim women in the United States might choose to veil or choose not to veil in response to personal, local, national, or international events. The hijab is also part of an ongoing conversation taking place within Muslim communities. For example, in the summer of 2017, model Halima Aden appeared on the cover of Allure magazine wearing a Nike brand hijab, which, while celebrated in some circles, has also encouraged intra-community discussion over the commodification of Islamic culture in the Western world.
The hijab makes Muslim women who choose to veil one of the most visible representations of their faith. The forms and meanings of the veil are as different as the women that give them form and meaning, whether or not they choose to wear the hijab, and the contexts in which they do so. As a kind of media, the hijab stores, in its form, and disseminates, through its meanings, information.
– Adrienne Resha
Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. Yale University Press, 1992.
“حجب hajaba.” The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Edited by JM Cowan, Spoken Language Services, Inc., 1994.
Haleem, M.A.S. Abdel. The Qur’an: English Translation and Parallel Arabic Text. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.